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Beth Hoffman speaks frankly on the financial challenges of farming [replay]

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KAYTE YOUNG:  From WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. This is Earth Eats and I am your host, Kayte Young.

BETH HOFFMAN:  It's a great thing to be outside, to have birds chirping, to be around green grass and animals. But the problem has become that you can't really be a business unless you are a financially viable business.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This week on the show, we explore the economics of small scale farming and debunk some of the myths of the agrarian lifestyle. We talk with Beth Hoffman, author of Bet The Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Farming in America. And we hear from farmers across Indiana about how they are making it pay. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Thanks for listening to Earth Eats, I'm Kayte Young. We talk a lot about farming here on Earth Eats and the future of farming, and the fact that the current population of farmers is aging. We aren't really seeing that next generation of farmers coming up, at least not in the numbers that are needed to keep the system going. And there are a plenty of questions about that system or those systems. Are they sustainable? Is the current state of agriculture in this country what we want for the future? In other words, who's going to be growing our food and how are they going to go about it in ways that are kind to the planet, and to the farmers and producers?

KAYTE YOUNG:  Farming does manage to attract people, but often it's the myth of farm life that is appealing and beginning growers are quickly disillusioned by the grueling demands of the work, the broken food system, and the extremely tight profit margins. Most small farms rely on off-farm income to make ends meet. My guest today has written a book examining these issues in vivid and often candid detail.

BETH HOFFMAN:  My name is Beth Hoffman, I am a journalist. I covered food and agriculture for about 25 years and now I'm a farmer.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Beth Hoffman is the author of Bet The Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America.

BETH HOFFMAN:  I grew up mostly outside of New York City in New Jersey, and I was born in New York. I have lived in many different places in the country but ended up in San Francisco. I went to UC Berkeley for grad school. I met my husband in Berkeley. He, at the time, was working as a butcher for Whole Foods but he had grown up in Iowa and, within the first few minutes of meeting him, he told me how he had just been in Iowa, he had just been with his sons back at the farm and that this was his dream of moving back to the farm. I didn't really think anything of it, he just was my neighbor and I didn't know much about Iowa.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Little did she know that that encounter with her neighbor was the start of something that eventually altered the direction of her life, and her work. Beth and her neighbor John became romantically involved and eventually married. They started spending summers in Iowa.

BETH HOFFMAN:  Being out early morning working on fence with the family, swimming in the ponds, chasing cattle that had gotten out. All those kinds of things.

KAYTE YOUNG:  As Beth started developing her own relationship with the land, they started talking about what it might look like to take over the farm.

BETH HOFFMAN:  You know, this combination of having really researched and learned a lot about agriculture and this opportunity to go take over the farm, they started to kind of meld together obviously as like, oh this could be a great opportunity to really try and put into action what we have learned over these years and what I have been studying, and to see if it actually works the way that people say it works because it's obviously very different to do something than it is to write about something.

KAYTE YOUNG:  There was one glaring barrier to their agrarian dream, someone else was already farming the land. John's Dad had grown up there and he had been farming for 50 years. He was engaged in the standard farming practices of the area, growing corn and soy beans and raising some cattle. Though he was in his early 80's at the time, he was still actively managing the operation. John and Beth wanted to try something different and John's father bristled at some of the ideas they brought to the table.

BETH HOFFMAN:  He, at some point, you know, said to me, 'What do you want to do with this farm?' And I said, 'I don't know, something like grow grains, food grade grains, small grains or go organic'. He was, like, 'Organic?' you know, and he went outside and he got this hoe that had been beaten down to, like, an inch wide from so much use and he said, "You know, this is what organic means. It means working, you know, working your butt off and having hoes that are worn down like this. Do you want to really do that with all your time, be out here hoeing weeds?' And, you know, I didn't know. I mean I was really, to be honest, a city slicker who thought she knew a lot about food and farming. He knew that, you know? So, it was a good question. Really is that really what we're going to come and do? Is that just idealist thinking?

KAYTE YOUNG:  But they managed to sort it out, and eventually they decided on cattle. Specifically grass finished beef. Now, Beth is the first to point out that raising cattle comes with environmental concerns but methane aside.

BETH HOFFMAN:  This is the perfect area for cattle. It's forested so we have a lot of trees, we have rolling hills here with really great grasses and you can have prairie here. We don't use any irrigation. There's not any kind of water issues here. We have ponds that we can get water out of very easily, so we don't even have to have the cows in the water sources. So, I mean, it's just sort of an ideal situation for livestock and it's been problematic that a lot of farms have gotten rid of livestock because they do do ecological services for the land. Like manure, that's natural and naturally occurring that they just deposit on their own and they were here already. So it was kind of an easy way we thought we could get here and make some money within a pretty short amount of time. We thought if we bought the cattle from John's Dad, we could just get up and rolling much quicker. So we kept the cattle and now have converted them all to being grass finished here on the land, so we don't sell at the sale barn and we don't sell into feed lots like most American ranchers.

KAYTE YOUNG:  In her book, Beth Hoffman goes over the details of how beef typically gets from the pasture to the plate. Cows usually start out grazing on pasture with their Moms drinking cows milk and eating some grass. Then when they reach a certain age or weight, they go to a sale barn to get auctioned off to the feed lot to be finished before being sold to the processor.

BETH HOFFMAN:  What happens in many, many places in the country now is there's no longer really a sale barn, so there's no auctioning and no competitive purchasing. There's just one buyer in your area. And some people contract with them before the season so that they know how much they're going to make. Many ranchers do not contract with them, but they then have that one feed lot to sell to after they've finished with the calving. So, what you earn for each cow does not necessarily have anything to do with the cost of raising that cow. So, sometimes it drops below the cost of production or right at the cost of production and there's nothing that those ranchers can do about it because there's no-one else to sell to.

BETH HOFFMAN:  I talk about this a bit in the book because it was a little bit of why we didn't want to sell at the sale barn; we didn't want to be working with this kind of a commodity system where you lose control over how much your animals are worth and where they go to. I want to know that they're treated well, that they are healthy their whole lives. And so we made the decision, right off the bat, not to sell into the commodity market. That meant that we weren't going to make any money for two years as opposed to that scenario where you would sell them at nine months. It takes somewhere around 24 months for a cow to be a finished weight when they just eat grass.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So they're fattened up more quickly on corn?

BETH HOFFMAN:  More quickly and with more fat content. Grass finished beef has a much different flavor. Luckily for us, everyone who has purchased them from us directly has told us that it's actually the best beef they've ever had which is not often the case with grass finished beef because it is much leaner. Sometimes it can get really tough.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So have you been able to work out some of those obstacles of dealing with processing and getting the meat to market?

BETH HOFFMAN:  We've been, right now, selling the bulk of the cattle to a wholesaler who sells directly to consumers. So it's a better deal for us than, say, working with a processor like JBS. We work with very small companies, Iowa-centric companies that deal directly with consumers but they kind of handle the marketing and distribution. They have larger email lists than we do. So we've been selling the bulk of it to them because then we don't have to figure out the processing. Then we've sold just a smaller number directly to consumers. It's all going quite well, we haven't had big problems in finding people. It's a little bit of a niche thing; people who want grass-finished beef is a specific kind of customer.

KAYTE YOUNG:  While Beth Hoffman is critical of the typical feed lot finished meat processing system, she's quick to point out who is profiting and who is taking a risk. The big processing plants like JBS, Tyson and National Beef don't own the feed lots. So, for instance, when the pandemic first started and many processing plants had to slow down or shut down since it was impossible to keep Covid from spreading in these conditions, it was the feed lots and the individual ranchers who took the loss while JBC managed to make record profits. She points out that while these systems aren't really working for ranches and farmers they didn't just come out of nowhere.

BETH HOFFMAN:  It's really important to understand why ranchers did that. They gave up that power because it takes a lot of time to do every single part of the chain yourself. So to do the marketing, to do the sales, to do the packaging, everything is a lot of time. So companies came in and made that available for farmers and said, 'Okay, basically you're the people who like to be outside, you don't like to be sitting in front of a computer now. Farmers typically aren't business people who want to be doing that kind of stuff. You want to be outside using your bodies, riding machinery, whatever sorts of things, working with animals.' So that power kind of got siphoned away, and with it went the money out the door.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yes, it's complicated.

BETH HOFFMAN:  Very complicated.

KAYTE YOUNG:  If you're just joining us, my guest is Beth Hoffman, journalist, farmer and author of Bet The Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America. After a short break, we'll continue our conversation looking at who has access to land in the first place and examining some of the cultural myths around farming in America. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  KAYTE Young here, this is Earth Eats. Let's return to my conversation with Beth Hoffman, author of Bet The Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America. You guys didn't go into it all starry-eyed and naïve. Your husband had a history of farming, you knew quite a bit yourself, and you did research and you came up with a plan. But even when you worked out a business plan, it wasn't going to be a lot of money that you were going to be making even if everything went according to plan. Can you talk about that a little bit?

BETH HOFFMAN:  Yes. When we sat down to really work out the numbers, not only were we losing more than we thought in the first few years. We only had x amount of money we were going to put into this, but even once we got past some of the big capital purchases like buying the cattle, we were still, you know, making in like the $20,000 to $30,000 a year range which,, for one person full-time and me half term, it's not very much and that is if everything goes quite well. It really points to an issue that I talk about throughout the book, which is the fact that we were coming into it with privilege and we were very aware of that. We had some family wealthy, not exorbitant wealth, but some and some savings and we had access to the land which was being leased but at a very discounted rate.

BETH HOFFMAN:  And most people who want to get into farming don't. They don't have this privilege, they don't have family wealth that's been able to be built generationally like many white farmers, white land owners. Most of the land in this country is owned by white people. 98% of land in fact is owned by white people. So a lot of the book explores that kind of question - how did this happen? How did we get here? And maybe some of the thoughts about how we can change that up. So we used my example, our example of our lives to really talk about these bigger issues in agriculture. So it's kind of part memoir but not only.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yes, you're definitely exploring those issues about accesses to land, land theft that's happened over the generations. It's not just accident, or good luck, or hard work that puts most of the agricultural land in the hands of white owners. So do you want to talk a little bit about that history and about your thoughts on building a more just system, as well as a more sustainable system?

BETH HOFFMAN:  It's kind of a deep vast history which white people are becoming more knowledgeable about. In this area, the Meskwaki Tribe was here previous to white people coming in. I talk a lot about the settlement that happened in sort of the land rushes that the railroad barons fueled throughout history. They were given land by the US Government all around the railroad tracks, and they had some sample farms, like Bonanza farms they were called, where they put in tonnes of money to make them work very well and then could say, 'Oh look, this is the perfect place. Everyone should come out here and buy this land and live this amazing agricultural dream' but it was really just advertising. So it was this fueled frenzy by railroad barons who became enormously wealthy, and so it brought a lot of white people out to the mid west and areas like the Dakatos. A lot of the time there were tribes that still actually legally owned the land, there weren't even treaties that had happened yet with them.

BETH HOFFMAN:  So that's one case where white settlement was really promoted and land taken. So I talk about that sort of situation, but also just kind of the very well documented discriminatory behaviors of the US DA, that there's been lawsuits with black farmers and Latino farmers, Native American farmers and women. They've all had different kind of class action suits where it's been very well documented, that kind of discrimination.

KAYTE YOUNG:  In lending?

BETH HOFFMAN:  Yes, in lending and access to programs. Even just expertize like having somebody come out who can give you advice on a pest or whatever sort of thing. That was given to white farmers and white farm families at much larger rates than anyone else. So, it really promoted the kind of settlement that we have where it is white land ownership and that was what was promoted by the government, it was what was promoted by banks, extension, land grant universities. Everybody was sort of working in that same manner.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yes. This is a little different in direction but, since you brought up the US DA and the land grant university extension officers, is there guidance and support and resources now for the kinds of farming that you want to do?

BETH HOFFMAN:  Nobody in the US DA office knew of programs, of experts, of anybody to help us do anything but corn and soya bean. It's just such a lack of knowledge and a lack of, honestly, interest. You have to have individuals in these offices, like any government office. I mean you could have a million programs but if nobody is really knowledgeable about them and excited about them, going out and saying to people, 'Here's what you can do', it becomes very difficult.

KAYTE YOUNG:  In her book, Beth Hoffman examines some of the myths of American agriculture, including the stories of rugged individualism and wholesome farming families perpetuated by figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

BETH HOFFMAN:  Today we have that really potent imaginary with this homesteading idea and people leaving the city and they're going to go get their hands in the dirt and be farmers. It's a beautiful ideal. It's something that, even though I knew better, it's a great thing to be outside to have birds chirping, to be around green grass and animals, all of those kinds of things. But the problem has become that, particularly with people who are ecologically minded, or want to really nourish their communities and provide healthy foods, that those ideals override the idea that you can't really be a business unless you are a financially viable business and so people start undercutting themselves.

BETH HOFFMAN:  You see often in studies they've looked at things like community supported agriculture, CSA programs, where customers buy into it. The idea is supposed to be that the customer pre-buys for the season. You give the farmer a certain amount and then you get a box of food each week. It's supposed to be that you're supporting the farm no matter what happens. That you're just there, you're along for the ride. But the CSA managers and owners of the farm often start undercutting it, and writing out these very idealistic newsletters about how great everything is and they start packing the boxes with what ends up being often too much food and not making a profit in the long run because they are so concerned with nourishing the community for example.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And customer satisfaction?

BETH HOFFMAN:  Customer satisfaction, correct. So you see a lot of CSAs buying from other farms to supplement their box at a loss, things like that. This is from studies, I'm not saying this isn't, like, just an anecdotal sort of thing. And you also get, especially with the farms that are really interested in the ecology and doing things "environmentally right", it's so easy to spend way too much time and way too much energy on it. This leads to this idea of self exploitation, where you are in service to the farm but the farm isn't actually making anything so it's in service to you. People end up burning out. It's been a huge problem that people will do an internship or something at a farm, maybe try and start a farm, but never really, after three years, five years, people leave because they're not making a living.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yes. I mean I have some friends who say that farming continues to get more people doing it, even though you can't make a living doing it, because it just looks like so much fun, or not fun but like it just, it appeals to a certain kind of person. They head out to do it with all these great intentions and it's not viable, but they keep getting replaced by the next set of young people who find it appealing.

BETH HOFFMAN:  Yes, and I think there's a misunderstanding that it's a simple life, and everything that we've talked about has been sort of, we've kind of ended by saying, 'Oh it's really complicated, right?' So there's nothing simple about entering into an industry that is very complicated. So you have to kind of remember there's a context in which you are farming, and I don't want to sound like it's a problem, making money on a far is a problem for small scale diversified organic kinds of farms. It's pervasive throughout, all kinds of farmers are struggling. The ones that have corn and soya bean, our neighbors, they are having problems as well. The flip side of that is that all kinds of farms also are successful.

BETH HOFFMAN:  So even very small farms. I think what's important about understanding the problems is that, if you come in with your eyes open to what the real issues are, and you have a mind to the business, and find a niche for yourself, by all reports people can make a go of it. On our farm, if we are making $20,000 to $30,000 a year, if we are planning for that, that's kind of okay. If we're living, if we own our house outright - because we bought the house for $40,000, which, when we lived in San Francisco was not a possibility. You can own a room for $40,000? There's opportunities to organize yourself in such a fashion that $30,000 is going to be okay, especially if you have off farm income which is what most farms have.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yes. I think that what you're saying is that we need to start talking honestly about what farming really is, instead of perpetuating these myths. It's not that it's impossible, it's that we need to start having more honest conversations and it seems like your book is really an effort in doing that, especially that you get really into the nitty gritty. You actually talk about how much money things cost, what you've put into it, what you're getting out of it and I think that's kind of a rare thing to come across is somebody who's really willing to talk about the details.

BETH HOFFMAN:  Yes. So I wanted to be really very forthcoming and vulnerable about our situation so that other people can learn from it and understand how it works. I think what you're saying is exactly true. If we understand the barriers, and we understand the reasons why things are the way they are, then we can address it. But if, for example, the myth of Agra business having brain washed farmers - this is a prevalent thing where we just chalk everything up to, 'Oh, that's Agra business'. I think that, if we don't understand that there's reasons why the businesses excelled, they found the problems that farmers were having with weeds, too many weeds, for example, and created a product for it, are marketing it and adding expert help to get people using it. That is how it was adopted, and that's why farmers still use it. It's not a matter of them just being brain washed.

BETH HOFFMAN:  so you can't address it if we don't understand that and admit it. You can't find solutions to problems that we are not addressing.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Right. This kind of circles back to what we were talking about at the beginning about John's father and how he wasn't just, like, 'Oh, I'm opposed to these ridiculous ideas that you have'. It was more like, 'I've been doing this, I know what it takes to make a living doing this, and I don't want you to lose. I don't want you to fail, and I don't want my farm to fail.' He doesn't want you guys to fail.

BETH HOFFMAN:  Exactly. It's so important, I think, just with new farmers coming in there's been a lot of emphasis on land access for example, which is a huge problem, but you can't just have land access? If we're talking about all these problems that we have with support programs, with university extension, where are they in helping people do different things on the farm? If the problem is all of those, we can't just address it with providing land access or encouraging people to have cooperatives. We have to be able to think about things in a much broader sense.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And understanding those systems that need to be in place, the infrastructure that needs to be in place, whether it's for selling locally raised grass fed meat, having more sustainable processing facilities locally but also even with vegetable farmers and fruit growers. If the only model is this CSA which you talked about, or selling every Saturday at a farmer's market, it doesn't seem like that's how we actually change a system. It creates niche markets, but it doesn't really change a system.

BETH HOFFMAN:  When we're thinking about systems' change, we really have to think about all of those elements of it. Things like the funding of it, the expertize levels, the day to day support of the people, the diversity of who we want on the land. There has to be more support than just land, for example.

BETH HOFFMAN:  I think that the take away for the general public and for consumers is it's great to be looking for solutions, but you have to understand the problems as well in order to find the ones that actually work. I think that if people want to really help, one of the ways is to really understand the complexity of problems and how and why people are doing what they do. Farmers don't just farm corn and soya beans because they're being brain washed, or because of subsidies. It's much more complex. If we want people to not be growing as much corn and soya beans those things have to be addressed. Things like the ease of doing it, the marketability of other products. Those are huge, complex problems that we really need the brain power of people that are in things like technology. We need that brain power to look for the real solutions.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's Beth Hoffman, journalist and farmer. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me.

BETH HOFFMAN:  Thanks for having me, it was great.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Her book is called Bet The Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food In America published in 2021 with Island Press. You can find more about her work on our website; After a short break, we'll catch an episode of the Hoosier Young Farmer Podcast called Making It Pay. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Regular listeners may recall that we've recently featured episodes from the Hoosier Young Farmer podcast. It's produced by Alex Chambers and hosted by Liz Brownlee. The mission of the podcast is to update the narrative on food and farming in Indiana by hearing from the farmers themselves. In this episode they take up some of the very same topics addressed in our conversation with Beth Hoffman. Let's listen.


LIZ BROWNLEE:  Oh hey, Alex.

ALEX CHAMBERS:  Want to get started?

LIZ BROWNLEE:  Okay, sure. This is the Hoosier Young Farmer's podcast and this episode is called Making It Pay.

ALEX CHAMBERS:  Right, a lot of the farmers we talked with didn't come from farming families which means they had to start from the ground up so to speak. And I mean, starting a business is never easy, farming maybe even more so. First, you need land.

LIZ BROWNLEE:  Oh and, hey, listen to episode one for more stories on that.

ALEX CHAMBERS:  Yes. But you also need equipment, and seeds, and compost, greenhouses, hoses, animals. If you've got animals, you need fences, more fences. So I'm curious, Liz, how did you and Nate get started? Like, how did you afford it?

LIZ BROWNLEE:  Well, okay. So we're unique in that I actually did come from a farming family. Nate did not, he's a city boy, but my parents, they stopped farming in the 1980's during the farm crisis when US policy was get big or get out and a lot of small farms shut down. They managed though to hang onto the land, and when we moved home in 2013 to start farming the barns were actually full of stuff that hadn't been used in three decades. So we scavenged the barns for usable equipment and used our savings to buy most of those fences you mentioned. But we also started pretty small. The first year was like four pigs and 45 turkeys and no laying hens. Super small to make sure that the markets were there and that people wanted our food, and we've been building up our whole farm a little bit at a time. Then we both worked our farm those first years to have cash flow.

ALEX CHAMBERS:  Yes, so are you making a good living now?

LIZ BROWNLEE:  Oh, boy. Not really. The farm covers all its costs and I'm really proud to say that it usually has enough profit to pay for investment and infrastructure so that we can choose some big project to grow the farm the next year, like adding more pastures to expand our sheep flock. We can afford for Nate to farm full time now, which is a win. I still work off farm part-time and that income is really what covers our daily living expenses. So we're still working on that, on the finances but a sustainable farm's bottom line is threefold, right? So finances are one of those three, but it's also about community and the environment and we feel really good about how we're trying to help build up community in South East Indiana, and how we're caring for the land and seeing so many wild creatures come back but we'd also really like to make some more money.

LIZ BROWNLEE:  But on most days, it's worth it. We love what we're doing and I think that's the case for a lot of small farmers, it's because it's so hard to make a living most small farmers do it in part just because they're passionate but even when you love a thing you still have to get some financial stability. I think we need to probably change things on a systems level to get to that point. It could be, I don't know what it's going to be like, maybe it's access to loans, or maybe it's health care for farmers, or maybe it's climate change policy?

ALEX CHAMBERS:  All of those things.

LIZ BROWNLEE:  All of those things. But today we're not going to dig into the big stuff, we're going to hear stories from Indiana farmers talking about how they're making it work.

UNIDENTIFIED FARMER:  My wife and I both do have full-time jobs as well. So we farm full-time, but we also have other jobs too. Yes. At one time I did have the desire for this to be full-time. My Dad passed away in February of 2017, and the tax business that I own is with his business partner. So when he passed away, I kind of jumped into that role and, really quickly, from maybe not the true desire but a familial financial responsibility stand point, it made sense for me to stick with the tax business but then also put some more drive and effort into making the farming and the tax business work together versus, 'Oh I can only do one or the other.'

UNIDENTIFIED FARMER:  At the moment we're still a new business, we're still growing. So, yes, absolutely, we are having to fund it through off farm jobs. So Amanda works part-time, I work full-time.

UNIDENTIFIED FARMER:  Presently I work so I can farm, and that's okay, but I do want to make farming my full-time job and, of course, that's going to require a lot of hustle on my part but it's also going to mean that I need to diversify and that's right back into that problem of mono culture. The thing that's so great about a market farm or farming on a small scale is that, if something terrible happens and one of my crops fails, it's not the end of the world because I'm not relying on one single crop to feed my family. I'm relying on a large variety of fruits, vegetables, berries, nuts, eggs, the whole shebang.

ALEX:  We own a construction company together, we both work there. We built grain storage and material handling equipment and stuff like that for conventional farmers. There's no plan long term to leave that career behind. It was a company that was started in 1993 by my father. Clare and I bought the company in 2016. It's a very successful company. We've got about 15 employees.

CLARE:  Yes, it's a great job for our family and we have recognized to make a true living we just don't have the economy of scale, I guess, at our advantage because we would need so much more land. Sure, perhaps one day we would love more land and employees to help make that scale possible but if it's maintained this size too, I think we would still see it as successful and we'd be happy.

UNIDENTIFIED FARMER:  Now I am full-time. So before I was struggling, playing concerts, but lately it's been hard, very hard, to find qualified people to come and work here. So, Covid came and that's when I decided, well, I need to put myself 100% into this project in order to really make it happen. That's what I've been doing and I think I will continue doing that way, I will probably stop working...and just be full-time farm.

UNIDENTIFIED FARMER:  We make a full-time living from this, and it's been a long journey to get here but we love what we do and we wouldn't be doing anything else.

UNIDENTIFIED FARMER:  I think that the biggest hurdle is the business aspect, at least for me, I mean it took years just to develop that customer base, just for people even to know, 'Oh my neighbor's growing produce'. It takes years. It's kind of nuts how long it takes. I think that's just the hardest part, figuring out the business aspect and understanding all the costs associated with what you're doing. You know, like if you have a bad planting or something, it's like once you figure out when you should terminate that thing and then just replant. Understanding how that affects your profits at the end of the year, I think that's tough.

UNIDENTIFIED FARMER:  We have a CSA, vegetable CSA, and a farm stand and some wholesale customers, but our primary focus is growing for the people who are our neighbors and who live right in our community.

UNIDENTIFIED FARMER:  When I tell people I farm, there's an underlying assumption that I'm not making a good living at it and I probably have a job on the side. So I like to just kind of quickly try to dispel that, not in a bragging sort of way, but more like, 'Yes, I make a full-time living from farming'. Then they assume probably that I farm, you know, 5000 acres and I'm like, 'No. We actually have under, you know, an acre and a quarter under production' and their eyes kind of get big and they kind of wonder whether I'm lying maybe, or if I'm telling the truth and I'm like, "No, you can come visit us, see us and check our website out." That's something I like to talk about, especially with non-farming people and farming people, both ways. I think there's a perception that you can't make a good living and have a good life from it.

UNIDENTIFIED FARMER:  Yes, and I would say we grow for our community, and I mean any farmer is growing for a person or even an animal that eventually goes to a person. What I love about the small scale farming we do is that we literally see our customers, day after day and week after week, and we have always said that our customers drive what we do. Like we're going to grow the way we grow, using the methods we use, but if our customers eventually wanted to do something different than a CSA, and they were asking for it and pushing for it, then we would move in that direction. So I very much see farming as a relational thing. It is growing food for people we know who let us know what they like and what they don't like and I really like that.

UNIDENTIFIED FARMER:  I had planted a great deal of stuff in the ground in my greenhouses in 2019, in the late Fall, November, December time, and that stuff just all went off like crazy - February, March, April - so it was perfect. There was a huge shift to the online market, and the delivery app site that I sell through, Market Wagon. I had a bunch of supply ready for the demand, so that was really sweet. At the time I was kind of like, 'Oh I hope I can sell all of this' and it worked out really well.

UNIDENTIFIED FARMER:  I just kind of thought well let's just treat it like we're selling t-shirts online. So we just tried to design the farm so that we kind of maintain inventory like we're just selling some sort of widget on the shelf versus like, 'Oh, you know, our cut time is this time, you have to order by then.' We have cut off times but we don't shut the store down, we're just saying we can only deliver it or have it ready for on farm pick up on these specific dates.

UNIDENTIFIED FARMER:  I think it's more like trying to make it as easy for our customers as possible. There's just been a lot of changes with availability. You can pick up your groceries, you just call a number and they bring it out to you. Amazon has same day grocery delivery and we're always competing with that.

UNIDENTIFIED FARMER:  In my previous life as a certified crop advisor among the conventional corn and bean guys, I think they understand and view us as 'Good for you, you found a niche market, you're a specialized truck patch farm.' This area, 30 years ago, had lots of them: asparagus farms, onions. There's a history there and people understand, number one, how much work it is and how little it pays, or what a low margin business it is. Which is the same as conventional row crops, right? So I think people get that. So when they come and get a vegetable that's high quality and fresh, they really appreciate it. They really appreciate it. It's not just like, 'Oh this tastes good and I'm supporting local' but it's, I think, a deeper understanding.

UNIDENTIFIED FARMER:  We had some friends that helped us out and I think they felt sorry for us more than anything else, and thought we really needed some help. Which was great, it was awesome and it helped us a lot. I say feel sorry for us probably like more as a joke. I think she enjoyed it, but I say feel sorry more from the stand point that I don't think people really understand that if you're going to put this level of work into something, you have to have a passion for it. I don't feel sorry for myself when I'm out working in the dog days of summer and it's so hot and everything's ripe, and everything needs to be picked, and everything needs to be washed. But I think a lot of people see that level of work as this over burden. And it can be, and that's the drag. You know, we all hit a wall and things like that but I just think, when you start to see the scope of what the true work involves in making this work, probably what I really mean is they saw the value in what we were doing.

UNIDENTIFIED FARMER:  I don't know, I think most people that continue to buy our stuff, they know us and they're just really happy to support us.

LIZ BROWNLEE:  And there you have it folks, this is the Hoosier Young Farmer podcast brought to you with support from Indiana Humanities, the Hoosier Young Farmer's Coalition and National Young Farmer's Coalition. To learn more about how we're updating the narrative on food and farming in Indiana go to Thanks to the farmers who lent their voices to this episode. One Carlos Arango, Megan Aires, Daniel Garcia, Mickey Keaton, Ann Merit, Julie and Dan Perkins, Ben Riggs, Christie Schultz, David Simms and Adam and Clare Troist. Thanks to Andrew Reardon and Jessica Marlin for coordinating these interviews and Andrew Reardon again as well as Rachael Brandenburg for conducting the interviews.

ALEX CHAMBERS:  Our theme music is from Amy How, and we have additional music from Ramone Munrasander and Airport People. Our host, Liz Brownlee, got this project off the ground and it was produced by me, Alex Chambers. Thanks for listening.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And this is Earth Eats. You've been listening to an episode of the Hoosier Young Farmer podcast. You can find links to the whole series and to the Hoosier Young Farmer's coalition on our website, That's it for our show this week, thanks for listening, we'll see you next time.

RENEE REED:  Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young with help from Eoban Binder, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Abraham Hill, Daniella Richardson, Payton Whaley, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Special thanks this week to Beth Hoffman and to everyone at Island Press. To Alex Chambers, Liz Brownlee, and everyone involved with the Hoosier Young Farmer podcast.

RENEE REED:  Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from the artists at Universal Production Music. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey.

Beth Hoffman and John Hogeland standing close together in a field with a sunset sky, pasture and small trees behind them.

Beth Hoffman spent much of her career as a journalist writing about food and farming. When she moved with her husband (John Hogeland, pictured here) to his family's farm in Iowa, she had the chance to put into practice some of what she had been studying. (Courtesy of Beth Hoffman)

“It’s a great thing to be outside, to have birds chirping, to be around green grass and animals. But the problem has become that you can’t really be a business unless you are a financially viable business.” 

This week on the show, we explore the economics of small scale farming, and debunk some of the myths of the agrarian lifestyle. We talk with Beth Hoffman, author of Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Farming in America, and we hear from farmers across Indiana about how they’re making ends meet. 

Hoosier Young Farmer Podcast

We share an episode of the Hoosier Young Farmer Podcast called Making it Pay. We hear from growers across the state about working on and off the farm to make ends meet as small-scale farmers.  The podcast is produced by Alex Chambers, hosted by Liz Brownlee and supported by Indiana Humanities. Andrew Raridon and Jessica Murnane coordinated interviews, Andrew Raridon and Rachel Brandenburg conducted the interviews. You can find out more about the podcast and listen to all of the episodes on the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition website. 

Bet the Farm

We talk a lot about farming here on Earth Eats, and we talk about the future of farming. With the current population of farmers aging, the question of who will replace them looms large. There are also questions about the sustainability of existing food and farming systems.

Is the current state of agriculture in this country what we want for the future? In other words, who is going to be growing our food, and how are they going to go about it in ways that are kind to the planet, and to the farmers and producers. 

Farming does manage to attract people, but often it is the myth of farm life that is appealing, and beginning growers are quickly disillusioned by the grueling demands of the work, the broken food system and the extremely tight profit margins. Most small farms rely on off-farm-income to make ends meet. 

My guest today has written a book examining these issues in vivid and often candid detail. Beth Hoffman had been writing about food and farming as a journalist. When she and her husband John started farming themselves, her ideas about sustainable growing practices were put to the test.

We talk about who has the privilege to farm, and who has historically been denied access to land or had their land stolen. Beth Hoffman encourages an honest examination of these complicated issues so that we may approach possible solutions grounded in reality. 

Music on this episode

The Hoosier Young Farmer Podcast theme music is from Amy O, with additional music from Ramón Monràs-Sender.

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from the artists at Universal Production Music.


The Earth Eats’ team includes: Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Alexis Carvajal, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Shemenaur, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media.

Earth Eats is produced, engineered and edited by Kayte Young. Our executive producer is Eric Bolstridge.

The Hoosier Young Farmers podcast was produced by Alex ChambersThis project is possible because of generous support from Indiana Humanities and Valparaiso University. Brought to you by the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition and partners across the state. Visit their website for more information. 

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