In Bet the Farm, author and beginning farmer Beth Hoffman describes the harsh reality of the economics of farming in the United States. The summary? The math on making a living farming often just doesn’t add up.
Beth, who was previously a journalist and professor in the San Francisco Bay Area, moved with her husband to his family’s farm in rural southern Iowa to start an operation of their own. Bet the Farm explores Beth’s journey from agricultural reporter and professor to farmer. Despite the racial and economic privilege that supported their entry into farming, Beth and her husband struggle to turn a profit in an agricultural and political economy that doesn’t provide farmers and their communities with a fair share of our food systems’ profits.
This story of the economics of farming isn’t just personal to Beth. As a reader, it was a deeply personal read for me, too. Although I live in the San Francisco Bay Area most of the year, I spend a good portion of my time back in rural Southern Iowa, which is my home — politically and literally. In fact, I’m writing this sitting at a desk in Monroe County, Iowa, just miles from Beth’s farm.
I felt some irony in reading a book about a Bay Area local moving to my home community to start a farm. The organizations, people, buildings, and grocery stores that Beth references in the book are familiar. To someone from a city, this might seem unspectacular. But it’s not to me; I’ve never read accurate accounts of my home in a book or other major media, or rarely places that remind me of my home. The most enjoyable (and perhaps funniest) representation of a community that vaguely reminds me of home is the Canadian sitcom Letterkenny, and it’s based on a community in another country!
A common refrain I hear about my home is “I’m sorry” when I acknowledge where I’m from — yet sorrow isn’t what I feel when I think about home. Instead, I’m proud to be a rural Iowan. I’m honored to be in a community with countless friends and mentors who are doing the radical work of building justice-oriented food and farm systems in rural places. Underpinning many conversations laden with “I’m sorry” is the assumption that our industrial agriculture system could be toppled if farmers just knew better, or if they would simply farm differently — that individual farmers are the problem, not the system itself. Scapegoating communities like mine as the source of our exploitative food and agriculture system is easier than recognizing the complex truth. Disproportionately, family-scale farmers and their communities aren’t the ones profiting from our agricultural policies. Instead, a complex set of economic, political, and social variables lock many farmers, who are just scraping by, into this system, and lock others out of farming altogether. Beth's book tackles this complexity through story-telling in a book that's simply hard to put down.
In Bet the Farm, Beth unpacks and debunks the myth that individual farmers are the problem, and she does it by telling her own story as a beginning farmer. Not only is her analysis of the U.S. subsidy system spot-on, she also places blame for our industrial agriculture system squarely where it belongs. Beth acknowledges that this system isn’t accidental. Our agricultural system is built to concentrate land, money, and power in the hands of fewer and fewer white families and the corporations they own. The process started with the giveaway of land stolen from Indigenous peoples and given to white men. And, it continues today. While half of all U.S. farms made less than $300 in 2019, wealth continues to concentrate in larger farms and corporations.
While I love Bet the Farm, it’s worth noting that there were moments I got the sense that it’s not written for me or others who are from the community she is farming in. That wasn’t surprising to me. It’s quite rare I’ve read something on rurality or food and agriculture that felt like it was written for me Most rural and agriculture movement writers with the largest platforms aren’t from or have little accountability to the places they depict.
With that said, Beth does have accountability to the place she writes about. She lives and farms here, and is active in agricultural organizations. That may be why I was surprised to see my home described as a struggling community — evidenced, for example, by calling our grocery store dirty, and commentating on the lack of dining options. That’s not to say there isn’t struggle, but that south central Iowa, where Beth’s farm is located, is so much more than that — and in reading Beth’s book, there were moments I wondered if she knows this. I believe in the possibility of our community being interested in her vision of a food and farm system that works for farmers, and I also believe there are people who already share a similar vision. I hope that someday, Beth’s follow-up to Bet the Farm (fingers crossed there is one!) features what she’s learned working alongside her fellow south central Iowans.
You can purchase Beth Hoffman’s Bet the Farm via Island Press, or check your local library!