My Empire of Dirt

Photo: Andrew Eccles

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.

1 Four tons of the good earth delivered to the driveway. 2 The spiderhole, five and a half feet deep and counting. 3 Building the two-story rabbit hutch. 4 The Farm nears its harvest. 5 A breeding pair of twenty-pound Flemish Giant rabbits.Photo: Amy Eckert [rabbits and garden]; courtesy of Eric Slater [spiderhole and hutch]; courtesy of Manny Howard [earth]

You ever dig through clay?

It started as a fun weekend family project. The kids—daughter Heath, nearly 5, and son Jake, 3—pitched in, mopped Dad’s brow, brought him cold beers, ran around like it was recess. We got down through two and a half feet, exchanged high fives all around, and called it a day. Dad, wheezing as if in the early throes of a heart attack, used what strength he had left to shuffle to the fridge, pull out a bottle of white wine, and pour himself three huge glasses in quick succession.

The next day, standing in the same hole, now five feet deep and not much wider than a trash can, I asked Carlos, the Salvadoran foreman of the local landscaping company, if there was any hope of finding sand beyond the clay. “In my country,” he said, “sand always follows clay. I’m sure it is true here also.” I flashed to the 200-foot-high clay cliffs on Martha’s Vineyard, smiled weakly, and continued digging.

The hole, which I thought might consume the better part of one morning, killed the entire weekend. My wife, Lisa, who did not have intensive manual labor on her list of weekend plans, stopped checking on me, and eventually the kids grew bored and disappeared with her somewhere. I kept digging. At seven and a half feet, I hit sand, tossed out the posthole digger I had been using, and sat cross-legged at the bottom of my spider hole, victorious.

When I scrambled out, our neighbor Jane Feder called to me. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” she said from the other side of the fence, “but what are you doing back here?” When I answered that I was building a farm I planned to live off for a month, she said, “I knew it. I told Al”—her husband—“that you were gonna build a farm.” Jane was ecstatic, not at all put off by the growing mountain of refuse or the presence of earthmovers in the driveway. Not even my plans for putting stinky farm animals within mere feet of her kitchen window fazed her. When I later installed the squirrel traps to protect my produce, she was thrilled to see them working properly. Occasionally, she’d even bring friends and neighbors to the back of her house to proudly show off her neighbor’s farm.

Lisa had been worried the neighbors might think I was Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters—hah! They were my biggest supporters.

The night after the soil delivery in April, it was threatening rain, and I slept out on my back porch to see if my drainage system would perform. As it poured, I went out into the backyard in my underwear and bare feet and felt around the now-buried spider hole, testing whether it would cave in. Miraculously, it did not. Score one for Manny the Self-Taught Engineer.

While prepping the backyard for its new, central role in my life, I commenced planting in my basement. To have any credibility as a locavore, I thought, I had to grow all the plants from scratch. I bought dozens of seed varieties, everything from acorn squash to green-zebra tomatoes, embedded them in little premade mounds of peat, and put them under full-spectrum light bulbs mounted on the ceiling. The plan was to move them outdoors when the weather got warm. Within days, I had growth. I felt exactly like Jake had when his dry red kidney bean had exploded as a seedling at play school—score one for Manny the Born Naturalist.

Over the next couple of weeks, my plants literally grew like weeds. The whole enterprise started to seem easy—too easy. I gave a tour of my basement hothouse to my cousin Gabe, who knows from grow lights. “Your bulbs are in the wrong place, Cuz,” he said apologetically, as though delivering the news of a terminal diagnosis. “These seedlings are too spidery to make it outdoors.”

“Balls,” I replied. “They’ll do fine. They’re standing stock-straight down here, aren’t they?”

“There’s no wind down here, is there?”

Well, there’s no wind in my backyard either, I didn’t say, as I began to absorb another lesson in my own ignorance.

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.”
Photo: Clockwise from right, courtesy of Manny Howard; Amy Eckert [2]. Illustration by Jason Lee

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.

Garnished With Italian Parsley, Served With Collard Greens Sautéed in Green Onions and Garlic and an Heirloom-Tomato Salad Dressed in Table-Ground Salt and Pepper.

With Spicy Chicken-Foot-Tomato-Habanero Broth, Spindly Celery Slices, and Technically Off-limits Key Food Carrots (a Result of Devastating Local Crop Failures) and Caperberries (Spirited In From the Fridge in the Kitchen).
Photo: Amy Eckert [live rooster and rabbit]; Dan Bibb [cooked rooster]; courtesy of Manny Howard [cooked rabbit]

I drove the does back up to Connecticut, where the breeder mated them with six of his most virile bucks. The Litchfield doe got properly knocked up, but the Jersey doe couldn’t get any action to save her life. “Sorry, Manny, that is one old rabbit,” he said. Upon my return from Brooklyn, Lisa and I retired/promoted her to house pet. The kids loved her. She died of heat stroke two weeks later.

Amid all this commotion, I miscalculated the due date of my only pregnant doe. When she had her first litter, I had not yet built the all-important kindling box, the vessel in which baby rabbits, or kits, are stored and weaned. The literature makes it very clear that a box must be introduced to a pregnant doe one week in advance of the birth so that she has time to fill it with fur—build a nest. After discovering the newborns, I scrambled to build a proper box and in my haste miscalculated the measurements. The result was disastrous. The box was too small; consequently, the doe could not enter it to feed her brood, forcing the newborns to come out of the box and scramble around the cage. The logistics of keeping track of her first litter proved overwhelming to the doe, and she panicked. And when a mother rabbit panics, apparently, she devours her offspring.

I had read about this behavior and quietly dreaded it as I recalculated the measurements of a new box. But I figured it was a rare enough phenomenon and neglected to warn Lisa.

When the weekend arrived, I took leave of The Farm and went with Jake to watch the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island. Hoping for a mother-daughter bonding moment on The Farm—it’s gotta be good for something—Lisa took Heath to visit the baby rabbits. Only moments before their visit, the doe had set about destroying the remaining kits in her first litter, crushing two and tearing the head off a third. Seeing the carnage, Lisa managed to keep from retching just long enough to push Heath away from the cage.

All along, to an extent I didn’t realize until later, Lisa had been trying to keep her simmering resentments about The Farm under wraps. She hated the mess, was embarrassed by the growing pile of refuse in our driveway and disgusted by the stink of manure coming from the barn. The fact that I wore dirty work clothes all the time and that I never left the property except to run errands for The Farm didn’t help things either. Then there was the ring of filth I left in our tub after I took a bath at night. Lisa hadn’t signed up to be a farmer’s wife. She has a demanding career in midtown and, in fact, had just earned a big promotion when I started farming in earnest. She needed our home to be a sanctuary, not the abattoir I’d turned it into. A career and two children were hard enough; what did she need with a husband playing with dirt and shit all day?

By the time I returned from the parade with Jake, I think it is fair to say that Lisa’s empathy for me and my agrarian adventure had been placed in a garbage bag, covered with lime, and put to the curb for pickup.

We avoided each other for the balance of the day. While she fumed, I was consumed with worry—the rabbits had been a tactical blunder. It was early July, less than a month from my start day. I needed a new protein source. On Monday, I drove to the Agway in Englishtown, New Jersey, and returned with 26 baby chickens and 4 little ducklings. Lisa arrived home from work just as Caleb and I were unloading the birds, the kids dancing at our feet among a score of day-old chicks. Feeling ambushed, Lisa seriously contemplated packing a bag and taking the kids to a hotel (she told me this later; at the time, she kept up her stony silence and made herself scarce, as was becoming her habit). Her anger boiled over when Jake, in his excitement, tripped over one of the ducklings, maiming it so badly that I had to scoop it up and dispatch it before he realized what had happened.

Home less than an hour, we were already down a duck. “You’re going to turn the kids into ax murderers,” Lisa told me.

Then came the last straw. The following afternoon, Caleb and I constructed most of a high-rise chicken coop in a few hours. We decided on a vertical design filled with ramps so that it would take up a minimum of the garden’s square footage (another concession to our urban setting). We equipped it with wheels and tracks so the poop could be removed from under it and the coop rolled back into place. The work was going well. At about 5:30 p.m., Caleb scrubbed up and got on his bike in order to get home in time to tidy up and attend his bartending class. At 6:30, I was putting the finishing touches on the rig. Inspired by the coop design in Nick Park’s animated film Chicken Run, I was using the table saw to mill eight-inch plywood into strips to make footholds for the entrance ramp when the blade of the saw tagged my right pinkie, destroying the second knuckle. Parts of my finger were left on the saw and on the ground.

I pried my cell phone out of my work pants using my left hand and, holding my right hand above my head, called Josh, a childhood friend who is now a firefighter and, more to the point, lives around the corner. He ran over immediately and field-dressed the mangled wound while I stood there scared—not so much of the wound, which I figured was not going to kill me, but of Lisa, who probably would. I expected her to come through the door with the kids at any moment. After another long day at the office, this would be quite a scene for her to stumble into.

Deciding not to take me to an emergency room, where we’d get stuck at the end of a long queue, Josh located a hand surgeon named Danny Fong on Canal Street, and he agreed to see me and my pinkie immediately. But before we could get out the door, Lisa turned up with Heath and Jake. Before even a hello, I said, as casually as I could muster, “Hon, I’ve banged my finger and I need to go to the doctor.”

“How?” she asked. “How bad?”

“Not too bad,” I lied. Then I came clean: “With the table saw.”

She screamed in anguished frustration. She couldn’t just resent me for my silly folly; now that I’d maimed myself in the process, she had to feel sympathy too.

One afternoon, shortly after the pinkie incident, while Caleb and I were scraping shit out of the rabbit hutch—one of the many farm chores that keep you perpetually busy while seeming to accomplish nothing—a clutch of women from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden gathered at the top of the driveway. They were judging the Greenest Block in Brooklyn competition and had been attracted by the planter boxes I had in front of the house filled with tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and cantaloupe. They wanted to congratulate us on setting such a public example for how food could be grown in the city.

Caleb and I exchanged a look and ushered them into the backyard. The Farm blew their minds.

Their excitement allowed me to see my garden through fresh eyes. The corn stood five feet high in uniform rows, green beans shooting runners up their substantial stalks. Butterflies skimmed above the fanlike leaves of the collard greens, and cucumbers hung heavily from the lattice I had built for them. The herbs were glorious—the fennel blossoms tasting powerfully of licorice, the dense rosemary bush promising years of service. Amid the greenery, bits of color flashed out—a yellow squash, a bone-white eggplant, an orange tomato. The potato plants stood so tall and thick that we couldn’t have anything less than a bumper crop. The judges from the Botanic Garden marveled at our spectacular achievement, and so, for a moment, did I.

That was one week before the tornado.

The bad joke of August 8 wiped out the corn, the squash, the pumpkin, half the eggplant, most of the beans, and the fig tree. As the storm subsided, I stood on the porch for a while, chuckling to myself darkly that Mother Nature had accomplished what Lisa could not—the experiment was hereby terminated. At least I had an excellent excuse. A tornado—who could’ve predicted that? I went out into the garden. Wandering the wreckage, I noticed two ripe figs lying in the dirt, brushed them off on my pants, and ate them. Then, without really thinking about what I was doing, I set about wrangling the escaped chickens and harvesting the damaged vegetables. I picked tomatoes, ran them through the food mill, and put them in the freezer, then salvaged the leaves off the smashed collard greens, blanched them, and put them in the freezer, too.

In all this work, I noticed something. Beaten down as it was, The Farm had survived.

You may have noticed, careful reader, that I missed my original deadline. By August 8, I should have been a week into the eating phase. However, that proved impossible. On August 1, the tomatoes were still all green, the chickens well under the four-pound minimum slaughtering weight; there were only four eggplants of a size large enough to eat, and just one cucumber. No beets and no carrots. The self-imposed start day that I’d considered immovable all along had to be moved. The new date was August 15.

This gave me time to, among other things, boost my egg yield. Eggs had not been part of the original plan (I don’t know why, just an oversight), but they became one after a salesperson at Agway foisted a mutant chicken they had no use for on me and Caleb. It was nearly featherless, with scabrous legs and feet. To our surprise, it turned out to be a hen, and after we put her on a diet of dry cat food, she produced a perfect, warm brown egg. There was great joy on The Farm.

On Day 2, she laid another egg—but then ate the damn thing before I could get my hands on it. I doubted the bird would make a habit of this disgusting, cannibalistic act, and waited hopefully for Day 3, when exactly the same thing happened. And then again on Day 4. The score was Chicken 3, Human 1 by the time I did some research and learned that the taste of her own egg has the same effect on a hen (any hen, not just my ugly freak) that crack has on an addict. Nothing else will do.

What ensued was a battle for every egg.

The hen lived in a cage designed with a sloping floor specifically to preserve eggs. The bird laid the egg, the egg rolled out of the cage. The bird—very dumb—never noticed it was there in the first place. But after the hen, by some twist of fate, got a gob full of her own yolk, she learned to whirl around and shatter each egg with her beak and gobble whatever she could before it dripped through the wire floor to the guano tray below.

My first move was to increase the angle of the cage and pad the wire catcher so that the shell would not crack as the egg tumbled at speed away from the hen. I yielded two eggs—tie score!—before she learned to stretch her neck through the same break in the cage that allows the egg to pass.

I lost another and responded by stringing wire in the front of the cage from floor to ceiling. This rig yielded me three eggs before, with a junkie’s furious ingenuity, the hen learned to weave through the wires and crane her neck out the cage as before. I replaced the forest of wire with a sheet of mesh in the front of the cage that gave her just enough room to assume the laying posture but created a secondary floor wide enough so that no matter how much she strained—and she did strain—she could not reach beyond the front wall of the cage.

As the commencement of my farm diet neared, I was winning the war of the eggs, and had almost a dozen stored up.

The first meat birds were slaughtered five days after the tornado. The plan was to take the five heaviest chickens and hang them by their feet to lull them. That’s as many as I could do because the other twenty were still underweight. According to what I determined to be the best practices, the birds were placed headfirst into a stainless-steel cone. The cone keeps the infamous “running”—senseless flapping and leaping, really—to a minimum. The birds’ throats are then cut using a fourteen-inch blade, and when they have finished bleeding out, they are placed in the scalder—a fiberglass container filled with water heated to 155 degrees—so that their feathers come loose easier. Once plucked, the chickens are gutted, relieved of their feet, and dunked in ice water.

The process takes hours, and while I’ve killed animals on hunting trips before, I somehow wasn’t prepared for the psychological toll. Harvesting the chickens was tedious and grotesque work. When it was done, I laid down on the driveway with three bottles of beer.

On August 15, the first day of the diet, I surveyed my stockpile of chicken, greens, tomatoes, eggplants, a serving or two of cucumbers, a couple of other odds and ends, and those eggs. One thing was for sure: I was going to need those damn potatoes. I’d put off taking a census of the potato drill, because I didn’t want to interfere with what I hoped was their wild, bounteous growth. My father, who’d grown potatoes in his native England, had consulted on this part of the project, and having him involved gave me confidence. I was counting on 100 spuds in there, possibly as many as 200.

I pulled the plywood berm away from the drill and attacked the soil with a gardening fork. I hit something solid and dug for it with my hands, only to realize it was a clump of dirt. I repeated this futile exercise until I had gone through four cubic yards of soil. Zero. Sifting through the dirt more closely, like a miner panning for gold, I scored seven of the tiniest potatoes the world has ever seen.

I called my father. “The potato crop failed, Dad,” I said, by way of greeting.

“Failed?” he spluttered. “How?”

“I dunno,” I whined. “But I could only find seven, and they’re hardly as big as shirt buttons.”

“But I was there,” he said, incredulous. “We planted them together. What could you have done wrong? Maybe it was all the rain.”

“Your potatoes grew in England, Dad.”

Maybe with another month in the ground things would have been different, but at least for now, my farm diet would be potato-free.

I had hoped to share the occasion of my first meal, if not the actual food, since there wasn’t very much, with Lisa and the kids, but Lisa was steadfast in her boycott of all things farm, most especially the farmer. She scheduled drinks for after work and arranged for Heath and Jake to stay with my mother. So I invited my friend Dan to join me. Originally from Alaska, he knows his way around homegrown poultry. He was less excited to wash it down with water.

“Nothing but water for a month?”

“I didn’t grow any booze, Dan,” I replied, remembering for a second that I originally intended to. That seemed like a very long time ago.

“Of course not. Still?”

“You’re welcome to open a bottle,”

“No. Not if you’re not drinking. It wouldn’t seem …”

“It’s fine, Dan. Open a bottle.”

“Well, don’t mind if I do.”

I roasted one chicken on my outdoor grill, then split the bird and piled each half on a bed of greens I’d blanched, then sautéed in chicken fat, green onions, and garlic. I put thick slices of raw tomato, dusted with coarse sea salt and black pepper, on the outside of the plates and garnished them with parsley. It looked beautiful, easily good enough to serve in a restaurant. The taste was even better. I cut along the thigh bone with a knife and fork, and took a big mouthful. The skin was thick and crisp, like pork crackling, and dripping in delicious fat. The meat underneath was a revelation, dense but not at all chewy, with the concentrated flavor of a dozen store-bought chickens. It tasted like something that had been alive, the way a line-caught fish does. Dan enjoyed it, too, but it didn’t matter so much to me what he thought. He was there to witness my satisfaction, which was complete. So complete I didn’t even begrudge him his gulps of white wine.

When Lisa arrived home with the kids, I practically accosted them in the doorway, urging them to try some of the remaining chicken. Lisa refused outright. Jake looked at his mom and then the chicken and said, “No thanks, Dad.”

“Really? Not even a taste?”

“I’m fine,” replied Lisa. Jake just watched the two of us.

“Come on, Jake, try it. It’s totally amazing!” I insisted. Desperate for an ally, I tried to split the family along gender lines. “Not like regular chicken at all.”

“I like regular chicken,” Jake said.

The next day, I made another plate as perfect as the ones I’d made for me and Dan, and served it to Caleb, my loyal farmhand. He looked at it as if he wished it were a slice of pizza and remarked, with undergraduate panache, that it “smelled a bit like underpants.” But when he finally ate some, he had to admit it was delicious.

For the next four days, I ate nothing but self-farmed goods. There was not much variety. The eggs were a godsend; I ate one every morning. Then nothing until an early dinner, which I started preparing around four and ate, by myself, at five. The meals were all minor variations on my first one—I alternated between roasted chicken and chicken stewed in tomatoes and onion. I had collard greens and fresh tomatoes on the side and, every other day, some eggplant. Once or twice, I admit, I cheated, using olive oil to cook the eggplant because it was so dreadful boiled.

My dining schedule was dictated by the fact that I didn’t really have anything for lunch, at least not anything that was different from what I had for dinner, and by the fact that I still sat with the kids when they ate their decidedly non-farm supper at seven. Never before in my life have I salivated at the sight of a frozen fish stick, but that started to happen. The images of sushi dancing in my head had a psychedelic edge. Time slowed down. I tried to live a normal life, but leaving The Farm inevitably brought me into contact with food I couldn’t eat, and I found the temptation for almost everything unbearable. I walked to the deli to pick up milk for the kids and just about got down and begged for a bag of microwaved popcorn. Normally I hate microwaved popcorn.

On Day 6, I was in fact driven to my knees—by severe gastrointestinal distress. I’ll spare you the details, except to say that I had to forgo The Farm diet in favor of saltines as well as maintain, at all times, an unobstructed path to the toilet. Whether this ailment was caused by The Farm I do not know. I am proud to say, however, that after two days of suffering, I was able to return to The Farm diet and, with the exception of a steak dinner on my birthday (sadly, I burned the beautiful piece of meat my mom brought over for me, probably an act of the gods), I have stayed on course as of this writing.

In three weeks of eating nothing but Farm-fresh food, I lost 29 pounds, down from my pre-Farm weight of 234. Abs: That’s the upside of only two meals a day. The downside is the expense. Not counting my own labor, which was unending, I spent about $11,000 to produce what, all told, is barely enough to feed one grown man for a month. But I did learn something about food: Unless you really know what you’re doing, raising it is miserable, soul-crushing work. Eating food fresh from the farm, on the other hand, is delightful.

Few, if any, serious locavores would see my experience as having much to do with what they advocate: eating regionally and seasonally in order to save the planet. But I now better understand what will be needed to back up the slogans. Eating local is expensive and time-consuming, which is why this consumerist movement will not easily trickle down into mass society. It requires a willful abstinence from convenience and plenty, a core promise of the modern world. Our bountiful era is predicated on the division of labor: We don’t sew our own clothes, we don’t build our own houses—and we certainly don’t farm—because we’re too busy doing whatever it is we do for everyone else.

But locavores also preach the importance of valuing all the time and energy and care that go into producing good food, and there I’m with them. So, too, in the end, is Lisa. As I joined her and the kids for supper one night, after finishing my own, Lisa remarked that after seeing how hard I’d worked to put a simple plate of chicken on the table, she’d never shop the same way again. It wasn’t just a matter of buying regionally, or seasonally, or organically—the important thing was to consume responsibly. “I’ll never be as wasteful,” she said. “We throw away more food than we eat.”

There, at long last, was our Hallmark moment of mutual understanding.

Adam Platt on the Latest Wave of Foodie Correctness
Urban Farming Tips and Tricks

Take a Video Tour of the Author’s Backyard Farm

My Empire of Dirt