A local author shares her journey from a career as a California journalist to life as a first farmer in Monroe County, Iowa, hoping to highlight the economic struggles America’s farmers face today.
Beth Hoffman and her husband John built their careers on food. Beth had 20 years experience as a food and agriculture reporter when she met her husband. John grew up on his family’s farm in Monroe County, Iowa, and then attended culinary school in San Francisco, where he also worked as a wine buyer and butcher.
“Overall, we had a lot of knowledge about food,” says Beth.
Beth says that despite a career in California, it was always her husband’s plan to one day return to Iowa and take over the family farm.
“He loves the farm and Iowa,” says Beth. “It was not out of the question that we would come back and try it ourselves.”
Beth had never lived on a farm or even in a rural area before meeting her husband, but says her interest in food and farming meant the move made sense. Her experiences moving from a big city in California to a rural farm in Iowa inspired her to write the book Bet the Farm: the Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America. However, she says it doesn’t fit the mold of a typical farmer’s memory.
“There are a lot of books out there, especially people going from the city to the country, about how quaint life is and how beautiful… Everything is perfect on the farm. And it wasn’t that my experience was unlike the oddity and beauty of living in a rural community, but it was my surprise to learn a lot more about the economics of farming,” says Beth.
“That really inspired me to write the book because I understood very quickly that even though we knew about a lot of environmental issues, we knew what we wanted to do, what we didn’t want to do on the farm, I had never learned in my years to report on the economy and how hard it is for farmers of all shapes and sizes.”
Beth says when she and her husband moved to Iowa, they wanted to farm organically and sustainably.
“We really had this idealistic vision in a lot of ways, that we’re going to come back and we’re going to be organic, and we’re going to have fruit and veg and stuff like that,” she says. “We weren’t that ignorant… We weren’t interested in having a super small sort of demonstration farm. We wanted to have an operation that is actually economical, that at least pays for itself, but generates income.”
Beth says they encountered difficulties immediately, but she doesn’t think their goal of an organic, sustainable farm was solely to blame.
“It wouldn’t have mattered if we had decided to come back here and plant corn because we still had to go into debt to do it. And that is the cycle that farmers find themselves in. It becomes so unmanageable for families and so difficult, especially adding another generation,” says Beth.
In addition to the economic difficulties, Beth says, the farming culture is changing, moving toward a few large farms rather than many small ones. She says this shift is creating a culture that is increasingly isolating farmers.
“We are surrounded by people growing corn and beans. I would argue that most of them are struggling the same way we are financially… As cities lose so many residents, there is less and less camaraderie and places to go for a cup of coffee and complain to your neighbors about market prices “, she says. “There’s less and less of that. So I think it’s a real problem that I see for the country. It’s a very isolating, very stressful economic, social and cultural position for most farmers.”
But again, Beth doesn’t blame the obstacles she’s encountered on her decision to use organic farming methods and grow non-traditional crops.
“I don’t feel like a farmer at this point can look at someone trying something different and say, ‘Oh, that’s just crazy’ after having had really, really low prices for a decade or more and at one really lived on government support, on the fickleness of the weather, on everything,” she says. “I think farmers, at least most younger farmers, are much more open to thinking, ‘How can I do this differently? How can I actually make this equation work for me and my family?’”
Since moving to her husband’s family farm, Beth has worked hard to build her farming business and has spoken to Iowans about these issues farmers face. She’s spoken to classes at Iowa State University and says students there who plan to continue their family’s farms want to learn more about more sustainable farming techniques, like using cover crops and reducing the amount of chemicals in their crops operations are used.
Beth says her book is ultimately about more than the decisions farmers make. It is about the framework of the system in which they exist and how that framework shapes their economic situation and influences their decisions.
She cited pig farming as an example.
“I have no understanding for liquid manure in our waters. I have no sympathy for the smell that neighbors have to contend with when someone decides to build a pig facility, but I am completely empathetic to the reasons a family feels this is the decision they need to make.” she says. Because if you want your kid to come back and stay on the farm, how are you going to make another whole salary with the same amount of land and the same returns and the same costs? Many families see this as their opportunity to diversify the business. I totally get that.”
Beth says the current reality is making it very difficult for farmers to operate outside the system.
“I have to invent every part of this wheel. [My husband and I] When we make grass-ready beef, we need to figure out where each individual cow is going. We have to market it. We have to have the conversations with the people, we have to work with the locker,” she says. “There are 90 things to consider. So I see why someone would say, “I’d like a contract, and you just come and pick up all these pigs and cart them away,” and they get “x” amount of money.”
Beth says a big inspiration for her book was trying to shift the conversation from short-term problems and decisions to long-term ones.
“I think that as a media outlet, which I still belong to, we always discuss the problems in agriculture as a temporary thing,” she says. “‘There’s a problem this year.’ “There’s a drought this year.” “We have high prices.” “This year it was gas.” ‘Things are going great, we have high market prices.’ So it’s been called a problem or success “this year” so many times… We need to change that discussion a bit… What about 10 years from now?”
Beth says understanding the rationale for decision-making in agriculture is key to creating change.
“If we want it to be healthier, if we want the land to be better cared for and we know what’s going on in our water and in our air, we need to understand the reasons why farmers are making their decisions,” says you. “And it can’t just be like all this talk about motivating and paying farmers for this or that program. At the end of the day, a farmer wants to grow food.”
For more information about Beth and her book, visit farmbetiowa.com. It can be purchased from The Book Vault in Oskaloosa.