Manny Howard Update

Remember awhile back when I was all pissed off about Manny Howard, the urban farmer in Brooklyn? I just reread my post, and man, I was being such a bitch. I think I was scared that his book would come out and Farm City would look derivative, and I worried that he was mocking something–growing food in cities–that I hold near to my heart. My fears retreated once Farm City was published and I started getting letters from readers and fellow urban farmers who were so supportive. It’s great to get email from people who are now raising chickens or keeping bees, or growing some food, partially inspired by Farm City and the urban farming movement. I suppose I was pissed at Manny for telling people “no you can’t,” when I know they can–I’ve even seen some kick-ass farms in New York, where Manny lives!

Now I just watched his appearance on the Colbert Show, and I felt sorry for him–not that he was on Colbert, that is a sure-fire way to sell a lot of books! But that he seemed so beaten down and defeated by the whole experience. When he talks about killing (in self-defense) a rabbit then discovering she was pregnant, it made me feel bad for him and her. I did glance through his book, My Empire of Dirt, and it definitely had some funny moments, and he’s a good writer. Anyway, what I’ve learned, almost three years later, is that a book lives on–it can inspire, it can horrify, and it becomes a reflection of who you were. It’s pretty humbling, and it’s hard because you’re ultimately revealing so much about yourself. Anyway, Manny, if you’re out there, I wanted to let you know that I’m sorry for being such a bitch back in 2007.

And when are we doing that rumble? I’ll be in NYC September 25ish. Get your scythe out.

26 responses to “Manny Howard Update

  1. MotherLodeBeth

    Have you considered writing Manny personally? He is on Twitter. Has a wordpress site

    Personally I like both of you. Each on opposite coasts with unique challenges based on where you live.

  2. I haven’t read Manny’s book, and to be honest, I don’t intend to. And I don’t really find your old post all that bitchy. LOL Maybe because I feel defensive about urban farming.

  3. I think that you were the true pioneer of the two – Manny seems to have jumped on the bandwagon in order to get a book deal out of it. I’m not impressed.

  4. Congrats on self growth! I never saw the first blog, nor do I have an opinion on Manny — I just know moments of realization such as this are refreshing and this level of honesty with oneself is always positive! So props!

  5. If Manny’s book is the one from which I saw an excerpt and he’s the guy whose wife was completely un-supportive and bitchy about the whole thing, then I feel sorry for the guy.

    Growing your own food is hard work, despite the satisfaction you get, and I, for one, have a much better appreciation for what real farmers go through to get it to market in good shape (not that I have any sympathy for large agribusinesses- quite the contrary).

    The one thing I wouldn’t do is challenge myself to eat only from my backyard until I really know what I’m doing. I mean, I’m having good luck this year, but that’s what it is so far- good luck. I know that you have done this successfully (and lost weight doing it, which I could stand to do!) but something bad happens to me when I get too hungry.

    I get bitchy.

  6. novella,

    so strange that you posted this today.

    i recently picked up manny’s book and then decided to google him a few chapters in (only last night). i came across your blog (but had never seen this post before – i started reading after i read farm city) and your post depressed me. i kinda felt like the book wouldn’t be something i’d be in to. $11k spent on a set-up? that’s crazy.
    i’m going to finish reading it anyways and i’ll be sure to check out the colbert report.
    just a funny coincidence i guess.

    obviously LOVED farm city. have been growing veg for three years now in toronto – last month we brought home two hens.

    anyways, this is a bit of a ramble and might not make sense.

    no matter.

    take it easy,

    PS – there is a great community on youtube that is posting videos about chickens, gardens, bees, etc… check it out.

  7. GreenEngineer


    I have to disagree. You have nothing to apologize for.

    Manny made a classic newbie mistake (for any endeavor) — he jumped in with both feet without thinking things through first, or doing his homework. That’s fine, so far as it goes, if he had kept his failure private and learned from it.

    Instead, he made his failure public, and presented it as entertainment rather than something to learn from. He neglected and abused his animals (out of ignorance, rather than malice, but I’ll bet that didn’t make any difference to the animals) and then made light of it. He spent an enormous amount of money trying to “buy” himself status as an urban farmer, which sets a bad example and completely misses the point. Worse, his example discourages others by making farming look even harder than it actually is.

    You are the real deal. This guy is a pretender. You have nothing to apologize for.

  8. HOW FUNNY! I remember buying a new york mag at the airport just so I could read his story on the plane. He got a book deal out of that? Holy shit and bless his heart.

    I do remember that even his wife agreed the food he produced tasted amazing. I must have blocked everything else out. Hence the mess I’m in now…

    help! The bunny we bought for meat, turned pet, might end up meat again (she’s not doing too well). A quick questions if you have a sec…
    Do you know of any herbs to maybe drug her a bit before know, time? I’ve heard that camomile and rose hips can reduce stress in rabbits. Vain hope? We’re looking for a rabbit guru here in Durham, NC (we just moved from Idaho), no luck yet. I thought the story of your first rabbit’s end in the garden was so beautifully put, now I just think you were crazy ass brave! Any advice you have to give would be MOST appreciated.

    You’re one of the patron saints of our household along with Carla Emery, Toby Hemenway and H.C. Flores among others. Poor Manny… more of a cautionary tale. Hope he’s still doing SOMETHING with his backyard. 11k? Not enough dumpster diving!

    P.S. I just started a blog a couple days ago, don’t worry it’s NO threat to yours LOL! Feel free to peek in on just some of the mayhem you’ve helped inspire 🙂


  9. The thing I found offensive, and still do, about Mr. Howard is that he treated this as a stunt. It wasn’t about living life slower and more methodically, or about homesteading in the city which is what most of us are doing more than we’re actively farming with livestock, per se. He just jumped in. I mean, when it comes to doing something in order to make a point, that does at some point entail just jumping in, but after lots and lots of homework and research… Did I mention homework and research? Oh, and talking to other urban homesteaders who keep animals. And urban farmers.

    This stuff is life. So one has to be methodical, find the balance, and not just say it can’t be done after something’s gone wrong.

    I am sorry it didn’t go so well for Mr. Howard. And it’s very generous of you to apologize for calling it like you saw it in 2007, Novella.

    Now, should we be writing letters to Comedy Central to get you on Colbert? 🙂

  10. MotherLodeBeth

    Manny isn’t the first and sadly wont be the last to jump into some form or homesteading, without doing the needed research needed in order to protect food animals from harm and illness. Helen and Scott Nearing along with my parents are my role models, because they taught about the hard work involved, unlike many who make it sound poetic and easy. With the Internet most people have no excuse unless they lack computer access, for not being well informed before they start.
    Lets be honest and ask ourselves how we would do if we had never been around anyone who grew stuff, and someone gave us a pack of seeds and told us to plant them in the garden. How many of us would simply plant the seeds in the soil, and soil that was crappy soil? And how many of us would worry about the soil being healthy soil?
    Which brings me to the issue of chickens and the many, many newspaper and magazine articles about back yard chickens this past year, and the number of novices who have come into the local feed store to buy chicks, and yet know very little about what is involved. Especially when it comes to protecting chickens from other critters. And when reminded housing has to be secure, being told secure housing will be built later because its expensive. To me this is akin to getting pregnant and then thinking about how one can afford the baby.
    This is why I always remind newbies that there is nothing wrong with NOT knowing what to do, and asking for help. We who have succeeded have done so because someone or more than a few people, took the time to mentor us.

  11. I can’t imagine that anything you do is derivative 😉

  12. It’s awesome that you acknowledge some ulterior motives in your criticism, and also I can see a strategic benefit in wanting to grow the genre in general.

    However, I’d like to echo other commenters in saying that your earlier post raised some valid criticisms. I wonder if part of what bothered you about portraying ordinary people as not being cut out for this sort of work, is something like this criticism Sharon Astyk has for Madeline Holler.

  13. Well, I suppose we can thank Mr. Howard for giving us a powerful example of what not to do. I regularly teach a class in the Atlanta area for people who want to learn about keeping a few backyard chickens. We have had hundreds of folks go through the workshop and successfully start an urban flock. What amazes me, though, is the number of people I have encountered who have decided to acquire a few chicks without first bothering to learn how to care for the animals. I usually get a call or an email when someone doesn’t understand what killed their pullet (let’s talk about predator protection), why the eggshells are so soft (again with the calcium deficiency), and is it bad for the chickens to be outside when the temperature is 12 degrees (do you have any kind of shelter for your birds?). This sort of thing is as irresponsible as adopting a dog or cat from the pound unprepared. Whether you’re raising animals for companions, for egg production, or for meat, their well being is up to you. Know what you are doing before you do it.

    Soapbox, I know! But I built it myself from recycled lumber . . .

  14. I’d like to thank Joel for bringing up a criticism of the Madeline Holler piece. Which I felt (Holler’s piece, that is) chided people for wanting to simplify, and in the process of that made a very conscious choice to live a certain way look cartoonish and impossible.

    I think what scares some away from this sort of living is that it actually creates and reinforces community, and consuming culture would much prefer we all be individualists because it means we’re spending beyond our means. Anyway, that’s a gigantor discussion unto itself.

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  16. Your book is at the top of my Amazon queue. But I actually just found your blog in a google search after seeing Manny on the Colbert report. I love the urban farm movement for many reasons. But one is actually something I think he did capture in his interview. I grew up on a farm and it IS hard work. And as one of the earlier comments mentions, much of it is out of your hands even when you know what you are doing. There could be a huge rain or no rain or an early frost, etc. One thing I think you are both bringing to light is that we should value our farmers more and that the price of our produce really doesn’t reflect the work involved. I love that people care more now about where their food comes from. That they want to grow more of it themselves and hopefully will also support their local family farmers at the farmer’s market. Thanks so much for being a leader and being an inspiration. Can’t wait to read your book!

  17. I finished Farm City last week. I absolutely loved it. I put it up there with The $64 Tomato and The Omnivores Dilemma which are among my favorite books about the food industry and urban gardening/farming.

    I started Manny’s book yesterday and am about half way through it. I’ll finish it because I paid for it but I really hate it. Very little of it so far has actually been about farming. He goes off on tangents frequently that I find boring. The only thing I’ve gotten from it is that he has no idea what the hell he is doing and is trying desperately to buy a ready made farm to live off of.

    I think he missed the whole point of the assignment.

    My ‘favorite’ part was when he catches one of the last remaining song birds he bought for his daughter and throws it against the wall to kill it out of spite. Nice.

    He doesn’t have anything remotely resembling the constitution of a farmer; he demonstrates everything that is wrong with the stereotypical suburban yuppy (don’t even get me started on his wife).

    Don’t worry about Manny, Novella. You are the real deal…he’s definitely not.

  18. MotherLodeBeth

    Mannys book serves a valuable lesson because anyone who read his book, will see the obvious screw ups.The lesson then is this. One has to get as educated as possible BEFORE one begins. I will go even further and note that way to many books about urban/rural living paint a easier than it is story.

    Grew up on Vashon Island WN where a neighbor of ours wrote a book The Egg and I, which is also an excellent book albeit written decades ago, about moving from the city to a rural area to live off the land. Betty was so honest about the problems and used humor to tell her story.

  19. I watched this guy on the Colbert Report, because you had mentioned him, and I was curious…..
    I felt kinda sorry for him too, for a minute. It annoyed the crap out of me that urban farming seemed to be the butt of all his jokes.
    Man, I want a scythe! But I don’t suppose I need one for just a 10 square foot patch of oats…..but I can dream about backing you up in the rumble…..

  20. ghosttownfarm

    no way, you knew betty macdonald? omg, i love that book! tell me more.

  21. MotherLodeBeth

    Betty’s brother Clive Bard lived across the road from us and all their kids went to school with me. Lots of red heads. My Mom taught second grade and had most of their kids in her class at one time or another. So many folks were like Betty who was an excellent teacher when it came to learning and doing. My parents often spoke about how during the Great Depression and WW2 that it was island folks who lived pretty well since everyone had huge vegetable gardens and fruit trees and someone with milk cows would swap for some honey and seafood you had. It was a great place to live and really was all about community. Now I am near Angels Camp and there is a similar feel here.

  22. Its good to play nice.
    We are all on the same team.
    Well done Novella, your apology shows maturity.

  23. I read Manny Howard’s “Empire of Dirt” before I read yours (I put both on order at the library, and his came in first). I was really disappointed by it. He doesn’t seem to have any particular interest in the plants or animals themselves, he’s just having a midlife crisis and doesn’t know what else to do with his life. He flails about helplessly, which I suppose is meant to be comical, but I found it depressing – he never really succeeds at anything, or learns from his mistakes, and in the meantime his family life just about unravels. I kind of wish I’d never read it, and I don’t often have that reaction, being something of a book addict.

    Yours is the book that I thought Manny Howard’s was going to be. Similar premise, but totally different motivation – raising plants and animals for the joy of it and interested in learning and improving on what you’ve built. It was the perfect antidote to his pessimistic viewpoint – thank goodness I read it just a few days after I read his!

  24. I just read Mr. Howard’s book and I have to say that it was completely disappointing. While I read “Farm City” in a day (couldn’t put it down), I barely made it through “Empire.” Your criticisms were really on the money! It’s nice that you apologized but on the other hand the animal cruelty on Howard’s insta-farm was pretty sickening (and why did he relate that horrible incident about leaving a chicken in Macy’s 20 years prior? He seemed proud of it! Like, gee, Manny and his friends are so cool…). “Empire of Dirt” was just so wrong-headed in so many ways. Novella, I think maybe you should have kicked Howard’s ass harder!

  25. Phil in Colorado

    I read Farm City, loved it, then found your blog and have been reading it chronologically to catch up. I loved this post about reflecting back on something you said years ago and taking the time to share it. I read Empire of Dirt as well – scratched my head at some of his choices, but enjoyed it 🙂 Sadly, I wished some of the other commenters here respected your choice more instead of telling you that you shouldn’t have said anything. You’re a great farmer AND a class act 🙂 Hope to read more from you soon!

  26. Uh try reading the book – if you did you would realize that he deserves anything you said in 2007 and then some. This guy takes animal cruelty to awhile new level and should be thrown in jail for his transgressions.

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