Jane Smiley previews Bet the Farm Beth Hoffman



An earlier version of this article included the incorrect year that “Thousand Acres” was released. This version has been corrected.

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

Judging from what Beth Hoffman discovered when she moved to Iowa with her husband after more than 20 years, there be Lots of people interested, but they don’t matter, because banks and Big Ag companies have made change – and thus revival – impossible.

In her book “Bet the Farm,” Hoffman summarizes the problems of American agriculture in one unhappy little incident: Her father-in-law, Leroy, had kept cows in the same pasture for several months each winter and spring to give birth, and now, after fifty years of this practice, the pasture was swampy Muddy with manure in the spring, and ground no cows.” The chancellor bends over and picks up some soil—it’s “compacted” and “looks like a slab of mud.” Southeast Iowa was once thought to be an agricultural paradise that would be productive forever. A book explains Hoffman why this is no longer the case.

What does a farm owner do on a working day

There is reason to write “Bet the Farm” just a year or so after Hoffman and her husband John moved to Whippoorwill Creek Farm. It is not so much prescriptive as the facts of the learning experience. John grew up on the farm bought by his great-grandfather James Chip Hoagland in the 1850s – but spent most of his adult life in the city. Hoffman is an urban man and journalist who has been writing about food and agriculture for years. John and Beth knew they were a bit naive when they moved to Iowa, but Hoffman is very skilled (and eloquent) at turning that ignorance into observation and learning.

“I didn’t really understand how financial problems exist not only for poor farmers in developing countries or for a few occasional American farmers, but for the vast majority of them every year,” Hoffman wrote. “I didn’t realize how much debt a farmer has today—the average Nebraska farm owes $1.3 million—and I didn’t think very closely about the challenges of seasonal cash flow or the high cost of land. Like many privileged Americans when I think about the failure of any business, I attribute cases Foreclosures and bankruptcies result in inefficiency and a lack of creativity. However, in reality, bankruptcy is a thing on the horizon for the majority of farms in the country.”

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Hoffman wants to change the system, but she also wants to know, in depth, what the system is asking 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 sixteen chapters of her book, Hoffman is keen to touch upon every aspect of current agriculture. For those of us who aren’t in the know (most Americans), the former is the most shocking. She writes of her father-in-law’s farm: “Technology ensures increasing supplies of corn, wheat, or soybeans. … the more farmers invest and produce, the more their neighbors … invest and produce, resulting in lower and lower commodity prices.” In other words, she pointed out, more equipment, more debt, higher production, less use of it, more debt, more destruction to the ecosystem. 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: herbs.

Hoffman’s eloquent and detailed exploration of the first two years of her life on the farm doesn’t say much about the bigger threat, though she knows it’s there: heavy rain at the wrong time of year, no rain when the crops (and the grass-feeding cows) need them, events A painful climate could wipe out the farm completely.

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Hoffman wrote: “Even in the best of times, everything from weather to global politics affects the bottom line, not to mention your daily schedule. This, I believe, is one of the main reasons why many farmers have switched to genetic modification, corporate contracts, chemicals, and software Governmental, ‘solutions’ that give them a sense 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 the future is.”

As someone who has lived in Iowa for 25 years and has been fascinated by farming from the moment I moved to a rented farm southwest of Iowa, I thought my job while reading Hoffman’s book would be to nod in a sad way, agreeing with what she said. But her book is so meticulous and well-thought-out that it turns out my job was to get pissed again because the most important task for which no group of Americans pays almost anything, is almost entirely controlled by an oligarchy, too. Too much of what is unhealthy and too little of what is healthy, destroys the natural world. How long have knowledgeable authors been on this topic?

The first book I read on the subject, about 50 years ago, was “The Closing Circle” by Barry Commoner, which shows the damage humans have already done to the ecological environment. Soon after I read Commoner’s book, I was introduced to James Hansen (of Denison, Iowa), who knew what carbon emissions were doing and did his best to issue a direct and specific warning (which nearly everyone in government and company culture either ignored or dismissed).

In 1999, fittingly (considering that many people were predicting the end of the world), historian Jared Diamond published an article in Discover magazine about agriculture called “The Worst Mistake in the History of Humankind.” In it, he compares archaeological evidence mostly on hunter/gatherer groups with agricultural populations, and notes that agriculture paved the way for “malnutrition, famine, and epidemic disease”, as well as social inequality and gender discrimination, not to mention environmental destruction. According to Diamond, hunters/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 destroying themselves. What he didn’t 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 hardly do it, and the efforts of people like Hoffman and her husband to transform our diets hit snags, as we teeter into the future, distracted by constant arguments about whose belief system is right and who 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 the 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, outsmarting him in the field alone and outsmarting her competitors, farmers should know that we can work together — and perhaps even Limit Our product – for the benefit of the Earth and each other.”

It’s hard to have hope, but structured notes, Hoffman’s plans, and people like her gave me some of it. Read her book – and listen.

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

Dollars and the feeling of growing food in America

Island Press. 272 pages $26

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