Ode to a Butchering Table

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Manny Howard


This morning the guys from the carting company dragged the butchering station out of my garage and onto their truck and hauled it off to the landfill. This was the close of a very uncivilized episode in the otherwise very civic-minded urban-agriculture movement, an experiment known as The Farm.

Located behind our home in Flatbush, Brooklyn, The Farm was equal parts fever dream and forced march. During the course of my unintentionally ambitious experiment I turned a neglected 800-square-foot patch of barren clay into a verdant wonderland of vegetables, fruit, and livestock. Live on what you produced, and that alone (with the exception of salt, pepper, and coffee beans) for as long as possible, that's all I hoped to achieve. Not only was it necessary to import nine tons of topsoil from Eastern Long Island, I had to first tunnel through dense substrate and build a drainage system so the soil wouldn't float away during the first soaking rain. From there the work just got harder. I planted crops, built both coop and hutch, and installed 35 chickens—both laying hens and meat birds—along with half a dozen rabbits. I worked unceasingly for seven months to keep this unlikely assembly from imploding before the harvest arrived. When it did I was nourished, body and soul.

On The Farm I made more mistakes than anything else, and in the end lived off the yield from all that work for just six weeks. At the time, that felt like an enormous achievement. I still believe it was.

It has been almost four years since I set off out the back door. Over that time The Farm has taken on more manageable proportions. The rabbits are long gone—don't get me started. The flock is now a more manageable five birds. My youngest, Bevan Jake, counts collecting their eggs among his chores. The garden is equal parts vegetable and herb. Last year we had our first peaches from the tree. All the while the butchering station sat in the garage, dormant but never discarded. The table, a comically over-engineered, homemade contraption—set on casters and kitted out with a stainless steel cone for dispatching birds and a fiberglass tub rigged with a thermostat set at 112 degrees, used for soaking carcasses before picking them—was all that separated me from the throng of common urban agriculturalists.

All the heat and hope pinned to urban farming and her slightly less bohemian cousin, locavorism, makes partisans of
us all.

I watched while farm fever took proper hold of imaginations across New York City and in cities across the country. With intense interest I followed the fortunes of a band of growers while they transformed the roof of a silenced factory in Long Island City into a sprawling garden. One entire acre of food planted and soaking up the sun, a marvel of engineering and community spirit, and still, while that grim, blood-spattered table sat in my garage, in my heart even that roof was just a big garden. My table is gone now, and with it any authority to speak to the question of the future of The Movement.

Such conversations can be quite awkward, really. All the heat and hope pinned to urban farming and her slightly less bohemian cousin, locavorism, makes partisans of us all. But I never claimed any authority and it didn't stop me from writing a book, and so continue such presumptions. It was the character and quality of the hard work that gripped me while I dragged that harvest from our backyard. It was not the debate over the legitimacy of a movement or its future, and I dare say everyone with a hoe or rake or a trowel on that roof in Long Island City will agree. But that hasn't stopped debate, often quite furious, from spilling onto pages such as this. Truth is, I lose interest when urban farmers or locavores rise to the bait and project themselves into the future or defend the very notion of a local foodshed. Whenever anyone with any authority to speak—that is, anyone with an overly ambitious garden and food to share or sell—bothers to concoct a rationale based on food miles or equally slippery statistics, my conclusion is that she just isn't spending enough time in the dirt.

After all, arguing the comparative virtue of agribusiness and local growers using numbers is playing the hand dealt by corporate headquarters. If the gift of urban agriculture is the work, and it is, and the value of buying locally produced food is the intimacy of the transaction, and it is, these virtues and those of factory farming simply don't correspond. There is no work in shopping, only time spent.

I know this because I know what my children like most about The Farm. Because I know what it is they brag about to newfound friends over dinner at church socials. "We have five chickens," chirps Bevan Jake from behind a heaping plate of lasagna.

"And," adds his big sister, Heath, "we haven't bought a single egg in three years."

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Manny Howard is the author of My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into a Farm. He has written for New York magazine, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Esquire, Harper's Magazine, Gourmet, and Food & Wine, among other publications. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, two children, and a dwindling number of farm animals.

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