As a journalist who has spent a long career reporting on food and agriculture for outlets like NPR, The World, Latino USA and Living on Earth, Beth Hoffman thought she had a pretty good understanding of the subject when she and her husband John Hogeland decided to move. from San Francisco to the Monroe County family farm near Lovilia in 2019. As it turns out, his education was just beginning.
“We have understood the environmental side a lot. We understood ecologically what we wanted to do differently, but we didn’t understand, for anyone, how the economy worked,” she said.
Hoffman, who will speak at the Marshalltown Public Library on Saturday afternoon, recounted his experiences in the memoir “Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America.” And while she’s aware that her story might come off as another “disgruntled city dwellers move to the countryside to reconnect with the land” type tale, she and Hogeland made the decision knowing it wouldn’t be a walk in the park. the park.
“We knew what we were getting into. We didn’t have real rose-colored glasses for any of that,” she said. “That’s something I get into a lot in the book, it’s like these mythologies about farming – that it’s sweet and simple. That’s not it, and that was part of what I was about. wanted to write the book.
What farming is, as Hoffman soon realized, is a mountain of hard work in the hope of achieving profitability, which is not always easy to do. With the book, she set out to dispel what she sees as two of the most common myths about the industry – the Jeffersonian image of the agrarian yeoman going it alone and the idea that bigger is better. ‘is.
“What ends up being really difficult about this and really confining for farmers – especially those of the ‘sustainable’ type – is that people end up working never wanting to work in the fields again,” a- she declared. “They take on these very important roles of saving the planet and feeding their communities, and then their livelihood, their well-being really becomes secondary. It becomes something where they don’t take care of themselves. They take care of everything else. »
According to Hoffman, farmers are ultimately not paid and valued enough in society as she thinks they should be. The second myth – bigger is better – often forces them to take on more debt in hopes of achieving financial sustainability and can have disastrous consequences. As an example, she cited Nebraska, where she said the average farmer debt was about $1.3 million.
The competitive nature of agriculture, she said, translates into more consolidation and fewer opportunities for small producers.
“Ultimately that creates a lot of oversupply, so you see what we’ve seen over the last decade of really low prices. And a lot of association groups, types of producer groups, are advocating for more and more trying to find another place to put overproduction of products,” Hoffman said. “Even the[carbon]pipeline conversation here, it’s a ridiculous conversation to just have to place more corn, really. It’s not a panacea… It just becomes another very dangerous myth that people can buy into because then we’re competing with each other as farmers and not working together to maybe limit the offer.
Because of her local roots, Hoffman said she and Hogeland — who spent most of her professional career in the meat industry and worked for Whole Foods in the Bay Area — didn’t been treated with a great deal of suspicion since their return to Iowa, but when they started discussing organic farming and vegetables as part of their operation, even John’s dad wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“He started out extremely skeptical. That was part of the farm transition problem. He kept thinking, ‘Well, what if you all don’t make it? Are we going to lose the farm? Now he’s done with that,” she said. “He saw ‘Oh OK, they’ve got a handle on that.’ He’s not worried that way.
Feedback on the book itself, she said, has been overwhelmingly positive, as she hears from readers who liken it to their own farming experiences. For someone who was born in Queens, grew up in New Jersey, and spent most of her adult life in Utah and the Bay Area, Hoffman probably couldn’t have dreamed she would move. in rural Iowa with her husband to become a beginning farmer. crops and grass-fed cattle as a second career, but that’s where she is now and she wouldn’t change that.
“If you had told me in high school that this was where I would be, that I would be a farmer, I would have laughed. There’s no way,” she said.
Yet, she noted, much of the journalism produced on the coasts — including some in which she herself had been involved — lacked empathy for farmers and why they do what they do.
“There was a big gap in the writing there in that people weren’t bringing up the subject of a fairer stance toward farmers, and that felt like a niche that I could fill,” Hoffman said. . “I felt like there was a lot of talk, especially about growing corn and soybeans, it was like, ‘Oh, they’re just big business minions,’ ‘Oh, they don’t are not educated enough’, ‘They don’t make decisions for themselves, they are just told what to do. They may have some truth to them, but none of these versions of farmers are the ones I have encountered here… If we wanted to change this system, I think you really have to understand how it works.
“Bet the Farm” is available wherever the books are sold, and copies will be available at the event on Saturday, which begins at 2 p.m. It can also be found in audiobook form. MPL manager Sarah Rosenblum is thrilled to welcome Hoffman and thinks she’ll find an engaged audience in Marshalltown.
“We are very pleased to bring Beth Hoffman to the Marshalltown Public Library. We believe her story will resonate with our readers and community members,” Rosenblum said.