The by-God best book on farming I’ve read, and the unlikely author & story it involves

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

LOVILIA, Iowa, Nov. 6, 2021 – Here we are at the end of the 2021 harvest that likely is going to be one of the biggest in state history.  International markets are friendly again, domestic market prices are good, and government support has been stupendous.  Yeah, equipment and input costs are soaring, but generally speaking, all who are involved in agriculture, at least here in Iowa, are about as happy right now as you’re going to see us.

So, all you in the countryside – and all you in our cities and towns who want to understand farming better – ought to celebrate with a good new book.

“Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America,” by southeast Iowa farmer Beth Hoffman, is simply the best book on agriculture and food production that I’ve ever read. The 258-page book, which came out in early October, is a quick read because it’s such a compelling tale.

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Beth Hoffman and John Hogeland in the front yard of their 100-year-old farmhouse, on which they are now completing renovations.

Oh, you’ll think it’s going to be a little weird, when you are first meeting its characters.

But this real-life story of Hoffman and her husband John Hogeland, both now 53 years old, recently succeeding John’s father Leroy Hogeland on a hilly 530-acre farm is one you’ll wind up cheering, if you have a heart.

Yes, Beth and John are skipping crop production, instead re-seeding pastures to produce grass-fed cattle and goats — and to restore soil health.  They’ve planted a fruit orchard and chestnut trees. Yes, they lean organic but, so far, without doing the cumbersome certification.  And yes, 530 acres is a very small farm, by current Iowa measure,

The two understand, accept and even relate to all kinds and levels of ag operations.  “We’re all out here together!” Beth wrote when she autographed one of her books for an Iowa family that has 1,650 acres in corn and soybeans, with all the big-time successes, debts and risks, too.

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At the right, the cover of the book, which is published by Island Press. It’s available through most bookstores and online vendors.

“One of the things I tried to do with the book is to be really fair with big commodity agriculture, and help people understand it,” she said in a recent interview here at the farm. “What I wanted to show that there are all kinds of farms, and we should be having conversations about that. I don’t want to preach to anybody. Let’s talk and work out some of our problems.”

Another reason the book is bound to be a hit is that this story about their little Whippoorwill Creek Farm is one that I daresay every farm family – at least those whose farms have employed two generations or more – will identify with.

Consider this excerpt, describing the “kitchen table meeting” when Leroy Hogeland surprised John and John’s two sisters with new demands for how the farm would be operated, before he’d sign the proposed lease agreement:

“Well, it’s my farm, and this is the way it’s going to be,” Leroy continued, slamming his fist on the table.

No one who was present remembers exactly what happened next, but more fists slammed and a few obscenities flew before John’s sisters stormed out in disgust. “You don’t want me to farm; you just want to tell me what to do,” John recalls saying as he walked out the back door following his older siblings.

Our farm is not alone in spurring anguished debates; transitioning a farm from one generation to the next can be a heart-wrenching task. First, the older farmer – who has controlled the farm for the past thirty, forty, or, in Leroy’s case, fifty years – has to be willing to allow the younger to take over.  Giving up that kind of control is scary; many older farmers are not the retirement type. They are used to being constantly on the go; there is always a fence to fix or a tractor that needs a new part.

Siblings too often have different visions for what should happen next to the land. One might want to farm, while others may want to lease or sell the land to the highest bidder, to take the cash and be done with it…  Luckily, in our case, John’s sisters – Andrea and Alicia – both wanted to keep the land in the family and to have their brother farm it.

O.K., here’s the bottom line on this: The real reason “Bet the Farm” is so good is that while Beth Hoffman may be one of the most unlikely farmers I’ve ever met, she is also one helluva good reporter and a tremendous writer.

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Beth Hoffman in the farmhouse kitchen.

So, what is “unlikely” about her?

She was born in the borough of Queens, New York City, and grew up in urban New Jersey just across the Hudson River from Manhattan.  Her mother Enid, who now lives in Florida, was a CPA; her late father Chuck was an English teacher and then a creative type in an advertising agency. The Hoffmans are Jewish, but Beth grew up and became “religiously non-observant,” as she puts it – but her heritage is still a strong influence in her life, as I’ll explain later.

She was always smitten with reading, writing and teaching.  After high school, she earned her undergraduate at the prestigious Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., majoring in anthropology. That seemed to prepare her for “becoming a ski bum for a few years,” and so she moved West – to Salt Lake City. She became a teacher in a sixth grade talented-and-gifted program at a public school.

“I also started writing there and began to realize it was my dream job,” she said.

Salt Lake City has a “Center for Documentary Arts,” where Hoffman landed an opportunity doing reporting, interviewing and writing – lots of it about agriculture, food production and cooking for specialty publications and for public radio stations.  One memorable project was a series of public radio stories in which she discussed food, cooking and culture with immigrant women from 10 different nations – while they were cooking together.

All that led her to want to teach again, and she decided to go up the educational ladder.  She moved to Berkeley, Calif., to earn a master’s degree from the University of California, then on to San Francisco to teach media studies and advanced audio at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit school.

And in 2007, when she was moving into an apartment building out there, wouldn’t you know she’d move in right next door – and share a back deck – with a former Iowa farm boy John Hogeland!

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Lacing up on the back steps at the farm.

He was a graduate of Albia High School in Iowa, then of the undergraduate creative writer’s program at the University of Iowa.  He moved West to become a technical writer in Wyoming, and started working in restaurants and meat markets, becoming both a fine chef and a skilled butcher.

“John was a really good butcher – still is and really knows meat,” said Hoffman. “But within five minutes the first time I met him, there in the apartment building, he told me that he eventually wanted to go back home to Iowa and take over the family farm.  I said, ‘Uh, Iowa?’ ”

As their relationship grew, Beth and John made many visits to the Hogeland farm, which is just beyond where the pavement ends, about six miles west of Lovilia in former coal country. John’s affection for the farm and family grew, and so, more slowly, did Beth’s.

Besides her job as a college professor, she “had started this little business of interviewing people, and writing up family stories for them,” she recalled. “John asked me if I’d do that with his family on one of our visits to the farm, and I did, and that helped me get to know his family.”

She learned that John Hogeland would become the fifth generation Hogeland on their farm.  Leroy’s wife, Dorothy, died in 2014, and Beth noticed John felt a new urgency about returning to Iowa after being gone during his mother’s illness.  Leroy Hogeland, now 89, eventually remarried.  Dave Baker, a key mediator in transitioning ownership of the Hogeland farm, told me Leroy’s new wife Roma had a key role in “getting Leroy calmed down” and smoothing the negotiations.

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The Hogelands celebrate that they’re on a “Century Farm,” plus about 50 years.

Baker, of Waukee and Sarasota, Fla., retired last summer after 15 years as director of the Beginning Farmer Center, which Iowa State University Extension and Outreach runs, not only to help new farmers get started but to help families with farm succession.  Earlier in his career, Baker was a farmer, too, west of Lake Okoboji in northwest Iowa, and he understands “the emotional attachment a farmer has to his place,” and why succession is often difficult.  He estimates that in his 15 years of mediation, he helped 1,500 Iowa farm families move ownership to the next generation.

He knew Hoffman from her 20 years reporting stories related to agriculture.  She had interviewed him several times as a national expert on farm transitions. When her own new family came before him for mediation help, he was surprised but not shocked. He knew of her urban roots in New York and New Jersey, her background as a reporter, and her university professorship in San Francisco. What did he think when he first learned she was seeking to become a farmer outside Lovilia, Iowa? “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” Baker said with a chuckle.

Hoffman writes in the book that Baker “worked his magic” in conversations with Leroy Hogeland, and thus enabled the new future for the farm.

Earlier, John Hogeland and Hoffman had decided they’d stay in California at least until John’s two sons from an earlier relationship – Jacob and Antonio – were out of high school.  (Jacob is now a butcher for Whole Foods Groceries, and Antonio is now in college and working in a restaurant, both in San Francisco.)

“In 2015 and 2016, that’s when we were getting serious thinking about the farm, and it was like, ‘Do we really want to go?’,” Hoffman said. “I could tell that John was eventually going to go back.  But I’d just been promoted to associate professor at the university, and so it was hard to think about leaving. Then I thought, ‘I’ve lived in so many places – like in every other part of the country, really. So, why not Iowa?’ ”

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Beth Hoffman, recently sitting outside the small shed where she and her husband John Hogeland lived for nine months while they were renovating the 100-year-old farmhouse where they now live.  The shed has a composting toilet, if you’re curious, and yes, it is an indoors one.

In the spring of 2019, they had finalized the agreement with Leroy Hogeland, committed a significant part of their savings, started making payments, and by May were Iowa farmers.

And Beth Hoffman started writing the book, her first.  “I was living it while I was writing it,” she said.

Whippoorwill Creek Farm – named for the waterway that runs through it – now has 33 cow-calf pairs and 25 yearlings, all being grass-fed, and Hoffman and Hogeland are also building a herd of goats.  Most of the time, they’ve got 75 to 90 animals – along with the good farm dog “Snooks.” Hogeland moves the cows every day, for the health of both the animals and the pastures.

They’ve purchased 40 adjacent acres when they became available, are contract grazing others’ cattle and are considering a program of “co-farming” to help beginning farmers learn and get a start in agriculture while living and working at Whippoorwill.

Hoffman said she and Hogeland also feel some responsibility to help interested people who are from racial or ethnic minorities get a start in farming.

“When I was in Utah, I started getting more interested in race, and I wanted to learn everything I could about it,” she said. “I became very interested in the writings of Cornel West about the African American experience. I think my interest is partly because I have come to feel, especially as someone who is Jewish although not religiously observant, some social responsibility to acknowledge the ‘privilege’ that White people have had. And I want to leave the world a better place for other people.”

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The author Beth Hoffman and one of her fans, the farm dog “Snooks.”

As they have sought advice and expertise on changes to the farm that they are considering, they have often struggled to find professional or governmental ag consultants who are knowledgeable or interested in different kinds of agriculture.  Occasionally, they feel like they’ve struck gold.

Describing their first meeting with Stacy Prassas, a regional rep and grasslands specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Hoffman wrote in the book, “Stacy Prassas arrived at the farm in a white Ford F-150 pickup, boots on her feet, baseball cap on her head, and giant earrings hanging down to her shoulders…,” and quickly gave them expert advice on pasture maintenance for a small livestock operation. “But more important to us than the advice we gleaned from Stacy was the relief we felt that she existed,” Hoffman continued. “Finally, we had found someone from the local government office who was on the same page, someone who spoke our language and meant the same thing as we did when she talked about regenerative agriculture or rotational grazing.”

I asked Prassas, a 20-year veteran with the NRCS who is now based in the Fairfield office, what she thought when she first met Hoffman and Hogeland.  “I thought, well, now here’s two people full of passion, ambition and drive, but who don’t yet have the practical knowledge they need,” she said. “You can know your stuff, or think you do, but it’s different when you’re a decision maker.  But they were trying to hone their skills, and I was sure willing to help them.

“Public service is not an easy field to be in, but I’ve learned over my career that it can be really helpful to say to someone like Beth and John, ‘Yes, I see your vision,’ or ‘I hear you. I understand.’ They probably weren’t hearing enough of that.”

Prassas said she has stopped to check on Hoffman and Hogeland “a couple times a year since that first visit.”  And how are they doing? “Their confidence level has just skyrocketed.  They’ve found some like-minded people around the area, and that’s really helped. They’re doing well.”

One of those like-minded people is farm neighbor Mike DeCook, 53, who runs the DeCook Ranch, raising bison and focusing on “the natural world and ecology.  Like Beth and John, we’re into what we call ‘eco-agriculture’ for our living, and we work to protect the native bio-diversity out here. We’ve learned that our kind of agriculture is not only ecological, but it’s economical, too.”

DeCook, who serves on the board of the highly-respected Iowa National Heritage Foundation, said he’s watched Hoffman and Hogeland closely over their three years on their farm, and says, “I think they’re doing things right. They sure seem to want to keep learning and asking questions. They’re fantastic people, and they’re doing some good things with grass-fed beef.  You know, both of them are great cooks. I think they could turn this into something really good for their farm, maybe the town and our whole area.”

The “Bet the Farm” book is getting good reviews, although one interviewer, overly defensive about agriculture, asked Hoffman, “Is this your manifesto?” I seriously doubt he’d read it.

You’ve already got my testimonial, above here.

And Richard Gilbert, of Des Moines, a native of southern Iowa who went on to become the editor of two small town Iowa newspapers, editor of the Iowa REC News, press secretary to Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, and a major media executive, said “Bet the Farm” is “the best book I’ve read all year” and that it accurately portrays the challenges and potential of farming today.

Gilbert’s wife Julie Gammack, the well-known Iowa writer and now author of an online column “Julie Gammack’s Potluck,” wrote that Hoffman’s book “gives you a perspective on agriculture and addresses what the author calls two myths: ‘bigger is better’ and the ‘agrarian myth’ that farmers are rugged individualists who will always be there for us.  Wait, dear urban subscriber, don’t blow off this column because you don’t care about agriculture. We are intricately tied to what’s going on around us, from water quality to prices in the grocery store. If you care about the nation’s security, you want to understand how fragile the agricultural industry is.”

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The former HQ on the Hogeland farm — the home of Leroy and Roma Hogeland.

But, readers, all of you must be wondering, just what does ol’ Leroy Hogeland think about the book?

“I gave him a copy,” Hoffman said. “Later, he told me that I’m a good writer, but I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

And she’s O.K. with that.

“We have a very good working relationship with Leroy,” Hoffman said. “We understand and appreciate our differences. And he was very good in putting up with all my questions, answering them and telling me the family’s history on this farm.  I asked him more questions than anybody ever had, and he was good and willing in answering them.”

I was going to ask Leroy Hogeland about that.  But the afternoon I was at the farm, he was doing what a retired, 89-year-old Iowa farmer ought to be doing – taking a nap. I tried to set up a phone interview with him for later, but he said he wouldn’t talk over the phone, that it’d have to be in-person, which is certainly reasonable.

I took it as a good, humbling reminder: I used to brag that I’d reached a point in Iowa life where everybody in the state except Hayden Fry would return my phone calls.  And now it’s come to this.

You go, Leroy!

I’ll look forward to our personal visit on my next trip anywhere near Lovilia. And just to get you ready for the argument, I’ll be on the side that believes your daughter-in-law, with her work on this book, has given agriculture in Iowa a nice big hug.

You can write the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment by using the handy form below here.

 

6 thoughts on “The by-God best book on farming I’ve read, and the unlikely author & story it involves

  1. Chuck, great story. I just may go out and buy the boook. I know nothing about farming and the last time I was on a farm was in 1996 when you and Carla hosted me on RAGBRAI.

    Arnie Henden, Phoenix area

  2. As a lifelong Iowan — and living on a now 4th generation farm — I look forward to reading this book. Then I will give my copy to my daughter who lives in LA and has searched for connection between land, passion and business. She only “sees” agriculture through the lens of corporate farms. Hopefully, many people will read.

    Kim Naven Gee, Shenandoah IA

  3. Interesting article, Chuck. We read the whole thing and hopefully learned something from it.

    Lois and Sam Kauffman, Audubon IA

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