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Small farms are in trouble, but nobody seems to care

The review below of Bet the Farm was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley in The Washington Post on August 28, 2022

My 1991 novel, “A Thousand Acres,” was inspired by my understanding that the most fertile topsoil, perhaps in the world, in north-central Iowa, was being poisoned by pesticides and fertilizers. I thought someone would care.

Judging by what Beth Hoffman discovered when she moved to Iowa with her husband more than 20 years later, there are plenty of people who care, but they don’t matter, because the banks and the Big Ag companies have made change — and therefore resurrection — impossible.

Photo by Rob Mattson / Noble Research Institute

In her book “Bet the Farm,” Hoffman boils down the problems of American farming to one small unhappy incident: Her father-in-law, Leroy, “had kept cows in the same pasture for several months every winter and spring to calve, and now, fifty years into the practice, the pasture was a muddy, manure-filled bog in the spring, a no-cow’s-land.” An adviser bends down and picks up some soil — it is “compacted” and “looks like a slab of clay.” Southeast Iowa was once thought to be the agriculture paradise that would be productive forever. Hoffman’s book shows why that is no longer so.

There is a reason that “Bet the Farm” was written only a year or so after Hoffman and her husband, John, moved to Whippoorwill Creek Farm. It is not so much prescriptive as it is the chronicle of a learning experience. John grew up on the farm his great-great-grandfather James Ship Hogeland had bought in the 1850s — but spent most of his adult life in a city. Hoffman is an urbanite and a journalist who had been writing about food and agriculture for years. John and Beth knew that they were somewhat naive when they moved to Iowa, but Hoffman is very skilled (and eloquent) about turning that ignorance into observation and learning.

“I didn’t really understand how financial problems exist not just for poor farmers in developing nations or for a smattering of American farmers once in a while, but for the vast majority of them every year,” Hoffman writes. “I did not realize the amount of debt farms carry today — the average farm in Nebraska owes $1.3 million — nor did I consider closely the challenges of a seasonal cash flow or the high cost of land. Like many privileged Americans when thinking about the failure of any business, I chalked up foreclosures and bankruptcies to ineptitude and a lack of creativity. Yet in reality, going broke is just over the horizon for the majority of farms in the country.”

Hoffman wants to change the system, but she also wants to know, viscerally, what the system demands of her and how she can meet those demands. And one of the things she has to do is to learn not to worry.

In the 16 chapters of her book, Hoffman is careful to touch on every aspect of current farming. For those of us not in the know (most Americans), the first is the most shocking. Of her father-in-law’s farm, she writes: “The technology ensures an ever-increasing supply of corn or wheat or soybeans. ... The more farmers invest and produce, the more their neighbors … invest and produce, driving the price for goods lower and lower.” In other words, as she points out, more equipment, more debt, higher production, less use for it, more debt, more devastation of the ecosystem. Why not grow organic vegetables? That’s what Hoffman and her husband want to do, but the difficulties of making it work start with one word: weeds.

Hoffman’s eloquent and detailed exploration of her first two years on the farm do not say much about the biggest threat, though, that she knows is out there: too much rain at the wrong time of year, no rain when the crops (and the grass-fed cattle) need it, traumatic weather events that can do away with the farm altogether.

“Even in the best of times,” Hoffman writes, “everything from the weather to world politics impacts your bottom line, not to mention your daily schedule. This, I believe, is one of the main reasons so many farmers have turned to genetic modification and company contracts, chemicals and government programs, ‘solutions’ that give them a feeling of control over the elements and help create certainty in their lives. A contract is a guarantee about the future, even if it only guarantees how bleak that future will be.”

As someone who lived in Iowa for 25 years and was fascinated by farming from the moment I moved into a farmhouse that I rented southwest of Iowa City, I would have thought that my job as I read Hoffman’s book would be to nod in a sad way, agreeing with whatever she said. But her book is so precise and well-thought-out, that it turned out that my job was to be enraged once again that the most essential task that any group of Americans has pays almost nothing, is almost entirely controlled by oligarchs, produces too much that is unhealthy and too little that is healthy, and destroys the natural world. How long have knowledgeable authors been addressing this subject?

The first book I read about it, some 50 years ago, was “The Closing Circle,” by Barry Commoner, which lays out the damage humans had already done to the ecosphere. Not long after I read Commoner’s book, I learned about James Hansen (from Denison, Iowa), who knew what carbon emissions were doing and did his best to issue a direct and specific warning (which almost everyone in the government and corporate culture ignored or denied).

In 1999, appropriately (considering that a lot of people were predicting the end of the world), historian Jared Diamond published an article in Discover magazine about agriculture entitled “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.” In it, he compares the mostly archaeological evidence of hunter/gatherer populations with agricultural populations and pointed out that agriculture made way for “malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases,” as well as social inequality and sexism, not to mention eco-destruction. According to Diamond, hunter/gatherers lived longer and healthier lives than people in ever-expanding agricultural communities for 90,000 years and still do. In the 10,000 years since the first domestication of plants, humans have moved closer and closer to destroying themselves. What he does not mention is how the agricultural revolution triggered the Industrial Revolution, and we all know where that could lead.

So here we are: The people who feed us can barely afford to do so, the efforts that people like Hoffman and her husband are making to transform our food system are hitting roadblocks, and we are staggering into the future, distracted by constant arguments about whose belief system is true and who has to obey whom.

“We need to move away from the romantic tales of farming to understand that while farmers feed people and take care of land, they also need to be able to take care of themselves and their families,” Hoffman pleads. “Instead of idealizing the self-reliant, self-sacrificing farmer, toughing it out in the field alone and beating her competitors, farmers have to know that we can work together — perhaps even to limit our own output — for the benefit of the land and each other.”

It’s hard to have hope, but the organized observations and plans of Hoffman and people like her give me some. Read her book — and listen.

Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including “A Thousand Acres,” which won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. “A Dangerous Business,” a murder mystery set in Gold Rush California, will be published in December.


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