The Bottom-Up Revolution is… Getting Real About the Cost—and Value—of Farming

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In her new book, Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America, Beth Hoffman tells the story of how she and her husband moved onto Iowa land owned by her father-in-law and began raising cattle, goats, and growing various crops. But unlike many farming stories, this is not a romanticized tale of waking at dawn to gather eggs in your apron pocket and cooking a beautiful breakfast with homemade jam and bread, then heading out to the fields to weed your lush vegetable patch…

Alright, we’re exaggerating a little bit. But that’s kind of the vibe you get from food memoirs, these days. And Bet the Farm is not that. Hoffman is brutally honest about the hardships she and her husband face in their farming venture—and that’s with land available and a good chunk of start-up money. She talks in depth about how much harder things are for farmers who don’t have these resources.  

Bet the Farm is a personal story about Hoffman’s first few years of farming, but it’s also an exploration of small-scale farming in America at large: the immense hurdles to clear, the bureaucracy to wade through, the failure of government programs that are supposed to be helping farmers, and so on.

In this interview on The Bottom-Up Revolution podcast (and in Hoffman’s book, if you read it), you’re going to notice a lot of parallels between the challenges of farming and the challenges of small towns in America.

For both, plentiful land (at least in the earlier years of farming in America) has encouraged monocrops and commodity growing, instead of smaller-scale operations that grow many different types of food that people actually eat and that can be sustained on the land and in the soil for many years. This is the same way we’ve treated land in our town: as something freely available, to be used endlessly for huge repetitive “monocrops” like big box stores and parking lots—when this is not actually what will truly feed our communities. 

Debt is also a relevant theme here: just as farmers must go into debt buying equipment, seeds, fertilizers and so many of the basics they think they need to get started, so, too, do cities get themselves into an endless cycle of debt just to provide basic services to their residents.

Another parallel is the role of large corporations. Most farmers raising things like pigs or chickens contract out with a big company to purchase their meat, and then are forced to accept the price that company pays and produce in exactly the fashion that company requires. Independence is lost in pursuit of a meager profit. In the same way, our towns grovel at the feet of corporations, doing whatever they ask, offering whatever tax breaks they want, and all for the promise of some new jobs and a new Target store that doesn’t leave them much better off than when they started.

You’ll hear a lot more parallels between the challenges of farms and towns in this interview with host Rachel Quednau, and you’ll also hear Hoffman talk about why farms and towns need each other to survive. 

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