Jane Smiley Reviews Beth Hoffman’s “Bet Farm”


My 1999 novel “A Thousand Acres” was inspired by my understanding that the most fertile topsoil in the world, perhaps in north central Iowa, was being poisoned by pesticides and fertilizers. I thought someone would care.

Judging by what Beth Hoffman and her husband found when they moved to Iowa 20 years later, there Yes A lot of people care, but they don’t matter because the banks and big agricultural companies have made change – and therefore resurrection – impossible.

In her book Farm Bet, Hoffman boils down the problems of American agriculture to one unpleasant little thing: Her father-in-law Leroy “raises cattle on the same pasture for months every winter and spring Calf, now, after fifty years of practice, the pasture turns into a muddy, manure-filled swamp in the spring, a field without cattle.” A consultant bent down to pick up some soil—it was “compacted.” – and “looks like a piece of clay”. Southeast Iowa was once considered a perpetually productive agricultural paradise. Hoffman’s book shows why this is no longer the case.

what a farmer does on a weekday

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

“I really don’t understand that financial problems exist not only with poor farmers in developing countries or the occasional few American farmers, but with the vast majority of them every year,” Hoffman wrote. Aware of the amount of debt that farms carry today—the average Nebraska farm owes $1.3 million—I also didn’t think through the challenges of seasonal cash flow or high land costs. Like many privileged Americans, When considering the failure of any business, I blame foreclosure and bankruptcy on incompetence and lack of creativity. In reality, however, most farms in the country are about to go bankrupt.”

What does it mean to be a “horse girl”? It’s not just a silly kid who wants a pony.

Hoffman wants to change the system, but she also wants to know from the bottom of her heart what the system demands of her and how she meets those demands. One thing she had to do was learn not to worry.

In the 16 chapters of her book, Hoffman carefully touches on every aspect of current agriculture. For those of us who don’t know (most Americans), the first one is the most shocking. On her father-in-law’s farm, she writes, “the technology ensures an ever-increasing supply of corn, wheat or soybeans… The more farmers invest and produce, the more their neighbors… invest and produce, thereby Lower commodity prices and lower.” In other words, as she points out, more equipment, more debt, higher yield, less usage, more debt, more to the ecosystem destroy. Why not grow organic vegetables? That’s what Hoffman and her husband want to do, but the difficulty of doing it starts with one word: weed.

Hoffman’s eloquent and detailed exploration of her first two years on the farm doesn’t spell out the biggest threats, though she knows there — too much rain at the wrong time of year, and crops (and grass — to feed cattle) need to be It, can completely eliminate traumatic weather events on the farm.

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“Even at the best of times,” Hoffman writes, “everything from the weather to world politics can affect your bottom line, not to mention your schedule. I believe this is why many farmers turn to genetic modification and companies One of the main reasons for contracts, chemicals and government programs, these “solutions” give them a sense of control over the elements and help create certainty in their lives. A contract is a guarantee for the future, even if it Only guarantees how bleak the future will be.”

As someone who has lived in Iowa for 25 years, I’ve been fascinated by farming from the moment I moved into my rented farmhouse southwest of Iowa City, I thought I was working when I read Hoffman’s book Just nodding in a sad way, agreeing with everything she said. But her book is so precise and thoughtful that it turns out my job is to anger any American again The most important mission pays almost nothing, is almost entirely controlled by oligarchs, produces too much that’s unhealthy, too little, that is healthy and destroys the natural world. How long has the knowledgeable author researched this topic?

Fifty years ago, the first book I read was Barry Commoner’s “The Closing Circle,” which described the damage humans have done to the ecosystem. Shortly after reading Commoner’s book, I learned about James Hansen (from Denison, Iowa) who knew what carbon emissions were doing and tried his best to issue direct and specific warnings (which pretty much everyone in government and corporate culture ignores or ignore this) deny).

In 1999, fittingly (given that many people were predicting the end of the world), historian Jared Diamond published an article on agriculture in Discover magazine titled “The Worst Mistake in Human History.” In it, he compares archaeological evidence of hunter/gatherer populations with agricultural populations, noting that agriculture made way for “malnutrition, starvation and epidemics” as well as social inequality and sexism, not to mention ecological destruction. According to Diamond, for 90,000 years, hunter/gatherers lived longer and healthier lives than people in expanding farming communities, and still do. In the 10,000 years since we first domesticated plants, humans have gotten closer to destroying themselves. What he doesn’t mention is how the Agricultural Revolution led to the Industrial Revolution, and we all know what that leads to.

So here we are – the people who feed us can barely afford it, the efforts of people like Hoffman and her husband to change our food system hit roadblocks, we stumble into the future, distracted by constant debate Pay attention to whose belief system is true and who must obey whom.

“We need to move away from farming romances to understand that farmers need to be able to take care of themselves and their families while feeding and caring for their land, rather than idealizing the self – the self-reliant, self-sacrificing farmer,” Hoffman implored. Fighting alone in the fields and beating the competition, farmers must know that we can work together — perhaps even limiting our own yields — for the benefit of the land and each other.”

It’s hard to hope, but the organized observation and planning of Hoffman and people like her gave me some. Read her book – and listen.

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

Dollars and Awareness of Growing Food in America

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