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My Empire of Dirt

The “locavore” movement says we should only eat what is grown within a few miles of where we live. How about a few feet? An experiment in Brooklyn-style subsistence farming, starring smelly chickens, an angry rabbit, a freak tornado, a vegetable garden to die for, two psyched kids, and a marriage in the weeds.

At 6:40 a.m. on August 8, the tornado hit my house in Brooklyn. Most people viewed it as a snow day in summer, a meteorological oddity. Not me. After a sleepless night listening to the wind and the rain intensify, I watched the sky turn green, then heard the hemlock tree in the yard next door split in two, clip the gutter on the third floor of my house, and bounce off the roof of what used to be our garage and had come to be known as “the barn.” As the wind torqued up even further, the limb of an oak torpedoed the most productive quarter of my vegetable garden, smothering a thicket of tomatoes, snapping the fig tree, pulverizing the collard greens, burying the callaloo, and splintering the roof of my main chicken coop.

That’s right, my chicken coop, which happens to be in my tiny backyard farm—800 square feet of arable land.

A tornado hadn’t struck Brooklyn since 1889, when Flatbush was farmland; this one laid waste to the lonely little farm that I had planted in my backyard and that, within days, I planned to rely on as my sole source of food for an entire month.

I started my farm, hereafter referred to as The Farm, in March, with my eye on August as the month I’d eat what I had grown. It was, in original conception, equal parts naïve stunt and extreme test of the idea that drives the burgeoning “locavore” movement. According to this ethos, we should all eat food produced locally, within 100 miles—some say 30—of where we live, so as to save our planet and redeem our Twinkie-gorged souls. Now that the “organic” label has rapidly become as ubiquitous and essentially meaningless as the old “all-natural,” the locavores have established a more sacred code, one meant to soothe our anxieties about what goes into the food we eat.

The philosopher kings of this movement are Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a bracing look at how modern food production has become unmoored from anything natural or normal, and novelist Barbara Kingsolver, who earlier this summer published the best-selling memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about her family’s yearlong effort to eat only locally produced food in rural Virginia. “Our highest shopping goal,” Kingsolver wrote, “was to get our food from so close to home, we’d know the person who grew it.” Taking inspiration from Kingsolver, Adam Gopnik wrote a story for The New Yorker the week before last about assembling a diet of food produced within the five boroughs of the city. It turned out to be pretty salubrious fare that included neither pigeon nor rat. The city’s Greenmarkets have spawned a backyard industry; within the city limits, there are people raising chickens and growing lettuce and keeping bees for honey, as a way to make a living and feed the food purists.

But as far as I know, nobody has attempted to do it all, all by themselves, in one little backyard, and then live off it. It’s a stunt, for sure, but one with a serious purpose. To evaluate the locavore lifestyle, I planned to take its philosophy to its logical conclusion. The locavore movement thus far has been about moving us closer to where our food comes from, narrowing the gap. I was trying to do something different. I wanted to erase the gap.

In those giddy, delusionally hopeful first days, as The Farm took shape in my mind, I had occasional moments of clarity. I realized, for example, that there are things I need that I could never grow. So I allowed myself what I considered three reasonable exemptions: salt, pepper, and coffee beans. Beyond that, I identified dairy, cooking oil, and bread as the biggest conundrums. Because it was March already, it was too late to plant wheat, which has a winter growing season. Okay, no bread. As for dairy: It is illegal to have a cow or a goat in New York City, but I figured I could at least hide a goat in the garage. Was it worth the risk? Cheese would be nice, but have you ever put goat’s milk in your coffee? Black seemed the way to go. Finally, cooking oil: I didn’t have enough garden space for all the plants I’d need to produce vegetable oil, so I’d have to make do with animal fat of some kind. A pig, maybe? Duck fat was another good possibility—I could confit everything.

What couldn’t I do? Worried about going cold turkey on booze, I explored distilling vodka from potatoes. In a mere five days, I had been told, you can make passable hooch. I daydreamed about pond-raising tilapia, a freshwater fish that rivals the cockroach for adaptability. The options seemed tantalizingly limitless. But as I looked at the calendar, a certain urgency took over. I had only five months until harvest. I needed to quit dreaming and get crops in the ground.

I live in a verdant part of Brooklyn where the houses are detached and fairly big, but without much land. My backyard is 20 by 40 feet, prone to flooding in the lightest rain and thus unsuitable even for grass; the only living thing back there was a half-dead cherry tree, which, in my first chore as a farmer, I chopped down. Then I sent out soil samples for analysis, and the results were dire: No nutrient content to speak of and high levels of lead. A toxic wasteland. It wasn’t so much dirt as clay, and before it was buried by five and a half tons of fecund topsoil trucked in from a Long Island farm, I had to excavate a drainage system, a crosshatch of graded trenches, with a deep hole in the middle that went all the way down to sand.