LOVILIA, Iowa — Tucked in amongst the hills of southern Iowa is Whippoorwill Creek Farm, where John Hogeland and Beth Hoffman work to establish themselves in the world of grass-fed beef.
“It’s beautiful rolling hills here,” Hoffman says as she heads out to check on the cattle and goats the couple raise. “Livestock makes sense in this part of the world.”
Livestock production is not quite where Hoffman pictured herself growing up. She was raised on the East Coast and ended up on the West Coast, where she made her living as a professor and food writer. That’s where she met Hogeland, an Iowa farm boy who went off to culinary school in San Francisco and made a living as chef, produce buyer and eventually as a butcher.
But he always had a dream of returning to the family farm.
So when his children grew up, the couple decided to make a career change. They left the careers they had in the bay area of California and moved to Iowa, where they took over operation of Hogeland’s family farm. The farm had been in corn and soybean production, as well as cattle. They worked with Hogeland’s father and bought a farmhouse. And in the five years since then they have worked to build a farm based on pasture-fed beef and goat and on the idea of being an environmentally friendly business.
“We saw the potential for grass-fed meat as a market,” Hoffman says.
But livestock, especially grass-fed livestock, isn’t always an easy in today’s world of highly mechanized agriculture. And agriculture isn’t easy to start with, Hoffman says.
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“The economic side of farming is pretty brutal,” she says.
There are always challenges. The weather doesn’t always cooperate. COVID complicated the business plan. Getting market access and good information can be difficult. The couple say organizations such as Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Iowa Farmers Union have been valuable. They are now marketing some beef locally and some through an organization that works with niche beef producers. They also raise some produce and forage for mushrooms, but those items aren’t the core business for the farm.
They also tell their story. Hoffman wrote a book, “Bet the Farm,” about their efforts to start the business. Farming can be many different things, they say. It can be corn and soybeans. It can be other crops or livestock. It can be produce or niche products. It can be environmentally friendly.
“If you have a unique product there is an opportunity,” Hoffman says.
Hogeland, meanwhile, enjoys working with the animals. He points out that even the cattle are a bit different. He points to the cows and calves on pasture to show how the body type can differ from the ones preferred for grain-fed beef. The legs tend to be a little shorter and body lower and thicker because the preference is for animals with a large rumen so they can digest grass and gain weight.
He also sits down with customers and talks about the product.
“He sits down with every single person (who buys their meat) and does what I call beef counseling,” Hoffman says.
That counseling involves using his expertise as a chef and butcher to explain the different cuts of meat and how they can be prepared. That’s where Hogeland’s previous career meets their new market niche.