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My Empire of Dirt

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ONE MAN-MONTH OF FOOD CRAMMED INTO 800 SQUARE FEET.
A Four vegetable planters: cucumbers, cantaloupes, peppers, and heirloom tomatoes.
B The garage, a.k.a. “the Barn”: tool storage, rabbit feed, chicken feed, six rabbit hutches, a slaughter station, a refrigerator, and four egg-laying coops.
C The field, in four beds: 1 Tomatoes, beets, celery, yellow squash, purple eggplant, and a fig tree. 2 Collard greens, cucumbers, and callaloo. 3 Cabbage, Japanese eggplant, white eggplant, rhubarb, leeks, garlic, onions, fennel, rosemary, thyme, and mint. 4 Corn, broad beans, basil, bok choy, and parsley.
D The duck run: a duck coop, a duck pond, and two wayward rabbit hutches.
E The chicken run: a high-rise high-capacity chicken coop and a livestock holding pen (on the porch).
F The potato crop: a raised bed technically known as a “drill.”   

The nascent plants were, as diagnosed, too spidery. Most of them started failing before they left the basement. As an interim step, I put them on the sun porch, protected from the elements, but I arrived down there one morning to find an apocalypse, hundreds of seedlings lying across water-swollen peat pellets.

This was mid-April. It suddenly was very late in the growing season. With the clock ticking on my August deadline, I would either have to give up or compromise and go with young plants, transferred to the backyard. Locavore purists would shun me, but what choice did I have? Even at this early stage, I was acutely aware of what economists call “sunk costs”—I couldn’t get back the hard time, sweat, and cash I’d invested so far. Just the damn hole alone—that couldn’t come to nothing. So I went out shopping for crops, which is not easy in a major metropolitan area. Herbs can be found anywhere, as can tomato plants, but you’ll get funny looks if you ask about corn, rhubarb, carrots, and potatoes. It took me weeks to locate C. Verdino & Sons in Ozone Park, where I loaded my cart with broad beans, cantaloupe, beets, eggplant, cucumbers, callaloo, fennel, cabbage, and four kinds of peppers.

I worked like a fiend to get all the plants in the ground in my backyard, aided by Caleb, the teenage son of family friends, who didn’t want to spend his last summer before college working indoors. He’s a good kid, his crazy, heavy-metal hair notwithstanding, but he had not one iota of relevant experience. He’d never cooked a meal for himself, much less grown one. But I was grateful for the company and took him on as my farmhand. We exerted extra effort on the potatoes, putting them in their own long rectangular box, called a “drill.” They would be my hedge against starvation, as they have been for civilizations across the centuries, a hard-to-mess-up crop that survives when nothing else does.

Having conquered the dirt, I had to make the difficult decision of what kind of meat I would raise on my farm. Tilapia fell out of the picture when the guy I called repeatedly about them never called me back. Chickens, the obvious consideration, were ruled out because they’re noisy, smelly, mean, dirty, and fond of running around (not good for neighbor relations), and because after you slaughter them, they have to be plucked. I figured I’d need a chicken a day. That is a lot of feathers.

Rabbits, by comparison, seemed like a breeze. Ideally, you want to eat very young rabbits, when their meat is tender, and as we all know, the species multiplies like mad. According to the pro-bunny-eating propagandists, a single doe can produce 1,000 times her body weight in edible offspring per year. Also, rabbits do okay in small cages, which meant I could stack them up efficiently in the barn.

After a bit of research, I learned that the perfect breed is the Flemish Giant (adults top out heavier than twenty pounds), whose offspring get to “fryer weight” in a few months. I ordered three does, one mature buck, and one juvenile (which I intended as a playmate for the kids) from a breeder in Litchfield, Connecticut, then picked up an extra doe and a second big buck in New Jersey as an insurance policy. It was June; I had plenty of time for them to reproduce and serve as my primary source of protein.

Immediately, complications set in. The rabbits kept themselves cool in the summer heat by kicking over their water dishes. The wet conditions invited flies to lay eggs, which turned into maggots, which attached themselves to the does. I lost a doe and the kids’ buck to hideous infestations that I care not to describe further or ever think of again. I was not a farmer so much as an undertaker, stuffing their bodies in plastic garbage bags, covering them with a scoop of lime, and leaving them in cans at the curb to be picked up.

Meanwhile, the surviving does took zero interest in my Jersey buck, which meant all the marbles were riding on the Litchfield buck, an American Chinchilla who was only half the size of the does. Thus I discovered that my farm broke one of the inviolable rules of nature—my rabbits didn’t fuck like rabbits. Standing in my underwear in the predawn, which I understood to be the optimal hour for bunny boot-knocking, I watched incredulously as the doe rejected the earnest efforts of the big, sand-colored buck. Every morning for two weeks, I took my coffee out to the barn and witnessed the same nonevent.


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