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.