Jane Smiley reviews Beth Hoffman’s ‘Bet the Farm’


My novel from 1999 “thousand acreswas inspired by my understanding that perhaps the most fertile topsoil 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 20 years later, he are a lot of people who care, but they don’t matter, because banks and big business agriculture have made change – and therefore resurrection – impossible.

In his book “bet the farmHoffman boils down the problems of American agriculture to one unfortunate little incident: his stepfather, Leroy, “had kept cows on the same pasture for several months each winter and spring to calve, and now, fifty years after the practical, the pasture was a muddy, manure-filled bog in the spring, land without cows. A counselor bends down and picks up some dirt — it’s “compacted” — and “looks like a clay slab.” Southeast Iowa was once considered the farming paradise that would be productive forever. Hoffman’s book shows why this is no longer the case.

What a farm owner does in a day’s work

There’s a reason “Bet the Farm” wasn’t written until about a year after Hoffman and her husband, John, moved to Whippoorwill Creek Farm. It’s not so much prescriptive as chronicling a learning experience. John grew up on the farm his great-great-grandfather James Ship Hogeland bought in the 1850s, but spent most of his adult life in a city. Hoffman is a city dweller and journalist who has written about food and agriculture for years. John and Beth knew they were somewhat naive when they moved to Iowa, but Hoffman is very good (and eloquent) at turning that ignorance into observation and learning.

“I didn’t really understand how financial problems existed not just for poor farmers in developing countries or for a handful of American farmers from time to time, but for the vast majority of them every year,” Hoffman writes. “I hadn’t realized the amount of debt farms had today – the average Nebraska farm owes $1.3 million – nor had I looked closely at the challenges of a cash flow seasonality or the high cost of land. Like many privileged Americans thinking about the failure of any business, I attributed foreclosures and bankruptcies to incompetence and lack of creativity. Yet in reality, bankruptcy is barely on the horizon for the majority of farms across the country.

What does it mean to be a “horse girl”? He’s more than a stupid kid who wants a pony.

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 learn not to worry.

In the 16 chapters of his book, Hoffman is careful to address all aspects of modern agriculture. For those of us who aren’t in the know (most Americans), the former is the most shocking. Of her father-in-law’s farm, she writes, “Technology ensures an ever-increasing supply of corn, wheat, or soybeans…the more farmers invest and produce, the more their neighbors…invest and produce, making lower the price of goods. and lower. In other words, as she points out, more equipment, more debt, more production, less use, more debt, more ecosystem devastation. Why not grow organic vegetables? That’s what Hoffman and her husband want to do, but the difficulties in making it work start with one word: weeds.

Hoffman’s eloquent and detailed exploration of her first two years on the farm says little about the biggest threat, however, that she knows exists – too much rain at the wrong time of year, no rain. when crops (and grass-fed cattle) need it, traumatic weather events that can wipe out the farm completely.

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“Even in the best-case scenario,” Hoffman writes, “everything from weather to world politics impacts your bottom line, not to mention your daily schedule. This is, I believe, one of the key reasons why so many farmers have turned to genetic modification and corporate contracts, chemicals and government programs, “solutions” that give them a sense of control over the elements and help create certainty in their lives. A contract is a guarantee of 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 agriculture from the time I moved to a farm I rented in southwest Iowa City, I would have thought my job reading Hoffman’s book would be to nod sadly. , agree with everything she said. But his book is so precise and well thought out, that it turned out that my work had to be enraged once more that the most essential task that any group of Americans has pays next to nothing, is almost entirely controlled by of the oligarchs, produces too much which is unhealthy and too little which is healthy and destroys the natural world. How long have well-informed authors been discussing this subject?

The first book I read, 50 years ago, was “The closing circleby Barry Commoner, which describes the damage that humans had already done to the ecosphere. Shortly after reading Commoner’s book, I heard of James Hansen (from Denison, Iowa), who knew what carbon emissions were doing and did his best to issue a direct and specific warning (that almost everyone in government and corporate culture ignored or denied).

In 1999, with good reason (considering many people were predicting the end of the world), historian Jared Diamond published an article in Discover magazine on agriculture titled “The worst mistake in the history of mankind.” He compares the essentially archaeological evidence of hunter/gatherer populations with agricultural populations and points out that agriculture has given way to “malnutrition, famine and epidemic diseases”, as well as social inequalities and sexism, without talk about eco-destruction. According to Diamond, hunter-gatherers have lived longer and healthier lives than people in ever-expanding farming communities for 90,000 years and still do. In the 10,000 years since the first domestication of plants, humans have come closer and closer to self-destruction. What he doesn’t mention is how the Agricultural Revolution sparked the Industrial Revolution, and we all know where that might lead.

So here we are – the people who feed us can barely afford to, the efforts of people like Hoffman and her husband to transform our food system are hitting roadblocks, and we stagger into the future, distracted by constant arguments about whose belief system is true and who should obey whom.

“We need to move away from romantic tales of agriculture to understand that while farmers feed people and take care of the land, they must also be able to take care of themselves and their families,” Hoffman argues, “Instead of idealizing the self – Dependent and dedicated farmer, enduring alone in the field and beating his competitors, farmers need to know that we can work together – perhaps even to limit our own production – for the benefit of the earth and each other.

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

Jane Smiley is the author of many novels, including “thousand acreswhich won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992. “A Dangerous Business,” a murder mystery set in the California Gold Rush, will be released in December.

Dollars and the Meaning of Food Culture in America

Island Books. 272 pages. $26

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