The author of ‘Bet the Farm’ talks about becoming a new farmer in middle age, the huge barriers to entry, and preparing for climate change.
The author of ‘Bet the Farm’ talks about becoming a new farmer in middle age, the huge barriers to entry, and preparing for climate change.
October 12, 2021
By the time Beth Hoffman and her husband, John Hogeland, moved from San Francisco to Iowa to farm, they’d been planning for years. But that didn’t make it any less of a leap.
Hoffman had spent more than two decades as a reporter and journalism professor—often covering food and agriculture—and Hogeland was a butcher and Whole Foods buyer who had long wanted to return to his family’s fifth generation, 540-acre farm. The couple had spent a series of summers returning to the beloved patch of rolling hills an hour southeast of Des Moines. And over the years, they had worked to convince his parents to lease them the land so they could convert the commodity corn and soy operation into one that produced grass-finished beef using rotational grazing.
Then, in May 2019, once Hogeland’s sons had graduated from high school in the Bay Area, they “packed up the car with the necessities for another summer in Iowa—old jeans and light long sleeves, rubber boots, raincoats—and stuffed the old dog and her bed into the back. [They] rented out [their] house for three months to some high-paid tech interns and peeled off onto I-80.”
Hoffman and Hogeland have been in Iowa ever since. In her new book, Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America, Hoffman describes the first two years of their journey in an effort to shed light on the larger economics of American agriculture and the myriad challenges facing beginning farmers.
The book provides readers with a detailed, up-close look at the choices the couple face as they launch their farming business as well as the lessons they’ve learned so far. But what really sets Hoffman’s book apart from others in the genre is her willingness to show her readers the numbers.
By the end of the book, for instance, Hoffman tells readers that she and Hogeland have put in, “more than $70,000, not including the cost of our housing.” She details out their early costs and earnings—a $13,000 lease, three $10,000 cattle payments for a net profit of only $25,000. And she writes, “After a fair amount of anxiety, we sold our first round of heifers and steers without much struggle—14 wholesale to small distributors and six directly to consumers, mostly friends and family.”
In sharing her experiences, Hoffman acknowledges the history of land theft for farmers of color and grapples with her own privilege. She describes her family buying her house in San Francisco and tells her readers that it doubled in price in six years. “We have family land to lease, money in the bank, and little debt to our names,” she writes, making it clear that she and Hogeland aren’t facing the same consequences many others do if their operation fails to bring in a profit.
She also makes a point to dispel several myths around farming, such as those that elevate and romanticize agrarianism, writing:
Living on a working farm is not about making your life simpler. It isn’t only about putting your hands in the dirt (although you certainly can) and magically feeling more grounded, or getting up each morning to enjoy the sunrise as you milk a cow. It also shouldn’t be all about self-sacrifice or endurance, independence or ruggedness. Unless you are raising food solely for your family, farming is a business. It is not a hobby, even if you don’t make much money at it; it’s hard work, often both enjoyable and very stressful. And every farm is embedded within an industry full of extremely complex problems—problems that can begin to be untangled only if we understand the history of how we got here.
Civil Eats spoke with Hoffman recently about the book, her goats, and the ways she’s preparing for climate change.
In some ways, Iowa and San Francisco can seem like polar opposites. What was it like to make this transition?
When I met John, he told me that he had just been in Iowa and that he was planning to move back there. At the time I probably couldn’t have pointed out where Iowa was on a map; I knew nothing about it. But as we spent time together and ended up getting married we came out here a lot and I formed my own relationship to the land.
When we told people we were moving, they’d say, “Iowa?!” without ever having stepped foot in the state. One of the reasons why I wrote the book is there’s so much misunderstanding, particularly in coastal cities, about the way agriculture works in places like this. People think all the farms are corporate-owned and that it’s just the subsidies that make farmers there grow corn. They think all farmers are brainwashed by agribusiness into using chemicals, that they’ve been sold this bill of goods that completely kills the environment. I remember coming out here for the first time and being surprised to see birds in the trees and frogs with four legs. I was expecting some environmental waste land.
Ninety-eight percent of farms in this country are family owned. So a “family farm” can be almost anything; they can be really, really large. They can be really small. They might use chemicals, they might not. And most farms aren’t of the size where they receive any kind of large subsidy payment. It’s a little thing to keep you going, but it’s more that all of the support systems at the [local] USDA [U.S Department of Agriculture] offices, at land grant universities, they’re all geared toward supporting this commodity system.
So, you can easily get expert advice. You can easily have somebody help you map out your land and tell you the correct rotation of corn and soybeans. But if you walk into these USDA offices and ask about any other kind of farming, they don’t know anything about it. It’s not just the subsidies that are the issue. And rather than brainwashing everyone, agribusiness took advantage of an opportunity. Farmers were spending exorbitant amounts of time and energy killing weeds, for example, and they made products that help keep the amount of time spent in the fields very short—mostly because [most farmers] don’t make money at it and so they have to have other jobs.
These sorts of misunderstandings don’t allow us to find actual solutions to the problems. And if we don’t understand what the reality is, then we can’t actually make real change in the food system.
What do your days on the farm look like?
First thing in the morning these days, we move the goats. We have 12 of them right now, but we’re about to pick up a buck and have many more of them very soon. And if they don’t have enough to eat, they’re escape artists. They’re an amazing part of the regenerative system because they eat invasive weeds. They’re like a herd of locusts. So we move them to a new location using mobile, electric fencing; we just kind of cordon off areas of forest for them.
Then we move the cattle. We have two different herds that we’re running. We make sure everybody’s alive and well and then we move them with electric fencing as well. We reconfigure the shape and location of their paddocks daily or every other day, so they don’t eat the grass down too low. We need to make sure everybody has water, has shade. We have a solar mobile water unit that we move around.
Then we have a lot of sit-down work, like working on the website and contacting people who are interested in beef, trying to find time to read and learn more about [farming], for example, what is the best forage to feed cattle. There’s a lot of waste leftover from the days before landfills, when everybody just chucked their farm equipment all over the place. We’re still doing a lot of carting off scrap metal.
Is it just the two of you doing that physical work? Or do you have other help?
My father-in-law is turning 90 this year and he still takes on projects, but it’s mostly the two of us. My nephew owns a couple of the goats so he participates, and he’s spent some of his summers working with us. We have somebody else who is hopefully going to work with us next spring running his pastured chickens behind our cattle. We’re very excited about that. The ecological service of the chickens eating fly larvae out of cow poop is worth a million dollars to us because the fly situation gets so out of hand, and we don’t want to use chemicals. He will be sharing our lands without paying for it. We’re trying to help the next generation get going because, it’s so prohibitively expensive to invest in renting land, chicken trailers, you know, the chicken, the feed. I don’t know how anybody in their 20s or 30s could afford it at all.
Do you want to talk a little bit about your impetus to write about the economics of breaking into farming?
We were pretty ignorant about the business aspect. Once we had gotten the lease, we sat down with my mother, who’s a CPA, to try to figure out the actual numbers. We started listing all our costs, we tallied it all up and then looked at how much we would make selling cattle and hay. That first year, we came out with a $25,000 loss which was $6,000 more than we had planned to put into the whole thing. That was pretty shocking and I started thinking about this as a reporter [and asking]: “Is this really what people make? Is this what our neighbors are making?” Even after we pay off the cattle, the bottom line was that we would make something like $20,000 – $30,000 a year; that was if everything went well and in farming things usually don’t go very well. There’s always something that breaks or dies.
I started really looking into it and this is when I became interested in writing the book. I discovered that the median farm income in 2019 was less than $300 a year . . . . we were one of the really profitable farms, if we look at those numbers. In the media it’s always framed like “this year is a problem” or “this year we’re heading into trade issues with China.” But we never really talk about it as this pervasive issue that takes place year-in and year-out.
Corn and soybeans are not really designed to be profitable at this point.
Exactly. I really wanted to know a lot more about that and I thought that by making our story the center of the book, we could dig into it for others who wanted a better understanding of how it works.
I also realized that we were coming into this with a lot of privilege, meaning that we had family wealth that had been built up over generations. Not exorbitant wealth, but reasonable wealth. And we had this access to the land.
If we’re going to get anybody else into farming—and in particular any farmers of color, because 98 percent of farmland is owned by white families—it just seems like an impossibility with the cost of entry being so high. The capital costs to get in but also the fact you can’t really make [any money] the first year.
You described your process of trying to find people to farm on the land with you and looking for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) farmers to offer it to rent-free. What did you learn?
We put out a call for farmer of colors who didn’t have land access and pretty quickly [learned that it wasn’t a realistic expectation]. The next generation coordinator at the Practical Farmers of Iowa, Celize Christy, explained that even if you’re offering up land, the whole rest of the system still exists that basically led people of color to lose their land. There’s the lack of programs that are available to help these farmers, there’s very well-documented discrimination on the part of the USDA and the banks. It’s really a matter of thinking about how we can change the system, not just make land available. And that would include all sorts of things like making financing and debt relief available specifically for farmers of color.
There’s also very little housing in rural America. I mean, in the town that’s seven miles away from us, there is no place to rent. And so that would mean that if people are going to come out to farm they’d be commuting a long distance to get here and that doesn’t really work. So, if people want to make land attractive to the next generation of farmers there has to be housing. You can’t find people to farm without offering them a house.
At times there can be a divide between smaller sustainability-oriented farmers and commodity farmers. How did you hope to bridge that gap in this book?
Over the years when I’ve interviewed a lot of people—people often with very different mindsets from my own. It’s one of the great gifts of being a journalist; you can interview somebody with a very different mindset and just listen and not have to respond and not have to convince anybody of your point of view. And I think that’s extremely helpful in learning to empathize with somebody with different beliefs. Because at the end of the day, what all of us want is a better life for our kids; we want opportunity and we want to be comfortable and happy. We’re not as different as we all think. And there are so many shades of gray in between where people believe a little of this and a little of that. I don’t think we’re as divided as we all believe.
In the book, your father-in-law describes an extreme heatwave in Iowa that took place in 1934. There were 25 days with temperatures over 100 degrees and the region where you live hit a high of 115 degrees. How are you thinking about and preparing for climate change on the farm?
I remember seeing pictures of Hurricane Ida and seeing video of cattle just wandering out on the highway. It’s horrifying to think about losing not just your investment, but your animals that you care for every day. The emotional toll of that as a farmer cannot be overstated; it’s just an incredible amount of stress. Even though you can never really be ready for disasters, it’s worth trying to put the support in place and to be thinking about our mental and physical health. In terms of the landscape, we are constantly thinking about planting more trees to provide shade for animals. Half of what we do is about nurturing a landscape that would be more resilient. And we’ve built mobile water systems that we can move around using our ponds.
We are probably going to start selling off the black Angus cattle because they can’t handle the heat like the Red Devons do. And when it got quite hot here, the goats were literally sunbathing—they just loved it [and that’s why we’re looking to get more].
Is there anything else you want readers to take away from this book?
In addition to doing away with the romanticism about farming, farmers really need to be thinking about taking some of their power back.
For example, the lawsuits brought by the [The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America, or R-CALF USA] and all the advocacy around limiting meat industry consolidation, and making companies be more transparent about their pricing. It’s a small first step, but I think that’s along the lines of what can be done if we start working together in our own best interests. Right now farmers get 14 cents for every dollar spent at the grocery store; that used to be closer to 30 or 40 cents in the 1970s. And there’s a lot to be said about marketing our products together, and taking more of that food dollar for in-house marketing, advertising, packaging, transportation, and not having it serve CEOs [at big meat companies and retail stores], making millions of dollars a year.
Farmers making more and having this be a viable career option doesn’t mean that customers need to pay more at the grocery store. This isn’t a matter of inflation. It’s a matter of power and farmers gaining some of it back.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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