In the Field with Farmer Dena Hoff

by Siena Chrisman

Published: 10/04/17, Last updated: 5/24/19

In the Field is a series we are running throughout the 2017 farming season, interviewing a diverse group of farmers around the country (and world!) about what growing food looks like from their perspective, what’s happening on their farm and what they’d like consumers to remember when they’re at the grocery store or farmers’ market.

Meeting Dena Hoff of Sand Creek Farm for the first time, you’d likely take her to be simply the quiet, unassuming grandmother that she appears. She and her husband Alvin farm 450 acres in Glendive, near the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana.

What you might not learn until later is that Dena is also an internationally-known activist, organizing for decades on issues from global food sovereignty to pipeline spills at the edge of her farm (and making the connections between those concerns). She estimates she’s traveled to sixteen countries in her work with the global peasant movement La Via Campesina (LVC), for which she served for many years as North America coordinator. She is also vice president of the National Family Farm Coalition and former chair of the local Northern Plains Resource Council. Her official term with LVC came to an end at the group’s conference in Spain’s Basque Country this July — one of several trips that took her away from the farm at the peak of the season this year — and she’s been busy catching up on work on the farm and in the community since then. She took a break in the midst of a visit from her grandchildren back in August to talk with us about unpredictable weather and their love of the land.

What do you grow?

Edible dry beans, corn, wheat, alfalfa, cover crops, vegetables and livestock: sheep, some milk cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese.

What kind of community are you farming in?

It’s an agricultural community. It also used to be the railroad, though they’ve just gotten rid of a lot of employees. We have a hospital — that’s another big employer, but basically it’s an ag and railroad town. It’s mostly German and Norwegian; very few people who aren’t white.

How long has your family farmed?

Good heavens, let me think. As far back as I know, with some skips. My grandfather became an automotive dealer and sold farm equipment, but he had land. So my grandparents and parents didn’t farm, but they had land, and their grandparents and great-grandparents were farmers, all the way back to the old country.

Where do you sell your products?

Mostly locally — we do a local Saturday farmers market. The edible dry beans, we sell some locally and some to a Colorado-based company that has a station 30 miles down the road. What we don’t use of our hay and corn goes to neighbors, especially people who want non-GMO. We pretty much market the livestock locally, except the sheep — they go to a livestock market in North Dakota. We slaughter the rest of the livestock ourselves for direct sale. Wheat and the other commodities are marketed to a grain elevator. It’s big corporate elevator now — used to be a coop, but no longer.

What are you doing on the farm this week?

Oh my. [overwhelmed sigh] Well, we hauled hay all day Sunday … today I’m making pickle relish and picking beans and cucumbers and watering my hoophouse, and working on fixing the baler — we had a major breakdown. In the midst of things, something always breaks down. And we’re expecting a house full of company later this afternoon. And we have a church group coming out for corn; they want something like 40 dozen ears of corn, so we’ll have to deal with that too.

What ‘s hard about farming?

Planning. When there’s no such thing as any idea of what the prices are going to be, it’s pretty tough to make any kind of economic plans. You don’t know if you’re going to be a price taker — that’s for our surplus commodities, like extra beans and wheat that go to the elevator. So, not knowing what your income is going to be.

And the weather in the last five years has been horrible. We still haven’t had any rain. North Dakota has had about three inches — they’re getting all of our rain, I guess. [I’ve seen a change just in the last few years]: the last major hailstorm we had had was in 1989, and then last year, three major hailstorms in five weeks. Before that, it was the “untornado” and before that was 100-mile-an-hour winds that ripped off roofs and smashed windows and put two trees through the roof … and a few years before that, it was another high wind out of the south that took roofs off the barns again. That just never happened until recently. As well as the changes in rainfall.

So the last few years, we haven’t had crops, and not much for gardens — just a bit that recovered, but it takes a lot to recover from that kind of storms. For three years, we didn’t market any sweet corn, because it was destroyed by the hail, the untornado and high winds, so this year we’re being deluged by people wanting corn.

It’s hard not to know if you’re going to make enough of a living that your kids would want to take over. One of our kids desperately wants to come back, but his wife doesn’t. That’s been really hard for us. We have no idea what’s going to happen with the farm, like most of our neighbors. There are a couple of families that are lucky enough to have their children stay; we aren’t one of them. My seven-year-old grandson says, “Grandma, you take care of my farm; I’m coming!” But am I going to last twenty more years until he’s ready? I don’t know.

What do you love about farming?

Being able to take care of the land and make it healthier. Seeing what it produces. Having the kids be so in love with the place that when we pick them up at the airport, they say, “no, don’t stop for dinner, we want to get home to the farm right now.” We get home and they were immediately out in the barn to see all the animals and play in the garden…it’s like their own little Garden of Eden.

What do you wish people knew about what it takes to grow the food they eat?

I think they should come and have a turn. We hear people say, “oh, it must be so wonderful to be able to watch the sun rise and set …” like you’re doing nothing in between. I think people don’t understand the uncertainty of farming, and that if you didn’t love it, you wouldn’t be doing it. But sometimes it gets a little harder to love.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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