Food and agriculture journalist and former USF media studies professor Beth Hoffman moved to Iowa with her husband to work on his family’s farm. She is teaching people about the real work that goes into sustainable farming and the things that she is learning along the way.
In a small town near Lovilia, Iowa, you’ll find Beth Hoffman, a former University of San Francisco media studies professor, and her husband John Hogeland, trained chef and butcher. The pair uprooted their fast-paced San Francisco lifestyle in 2019 for one surrounded by rolling hills, forests, pastures, and beautiful green trees. They had returned to work Hogeland’s childhood home—a farm.
On June 27, 2019, Hoffman uploaded a blog post on their website, iowa-farm.com, which they use to show readers an honest and authentic look at what it takes to run a farm. In the post, titled, “Decisions, Decisions…”, Hoffman asked her readers for help in making a huge choice: to stay in San Francisco at a job that she loves, or dive headfirst into the unknown life of farming and book writing. She had already spent several months living in Iowa and working with Hogeland on the farm. Within a few weeks after she made that blog post, she decided that Iowa was the place she was meant to be. Later that summer, she returned to San Francisco to say goodbye to friends and put their house on the market.
When I spoke to Hoffman in early spring 2021, it had almost been two years since the move. “I’m definitely enjoying it,” she said. “It’s been a huge experiment…it’s really very much an adventure.”
Hoffman grew up in New Jersey and moved to Atlanta to go to college at Emory, where she studied anthropology. She has also lived in Colorado and Salt Lake City, but never in rural America. “This is a totally new experience for me,” she said.
Living near a place that has a population of less than one thousand, the contrast in community is something that Hoffman noticed as one of the biggest differences between the bustling city and farm life. “There’s just not many people around. There’s not many people to befriend,” she said. Her husband, Hogeland, chimed in saying, “It’s a good thing we like each other.” While there might not be many people around, the neighbors they do have, as well as Hoffman’s sister-in-law, have been really great since the move.
The adjustment, especially that first winter when she was on leave from USF and trying to get used to this new life, was hard for Hoffman. At that time, she and her husband were living in a very small house and she didn’t really have anywhere to go. “It was a little bit depressing…but I didn’t want to decide, ‘Oh, I don’t like this’ because everything was going to be new and different,” she said. As someone who has moved around a lot, she believes that it takes a good three years to get used to anywhere. “I was allowing myself not to over analyze any one day….There was the real enjoyment of the quiet and the being outdoors every day and sweating a lot. I really enjoyed that.”
Not only has her environment changed, but so has Hoffman’s work. She began at USF in 2012 as a media studies professor, teaching audio production, advanced audio, and food media. She was the type of professor who would take her food media students on all types of field trips. They went to CUESA, Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, a nonprofit located in the Ferry Building that runs the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Another trip was to La Cocina, whose mission is to help low-income entrepreneurs, mostly women of color, develop their cooking specialties into businesses. They also visited the San Francisco Chronicle and had the Food section editor critique their work.
Hoffman could often be seen sitting in her office just outside of the old Media Studies office listening to her students’ audio projects on headphones. Among her many projects during her time at USF was developing the Media Studies Department Magazine to showcase student work. Something of a jock, she loves skiing, often biked to campus and had a photo on her office door of her and USF President Paul Fitzgerald, S.J. sweating at the end of a foot race.
Now her days are different. She is moving the cows, checking on the goats, and helping out with odd jobs around the farm. “There’s always something that’s broken that you got to fix, a broken tractor, whatever kinds of stuff like that,” she said.
While her husband grew up taking care of cattle and pigs, rearing livestock is a new experience for Hoffman. They bought the cattle from Hogeland’s father, but the way they are being raised differs from the methods of his childhood. Their herd is grass finished, which the two of them find to be a more sustainable practice. When she’s not getting her hands dirty, she does marketing and emails for the farm and their meat business, as well as a lot of writing for her debut book.
The inspiration for Hoffman’s book came from the move to Iowa. After doing food and agriculture journalism for 25 years, particularly focused on sustainability, she was very surprised at the economic state of agriculture. Although there is a lot of mythology and romanticism around family farming, Hoffman finds that it’s a lot of work for very little money. “It’s really one of the only industries that I know of that is completely reliant on other industries for propping it up,” she said. Her book is set to be published by Island Press on October 5, 2021. “It’s talking about the economics of agriculture told through our story of coming here and our different experiences, and then relating it to the people I’ve met and the reporting that I’ve done about it here.”
Riley Evans, a 2019 USF graduate, met Hoffman when she took an audio production class with her. Evans loved the audio production class. She said, “I felt like a strong student in that class, which gave me confidence and she encouraged that in me.” She now freelances for Hoffman and her husband on their online newsletter. So far, Evans has produced and edited three videos for the newsletter. They vary in subject matter and structure, but generally they are about how much it costs to run a really sustainable farm as opposed to a commercial factory farm. The first video they worked on together was about the breeding of bulls and how much they cost.
“They work really hard and sacrifice, just spend a lot of time and energy, trying to figure out how to do the best job they can and set a good example and to show people that it can be done,” Evans said. “Beth is really driven and really passionate.”
Evans has been impressed with Hoffman’s passion since she was her student at USF. “That’s the best part about Beth for me,” Evans said. “That’s what made me like her as a teacher back at USF was that…her passion for the issues that she cares about, like sustainability and food and farming and environmentalism is so clear in everything she does.” Evans feels really inspired watching her former professor working on her current projects in Iowa. “Just simply the fact that she moved to the farm after being in the media production industry for so many years…it spoke to how much she cares about what she’s doing.”
Daniel Plotnick, director of the film studies program in the Media Studies department, has known Hoffman since 2013, when they met during new faculty orientation. Plotnick and Hoffman also lived in the same neighborhood, which helped their friendship to grow over the years. They worked on various production initiatives together and wanted to make sure that the students who were interested in production work were well-represented. Plotnick, Hoffman, and Professor Teresa Moore, who now directs the journalism minor, worked together to create the multimedia storytelling class that is required for all media studies majors. “I know from the work ethic, she put a lot of thought and time into her classes,” Plotnick said. “I feel when she started working at USF coming on full time, the audio production classes were at a little bit of a crossroad,” he said. Before Hoffman, who was trained in audio journalism, joined the department, the audio courses were mainly aimed at students who wanted to do sound engineering for music. But she expanded the range and quality of audio training available to USF students. “She really took that on,” Plotnick said.
When Hoffman was still a professor, Plotnick saw her as someone who believed strongly in the mission of USF as well as her students and what they could do. “She was trying to create a really great experience for her students, so they had a great experience in the classroom,” he said.
Plotnick was not surprised that Hoffman and her husband moved to Iowa. Knowing both of them, he was aware of the time they spent on the farm during the summers and knew that relocating could be a possibility. Since her journalism has been focused on agriculture and farming, as well as food advocacy, he knew that the change would be a fit for her.
Hoffman, who has plenty of practice writing articles, didn’t realize all of the steps involved when writing a book or how challenging it would be to just sit down and do it. “The discipline of it is huge,” she said. “It’s a totally internal mind game…you have to be dedicated to it for a year, two years, you know, it’s a beast….Right now, I’d love nothing more than to just send it all to the editor and be like, ‘I’m done, I don’t care what it says anymore.’ But of course, I’m going to care when it’s got my name on it.”
Before Hoffman was a professor, she was a freelance radio reporter, multimedia producer, and writer. Hoffman lived in Salt Lake City for twelve years where she was a frequent contributor to Utah’s NPR station, KUER. She completed a series called Bite Sized, which looked at the artistic, cultural, and environmental connections to food, and was also the managing editor of Food+Connect. “I got into food because I love food, and I just sort of fell into it as somebody who had done a lot,” she said. She went back to school for a master’s in journalism, graduating from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2009.
As someone who has lived all over, Hoffman has never really thought of any one place as her home. “I have privilege, we’ll point that out immediately. With that comes the ability to live kind of where I want,” she said. “You can try things out and if it doesn’t work out, you move on, you know?” Relocation has always been a little bit of an adventure for Hoffman. “This chapter of my life is a chapter of my life,” she said. “Maybe it extends all the way to the final chapter. Who knows?”
Story by Haley Palmer, graduating English major; Art work by Elizabeth Oswalt, graduating senior.