New Yorker pushes limits of the "locavore" life

NEW YORK (Reuters) - One of Manny Howard’s discoveries during the month this summer he ate only the plants he grew and the animals he raised and slaughtered was that his tough-talking plumber was too squeamish to watch chickens be killed for supper.

Customers shop for produce at a farmer's market in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, August 14, 2007. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

“We’ve all lost touch with the sources of our food, but it really underscored the gap for me when a guy like that made me warn his dispatcher before I did the work,” Howard said in an interview at his farm -- the 800-square-foot (74-square-meter) backyard and garage to his Brooklyn, New York, house.

Freelance food writer Howard knew about “locavores” -- people who try to eat only locally produced food. But seeing one locavore at a market squint at a map while asking a pig farmer where exactly he lived in New York state, gave Howard the idea to try out life as an extreme locavore -- in the biggest U.S. city.

The locavore movement is growing from San Francisco to New York. Green-leaning consumers seek ways to cut down on the oil and chemicals used in the growing and transporting of food and preserve small farm methods. Barbara Kingsolver’s memoir “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” and Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” about modern food production, have fertilized the trend.

Howard figured his farm could provide him enough food for a month late in the summer and began preparing in March. He built a chicken coop, dug a drainage system to water his crops, spent thousands of dollars on topsoil to cover his yard’s lead-rich, nutrient-poor clay and bought rabbits, ducks and 25 chicks.

He soon learned it was hard work -- seven days a week, six to 16 hours a day, tending his farm nearly every day until the experiment of eating his food began in mid-August.


Howard wanted to use duck fat for cooking, but ran into a problem. “You can kill chickens, but don’t kill any ducks,” his 4-year-old daughter told him. He compromised on olive oil.

The ducks were the only lucky ones. He learned how to kill and pluck roosters -- several got their heads chopped off after neighbors complaints about the crowing. And some of the rabbits died from maggot infestations.

“I was not so much a farmer ... as an undertaker,” he wrote about that experience in New York magazine, which partly funded the experiment.

And he suffered hardships. Howard nearly sawed off a finger building the chicken coop and went without alcohol because making a home distillery was too much work.

He sat longingly through meals of non-local food his family ate. In the month of reaping what he sowed, he lost 29 pounds, both from the work and sparse meals, mostly eggs, tomatoes, greens, and chicken stew.

And the first tornado to hit Brooklyn in nearly 120 years bashed his corn, eggplant and squash crops.

It was hard on his family, too. His two kids grew bored with him because he rarely left the farm. His wife grew distant, even more so after seeing the carnage left by a rabbit that had panicked and killed her newborns.

Howard said she only began to see his side of things after she banged her head in a dark corner of their basement on a slaughtered Flemish Giant rabbit.

“She asked me if she had hit her head on a dead chicken. When I told her it was a 20 pound (9 kg) freshly-skinned rabbit, I broke down and wept,” he said. “I think that’s when she realized I wasn’t getting off on all the blood and gore, and it was beginning to wear me down.”

Financially the farm was perhaps unsustainable. The costs rose to $11,000 -- or more than $120 per meal for the month.

But now his family has a greater appreciation for the business of food and the people who grow it, he said. And the toil made the food rewarding to eat, even if his kids didn’t eat everything he grew.

“I don’t know if anyone else liked the chickens I ate, but I just loved them,” he said.

Still, it was nice to finish the month, Howard said on Friday, the day after the experiment ended. His eyes grew wide describing the white wine, short ribs and Washington State oysters he enjoyed in celebration.