Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Trouble with Urban Farming

Ethicurian gives a qualified thumbs-up to New York magazine's recent take on urban farming. I'm sorry to see that my cohorts at the Garden Rant blog are far less generous. In fact, you could call their response downright nasty.

For some reason, the idea of growing food in the city stirs all kinds of emotions and incites sometimes hyperventilated critique.

For the New York piece, entitled "My Empire of Dirt," freelance writer Manny Howard turned his 800-square-foot backyard in Brooklyn into a working farm he hoped would feed him for the month of August. In the process, he discovered his yard was contaminated with lead and trucked in five-and-a-half tons of top soil from Long Island to replace it. The yard didn't drain, so he built an elaborate drainage system, culminating in a five-foot-deep shaft dug by hand through thick clay. He nearly sawed off a finger building rabbit hutches. Then, just when his vegetables were producing a bounty, the whole enterprise was nearly wrecked by a once-in-a-lifetime, inner-city tornado. And for the $11,000 he spent on the project, Howard was barely on speaking terms with his wife when it ended.

First, having been a struggling freelance writer myself at one time, I have a soft spot for Manny Howard and I have to say that if I were to write a magazine article about becoming an urban farmer, his approach is probably the one I would choose. Second, having started an urban farm of my own here in the District of Columbia (we like to call it an "edible landscape") I can attest that what Howard went through is pretty much exactly how these things actually happen.

To hear the folks at Garden Rant tell it, Howard rates hardly better than an interloping heretic who would have done better to keep the whole experience to himself. Furthermore, he wouldn't have had any of these problems if he'd just asked for their advice.

"The basic idea is, we'll try growing our own food as an experiment. We'll spend more money on the garden than any actual backyard farmer would," writes Michele Owens, one of the four co-ranters on this very popular garden site, and one where I have published some of my own stuff. "We'll pretend to have ambitions no real gardener would go near--mostly involving animals, because there is lots of disgusting comedy there. We'll exaggerate every failure, as if our own inexperience and insincerity of purpose has nothing to do with it. And we'll write about it, cheekily deconstructing one of our culture's new touchstones: it is virtuous to eat locally and even more virtuous to grow your own."

I never saw the part where Howard claimed to be a "real gardener." Twice, by way of immunizing himself against all the self-righteous critics out there, he calls his experiment "a stunt." But where is it written that gardeners lose their membership in the club if they try to feed themselves, or try to raise animals for food? On the contrary, there is a virtuous strain of self-reliance running through the gardening tradition, often including small farm animals for protein to go with the potatoes and string beans.

And I did not detect any cheekiness in Howard's writing. He seems dead-on earnest to me. His first-person narrative device is one of self-deprecation, as in I hope you readers out there can find some humor in all this. (Some obviously don't.) The logical endpoint of locavorism, or eating locally, is to grow it in your own back yard. Does this mean you can't be a "real gardener" if you grow your own vegetables or slaughter your own rabbits or smoke your own sausages--all activities I've known ardent "gardeners" to engage in? What I find most surprising is not that Howard's ambitions extended to raising farm animals in his urban back yard, but that the local ordinances in Brooklyn actually allow it. I only wish we could do that here in the District of Columbia. But then my wife and the neighbors definitely would string me up.

(Yes, killing animals is messy, but somebody's got to do it. Just be glad you're at the top of the food chain.)

As far as the folks at Garden Rant are concerned, though, Howard's experiment violated some kind of sacred gardening code. Though shalt not spoil the idea of gardening as an idyllic, sweat-free pastime.

Cross the line and those gardeners can get downright unpleasant. You are liable to get the back of a trowel.

"Plus, anybody who knows anything knows you're an ass," sputters Owens, as if logic alone were not enough to quash the New York writer's bona fides. "Growing food is easy, even in a Brooklyn yard, if you have enough sun and reasonable soil."

Oh really? I guess all those hours I spent breaking sod and digging rocks for my vegetable beds, the hours turning compost, nursing seedlings, getting down on all fours to pull weeds, building trellises, agonizing over powdery mildew and harlequin beetles and squash borers, searching for potatoes that never materialized, watching tomato plants succumb to wilt, trying to decide what to plant and when, pulling more weeds, dealing with the lead in my soil, hauling huge rolls of reinforcing wire from Home Depot to build tomato cages, digging and disposing of more rocks, collecting neighbors' leaves for my compost, rebuilding trellises after they are blown down in a storm, pulling more weeds--I guess all that was wasted effort, because growing food really is so easy.

I would have done better to just pull up a lawn chair and lose myself in Fine Gardening. Silly me.

Besides which, not all urban plots have "reasonable soil." Heavy metals are a real issue, and Manny Howard's is not the first garden I know of where the soil had to be completely replaced.

Maybe this is where "gardeners" and do-it-yourself locavores part company. The fact is, urban agriculture is catching on, whether or not it qualifies as "gardening." There's plenty of it happening in Detroit, Chicago, New York, Oakland. And having just watched a documentary about Cuba turning itself into one great big urban farm to deal with its own local oil and food crash, I am only emboldened to continue my own urban experiment, even if it means I no longer qualify as a "real gardener."

Manny Howard's only real problem may be that he didn't give himself enough time. In another year or two, he could have called himself a real urban farmer.

I wonder if the magazine reimbursed him for that $11,000...


Susan Harris said...

Ed, you know full well that it wasn't the "folks at GardenRant" who said all those things - it was just one of us. But you're not alone - we frequently have to correct people who assume there's one "GardenRant position" on anything. We're 4 compeltely separate voices who sometimes disagree with each other, and our readers and commenters LOVE to disagree with us. It's a rowdy conversation over there. I enjoyed MIchele's rant because I was delighted by her passion but you can see by the comments that there was no consensus AT ALL on the substance of her article.

Ed Bruske said...

Susan, I wasn't lumping the four co-writers together when I said "the folks at Garden Rant." I was grouping Michele and all the commenters who sympathized with her position. Had I known you LOVED disagreement so much, I would disagree more often...

tai haku said...

I think what I disliked about this (although I didn't dislike it as much as others have) was the lack of expert assistance he deployed. It would have been fairly simple for him to speak to a few people and avoid some of the pitfalls he described but he almost seemed determined to go alone (and hence predestined himself to failure). This has the effect of suggesting a) its really hard and b) failure is inevitable. By contrast the New Yorker article (which i liked) opened up a wealth of possibilities and optimism.

Ed Bruske said...

Tai Haku, I know where your coming from about Manny Howard maybe going into this without enough info, but the couple of times I've read the piece I had the feeling he'd done a lot more research than he was telling, or maybe a lot was edited out for space. I don't think anyone gets it exactly right the first time, no matter how much research you do. Farming (gardening) is a process, not an event.