Beth Hoffman: Betting The Farm

It’s a familiar theme from television, the movies, and literature: city folk, sick of the hustle and bustle of urban life, decamping to a bucolic existence closer to the land. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to food and agriculture reporter Beth Hoffman, whose new book entitled “Bet The Farm” chronicles her recent transition from San Francisco to raising cattle at her husband’s family farm in Iowa. We discuss the challenges they’ve faced working to transform Whippoorwill Creek Farm into a more environmentally friendly business, take a look at the grass-fed beef industry, and examine the economics of being an American independent farmer in the 21st century.

Narrator 0:01  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Beth Hoffman 0:20  Cattle can be horrific for the environment because they use a ton of resources to produce them out here in much smaller numbers over quite a lot of land where they’re rotated daily. The cattle play a positive role in the environment here as opposed to just taking resources from them.

Narrator  0:46  It’s a familiar theme from television, the movies and literature, city folk sick of the hustle and bustle of urban life, decamping to a bucolic existence closer to the land. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to food and agriculture reporter Beth Hoffman, whose new book entitled bet the farm Chronicles her recent transition from San Francisco to raising cattle at her husband’s family farm in Iowa. We discussed the challenges they’ve faced working to transform whip or will Creek farm into a more environmentally friendly business. Take a look at the grass fed beef industry and examine the economics of being an American independent farmer in the 21st century.

Alex Wise  1:47  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by my friend Beth Hoffman. She is a food and agriculture reporter and the author of the new book bet the farm the dollars and cents of growing food in America. Beth, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Beth Hoffman 2:00  Thanks, Alex.

Alex Wise  2:02  So Beth, you recently a couple years ago left San Francisco we were in the same neighborhood basically. And now you live in Iowa and are a farmer. And you’ve just wrote this book. Explain what motivated this move.

Beth Hoffman 2:19  Well, my husband grew up here. He’s an Iowa farm boy, and he always wanted to move back here. So after reporting on agriculture for 25 years, it wasn’t a ridiculous thing for us to move. But we came out here to Iowa about three years ago, and we raise grass finished beef, and we have goats and hay. And it’s about an hour’s drive from Des Moines.

Alex Wise  2:45  And this is a large farm, right? relatively, but how does it stack up compared to your neighbors? I was shocked to read that 55% of Iowa is already rented in in terms of farmland, we think of this rolling empty space in rural America, but it’s quite different. rural America is occupied in many ways, isn’t it?

Beth Hoffman 3:09  Yeah. So our farmers 530 acres, we purchased another 40 acres that’s around where we live. Now it’s to about two miles from the farm. That average farm size in Iowa is about 350 acres. And I think that a lot of people who live in cities think that farms are owned by corporations, but they’re not generally generally speaking. Well, it’s 98% of farms are family owned. You know, I think an average farm in Iowa is is a little bit smaller than ours.

Alex Wise  3:45  So with “Bet the Farm” you’re trying to take on your own story, but also, at the same time tell the story of farming in America. It’s very effective. Why don’t you walk us through what motivated you to write the book while you’re taking on this enormous task of farming? And what you learned along the way in terms of your own research that you hadn’t maybe discovered about farming in America from 25 years of food and agriculture reporting?

Beth Hoffman 4:11  Yeah, you know, it was really interesting that I had reported on agriculture all that time, but and a lot about sustainability about environmental issues, about equity and race issues, which are play a role in this book as well. But I felt like really I had never heard about the economic issues of farms that they seem to be framed in the media as like short term things. So we hear we hear about, you know, trade wars with China and that’s affecting a farmers today or how Brazil has a lot of soybeans and so the price of soybeans is low this year, but I hadn’t really ever gotten the memo that it was chronic, generation after generation. I’m struggling to make a profit on farm. So, for example, in 2019, the median income on a farm so there’s 2 million farms in America, the median meaning half of them made less than $300. So that means a million of America’s farms made less than $300. In a year when the prices of corn and soybeans, for example, commodities was low, but there were a lot of government subsidies, there was a market facilitation program that Trump gave, you know, literally millions and millions and millions of dollars to farms. And so that was kind of a good year, and so on 2019, that $300 was positive for the first time in like five years, most farms live right on that border of survival. So that really shocked me as a reporter that I had never heard of this, that I just, I mean, maybe it’s, it’s out there, but I hadn’t really understood that deeply. And as a farmer, it was just, it was crushing, you know, to think like, Okay, great, we get to go out there we we have access to land. So we have the privilege, the wealth to come out. And to do this, and to really work to restore the land to regenerate the environment, all of that, but at kind of a huge cost to us, and possibly losing, you know, anything we had any of our reserves we might have for retirement?

Alex Wise  6:38  Well, let’s take a step back and get to the part where you in the book are just starting out negotiating with your father in law, Leroy, who, who farmed this land for many decades, and did it in the more traditional modern method, using the non organic farming methods that corporate America has kind of funneled a lot of farmers into into doing it just it makes a lot more sense in terms of scale for some people, and you were trying to do it in a more regenerative organic fashion. Why don’t you kind of give us a peek into what that transition has been like?

Beth Hoffman 7:22  This is one of the reasons why I wrote the book. I think that agriculture, particularly Midwestern agriculture, particularly commodity agriculture, like people who grow corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, I think it’s very misunderstood by much of the American public. I think that there’s an there’s a mythology about it, that it’s, there’s just corporate owned and agribusiness driven. It does play a role. I don’t want to say that agribusiness is not involved. They certainly are. But a lot of the things that have happened over the years have been adopted by farmers, because it does make some sense. And I think this is a key point that especially people who would like agriculture to go in a more sustainable way, they have to understand that this is not it’s not a matter of like farmers having been brainwashed over the years. It’s it’s because it is actually less labor intensive. And they have less weeds. So you don’t have to have a ton of people working on a farm anymore. And your yields are higher and higher and higher.

Alex Wise  8:37  Yes, it seemed like the weeds were one of the sticking points for your father in law saying you guys have no idea how much work you’re going to have to do just to get these weeds out. That was something I hadn’t thought of. How do you overcome what your father in law warned you about without just breaking your back pulling weeds up?

Beth Hoffman 8:56  Exactly. I mean, that’s one of the things we will have to think about is that and that’s what Leroy said to us. You know, there was a moment in our, in our discussions where, you know, he said, Well, what do you want to do on the farm? And I said, Well, you know, I think we probably want to grow organics, we want to grow food grade things so that people can eat them, not just animals. And he went out and he brought back this hole that had been just the blade of it was like maybe an inch long at this point. And he said, You know, this is what organic agriculture means. Meaning that he had as as a kid as a, as a whatever before he started using GMO seeds and chemicals and all of this, that it was they worked themselves down with a hole that’s tiny, it’s barely not even there anymore. Because that’s what kind of labor it took to get rid of weeds in your field. That that’s a reality. And that’s one of the biggest reasons why organic agriculture isn’t adopted across the board is is that it’s a lot of labor. And many places like here, we don’t have people to work on farms, there’s just not the population of people who could come out and pick vegetables and fight weeds. I mean, the weeds in our garden are amazing. Like I’ve never seen anything like it when you have fertile soil and you have water like we have in the Midwest. It equals a lot of weeds. So when you say things like that to people out here, I’m going to grow organically, which we did. And we are moving in that direction. That’s the response they think of like fields full of weeds and that your weeds are now coming into my field. And taking over I’ve heard I’ve heard our neighbors talk about other people that way. So it’s a very difficult thing. It’s also difficult to transition because if you go to organics, for example, it takes three years before you can be certified organic. So exactly what are you doing in the meantime, you would have much lower yields that wouldn’t be compensated by a higher price. So like John’s dad couldn’t ever really make that change because he wouldn’t have been able to not pay off debt which is what everybody has in those interim years.

(Music Break)  11:33

Alex Wise  12:42  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to food and agricultural reporter and author Beth Hoffman. Her new book is “Bet The Farm: the dollars and cents of growing food in America.” So Beth, you were talking about the transition from a non-organic farm to organically growing food and crops in Iowa. You said it takes three years to get certified. You mentioned the labor but what does that certification process mean in terms of the bureaucracy. It must be fairly weighty.

Beth Hoffman  13:16  Yeah, I mean to just give you know, organic farmers kudos for a minute. I mean, organic does mean something it’s one of the few things in the supermarket that actually mean something legally, as opposed to like naturally raised or whatever sort of other claims you find on labels. Organic is actually a certification process. That means that you you certify basically that your land has been chemical free for a certain amount of years. You have to keep meticulous notes over the years and while you’re certified to keep the certification so we are not using chemicals on our farm but we are also likely not going to certify ourselves as organic so we can’t use that term because we don’t have that certification.

Alex Wise  14:10  Well what would be the financial incentive for you to do it? Would you be able to charge a lot more or would you have different buyers of your product etc.

Beth Hoffman  14:20  Yeah, you have definitely different buyers who you know are interested in organics, there is a higher price that comes for it but then let’s you know back up and remember that there is more labor, organic or even grass finished I guess we can speak about that. So we are keeping our cattle here on the land for their whole lives. So the way that John’s father did it was the cattle work here as an as you see cattle all around the US just grazing on, you know, whatever hillside, you pass by The vast majority of that is younger calves that are grazing with their moms until they are weaned at about nine months. And then those cattle then go to likely feedlots they just either are brought to auction houses or you have some kind of a deal where they just go straight to feedlots that are nearby. There’s very, very few places to sell cattle. So this has been a huge problem in this country that actually is right now in the in the news about them trying to get the the large processors to be much more transparent about how they’re setting prices and what they purchase, and so on and so forth.

Alex Wise  15:50  Yes. And you started this process of preparing cattle for the beef market, right as the pandemic was hitting, and we heard about the meatpacking industry hitting these snags and issues related to COVID and other supply chain issues. If you can recap the journey you had to go on to just get these beef cattle processed it was it’s pretty labyrinthian.

Beth Hoffman  16:17  Yes. So in the book, I there’s a whole chapter about this saga. But we we had our beef and we made this decision that we did not want to sell our beef at the auction house at nine months that we were going to keep them on farm and raise them on grass their whole lives. So they be grass finished, as opposed to just grass fed. All cows are really fed grass for a good portion of their life.

Alex Wise  16:48  And does that grass finishing designation get to the market? Because you just generally, consumers just see grass fed beef. But is that something that a consumer who wants to be environmentally conscious and wants a certain type of beef? Should they be looking for grass finishing? Or is this just not something that is designated on a package?

Beth Hoffman  17:12 Well, I’ve seen I’m using the term grass finished because I’ve actually seen beef marketed as grass fed, and then gone to the website. And their description of that is is that cattle have access to grass. But that’s not all they’re fed.

Alex Wise  17:31  Oh, is that almost like the cage-free chickens who are have the ability to go fly around if they want, but they’ve been raised in a pen and so they’re gonna stay in that pen?

Beth Hoffman  17:42  Correct. It’s exactly the same. So you know, you have chickens in these in these huge confinement facilities, you know, like turkeys or whatever, and they have the doors open. So if they can find the door, they could go out there and fly around and whatever, technically cage free, right, technically, but same thing. So I’ve seen I’ve seen a company do that say it’s grass fed. And then it says they have access to it, but they’re feeding them other things. So it’s like, you know, it’s like having a kid who’s you know, hanging around on the couch, would they rather have an apple are they gonna eat that candy bar, many of them will choose the candy bar if no one’s overseeing it. And that’s kind of corn to cattle is like candy, they love it. It’s not very good for them in mass. And

Alex Wise  18:31  I learned from your book that that’s not a new feeding strategy. It goes back to the 1600s in this country, at least when we were feeding Indian corn to cattle out of marble them and fatten them up quicker. I thought this was kind of a 20th century feedlot innovation, but it has much deeper roots.

Beth Hoffman  18:52  Yes, yeah. So that’s one of those kind of misunderstandings that I really wanted to explain was the history of this country and of agriculture is not so different from how things are today. So we were a country that produced commodities, like corn, and cattle from our very, very roots are very beginning. And that we were made as a colony. And so that was colonies. The purpose of colonies really is to produce mass raw materials for the Empire, which is what we did. So anyway, our beef is grass finished, and we rotationally graze which means that we move the cattle daily so we are trying to minimize the impact of the cattle on the land. Because they’re you know, big giant beings that trample things and compact soil and so we keep them I’m where they are for about a day. So this again, it’s a lot of it’s a lot of labor, and they end up being on the farm then till they’re about, let’s say 24 months is about an average time so if they’re here much longer than they are if we were to sell them to the feedlot break your back.

(music break)

Alex Wise  21:06  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to food and agricultural reporter and author Beth Hoffman, her new book is “Bet the Farm: the dollars and cents of growing food in America.” So we’re talking about how you handle the cattle at your farm in Iowa, Beth, what’s the ratio of like crops to cattle in terms of your work and your output?

Beth Hoffman  21:29  Well, we we got rid of all of the row cropping. So john and i made the decision that we just didn’t want to be in the commodity game at all. We don’t, we don’t want to be dependent upon people setting the price for us, we want our products to be sold at a price that covers our production costs. So that means that we’ve decided to be to work in kind of the more niche markets people would call it, where we are providing beef directly to consumers or to wholesalers that, that so grass finished beef.

Alex Wise  22:09  So all these 570 acres are going to be devoted to these 5200 cattle at any given time. Is that kind of the rotation that you will have or is it – Am I missing something?

Beth Hoffman  22:22  Well, we also hay so we can sell the hay off the farm or we can custom graze more cattle on our farm over the winter. So that means that we can bring on other people’s cattle, charge them sort of a daily rental fee and for the cost of the hay but we keep the nutrients from the hay on the farm. We also have goats, we have 12 right now, they’re not quite rabbits, but goats produce offspring in numbers so we will expand that number quickly. They’ll also be for meat. There’ll be meat goats, but they are amazing for the landscape.

Alex Wise  23:06

So from a sustainability standpoint, how has your opinion changed in terms of beef consumption in this country you you mentioned in the book how you have to buy into the system that produces these eat more beef ads just like you know the Got Milk and the avocado thing. It’s it’s part of these trade union deals but the checkoff that’s gone and these checkoff systems where you’re basically paying for something that you may not actually it’s not kind of in line with your own farms vision, like you don’t believe people need to eat more beef, you believe that they need to eat better beef unless so maybe you can kind of square from a sustainability standpoint, how you’re able to approach something that can be very deleterious to the environment when we look at like industrial feedlots. And the way beef is produced in such enormous volume in this country and then approach it from a more sustainable perspective at whipper will Creek farm

Beth Hoffman  24:09  You know, the fact of the matter of farms and of healthy soil is is that you need you need fertilizer, you need manure. If it’s not manure, it’s often a synthetically created for fertilizer, but that’s part of how you grow things. That’s a key element of the whole system. So having livestock is kind of crucial for the system. In general, cattle produced in a place like California, or Colorado, we have very little water, it becomes a huge problem because they they do they drink a lot of water. They’re huge animals. Water is used to grow corn if you have them on a feedlot or soybeans in the processing, so on and so forth. So the sustainability That level, cattle can be horrific for the environment, because they use a ton of resources to produce them out here in much smaller numbers over quite a lot of land where they’re rotated dare Lee, we have no irrigation systems of any kind in this area. It didn’t rain as much as we’d like this summer, but it it rained. And it’s very green and lush. So we don’t as opposed to again in California where even even people who are growing organically or whatever, they are still irrigating fields, because you wouldn’t have grass, if you didn’t have irrigation there, that becomes a lot different. So. So the sustainability of what we do on the farm here, the cattle play a positive role in the environment here as opposed to just taking resources from them. But yes, it means that there’s a lot less cattle, if you have them on pasture for their entire lives, you’re not fattening them quickly and rushing them through the system. That means you have a whole lot less so john and i are advocates of people eating a lot less meat, it might be more expensive. It’s certainly not in line we don’t pay for food, what we pay, you know, you would pay in other countries you we don’t blink an eye at paying for phones or for whatever kinds of things in our lives, new shirts, whatever. It’s, it’s paying a little bit more, eating a whole lot less of meats of all kinds. I will add that for me things like fish. That’s a really difficult one to understand anything about what you’re eating. So to understand what the fish stocks would be like in a particular place at a particular time, how it was fished, how it was processed it all of that kind of stuff to me is is so complicated. And knowing where your cattle comes from your beef, your chicken, it’s it to me is a bit easier to understand and to pick something that is much better, but I would always advocate and I eat much less meat than I did previously. So now I think that it’s much better to eat less.

Alex Wise  27:42  You mentioned Whippoorwill Creek Farms, merchandise and people want to learn more about the farm. It’s Iowa dash and the book is called “Bet the Farm: the dollars and cents of growing food in America.” Beth Hoffman – Beth, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Beth Hoffman  28:01  Thanks, Alex. I enjoyed it.

Narrator  28:04  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Dr. John Elvis Presley and Steely Dan. Check out our website at Sea Change to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcasts. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio. I’m Alex Wise.