Saturday, April 18, 2009

Niman Ranch

I enjoy farm visits. I love tromping through the fields, seeing where the ingredients which I use to cook everyday are grown, that kind of thing. But what I enjoy the most is meeting the farmers. I have yet to meet a farmer who hasn't embraced me immediately as their best friend, piling my car with food.

The Willis', who are the founders of Niman Ranch Pork Company, took this hospitality and friendliness to a whole other level.

I should have known this; I have heard from numerous sources that Paul Willis, the orginal founder, was "a really great guy" who, I was assured by multiple people, I would love. I unfortunately did not get to meet Paul, but I had a fortuitous meeting with his equally-generous daughter Sarah at an event in Des Moines, which culminated with one of the most pleasant farm visits I have participated in.

I should start off with some history of Niman Ranch and what it means to be their "pork company". Niman Ranch retails a variety of meats and products; all sorts of beef, lamb and pork. Their business model is based off of helping small farmers, who sell their product (which must be raised in accordance with the tenets of Niman Ranch) to Niman. Niman then transports it and retails it to stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joes.

So to say Paul Willis "founded" the Niman Ranch Pork company is a bit disingenuous. Really, as Sarah explained to me, it was more of a bet that Paul had with Bill Niman. Bill was, at the time, getting his pork from a small farmer in Northern California. At a party the two men met and (allegedly) Paul attested that his pork was better than whatever Bill was getting. Paul followed through and mailed some of the pork from his farm out to Bill, who was forced to agree: Iowa pork is the best. And thus Iowa became pork central for Niman Ranch, and eventually much of the United States.

Paul and his farming practices fit naturally into the Niman umbrella. Paul had been pioneering free-range farming for a long time before he met Bill and was, like many Iowans, a sensible individual: he didn't think it was right to add antibiotics straight into the pig's food. Free range farming, without antibiotics, is now a cornerstone of the philosophy that all 620 pork farmers in Iowa who produce for Niman must follow. And it all started with Paul.

So, needless to say, I was excited on the ride to Thornton, where the Willis' still live. Along for the ride I had my esteemed friend Jim Duncan, who instead of being a deadbeat college student avoiding work, is an actual writer. We spent the time discussing, as are wont to do, food.

After a few wrong turns we arrived at the picturesque farm where it had all started. The farm was probably much improved by what was becoming one of the finest days I have yet encountered in Iowa: sunny, clear as a bell and warm. Sarah welcomed us warmly and showed us around the farmhouse, which was once the Willis' home but has now become a dedicated set of offices.

We walked around the interior, oohing and aahing at the pictures of chefs (signed) and the map on the wall which showed, via push pin, the locations of the numerous small farmers which comprise Niman Ranch's pork producers. We talked for a long time about NR's policies, but it really can be summed like this: the pigs raised by the Willis' only have one bad day in their life. And they are working on making even that day better. Sarah ushered Jim and I out back to demonstrate with a live example.


My first question, when I saw the fields where the pigs are raised, was how the pigs didn't run away. From a distance the fields simply look like a collection of cozy aluminum sheds. When I got closer, I realized that all that was needed to keep the pigs in was one length of electric wire strung about 12 inches off the ground. Why would the pigs want to go anywhere anyway?


It was peaceful out on the fields. The sows laid happily in their sheds, nursing adorable litters of piglets. We walked around quietly, simply observing the pigs in their element. Piglets ran around, while the mothers would occasionally run around playing with them as well. Although I have heard of pigs as some of the more ornery animals, I realized that these pigs at least did not conform to that image.


Sarah explained to me, as we quietly, reverently almost, strolled among the pigs, that their pigs are different. All piglets of a certain cohort are raised together, so that they were all of about the same age. For example, all the pigs (not the sows) in each enclosure were of an age. Pigs are social animals; this structure lets them thrive. Additionally Niman does not dock their pigs' tail nor cut their teeth. Normally this is done so as to prevent pigs from biting each others tails. It turns out that this is only necessary when the pigs are stressed: Niman Ranch pigs need no such treatment.

As you can see, the pigs seemed more concerned with scratching themselves in the beautiful Iowa sunshine than being aggressive. I approve.

Even the piglets roam around fearlessly; they were absolutely adorable!



This free-range lifestyle translates into better meat: happy pigs, apparently, do make better pork. The breeds of pigs used (farmers hybrid and berkshire)are more hearty and also more fatty than the lean "other white meat" pig varieties used by factory farm producers, such as Hormel. These pigs develop meat that is full of intramuscular fat from a life full of frolicking.


Each sow gets her own enclosure, which is filled with straw.


The sows felt free, after a while, to frolic with their little piglets in our presence.

At length, we were getting cold and Sarah took us over to the "dream farm", where her father Paul and mother Phyllis live currently. Paul, unfortunately, was in California, but Phyllis was generous and kind enough for any 5 people. The reason it is called the dream farm, by the way, is because it is surrounded by 140 acres of virgin prairie. The Willis' had just finished burning it, but already shoots of wildflowers were poking through. I can only imagine how beautiful it is during the summer, when Phyllis and Paul can sit on their porch, listen to the frogs in the pond and the chickens in the yard, while the fireflies dance about the flowers. Amazing, I am sure.


Phyllis' chickens, like their pigs, are also free-range. As you can see, they make their nests everywhere. When we went for a ride in that truck later, we first removed 2 eggs.

It really was a magical visit. I don't think I have ever met people who live their own philosophies as effortlessly at the Willis' do. I hope they, and Niman Ranch, continue to thrive.


Gordon Taylor said...

Great stuff. It's good to see that this kind of thing is going on. I remember seeing hog shelters in Iowa, but of course I never thought of them as being humane, which they are. I've also driven past confinement operations, which should be flat out banned.

BTW, the plural of Willis is Willises. The possessive is Willises'.


bethany said...

great post, ben! and fantastic photos. love the piglets...

Paul said...

I agree Ben. I thought Niman was a wholly California thing. I had no idea that the company had such good taste. Pun intended. Do they do any beef at all in Iowa?
Unca Paul