This year we hosted our 11th annual Hog Farmer Appreciation Dinner. During this weekend-long celebration, we recognize Niman Ranch farmers who raise the animals and tend to the land. Each year, Niman Ranch selects a group of chefs to come to Iowa to meet and cook for the Niman Ranch Farmers.
We begin the weekend with a tour of the Willis Farm. This provides the chefs and other guests with an opportunity to see first-hand how we raise our animals traditionally, outdoors on pasture or deeply bedded pens and how that plays out in the flavor of the pork. Afterwards, we provide them with Dinner – or Supper I should say (in the country we call Lunch, “Dinner” and Dinner, “Supper”).
It’s an honor to have such wonderful chefs visit us, but it’s also a little intimidating. We have to COOK for them! My parents get it right every time though… with fresh produce like our tender heirloom tomatoes and homemade potato salad made from gorgeous purple potatoes – all from our garden. “Where’s the meat”, you say? …. we serve up our very own homegrown pork. So far, nothing beats my mother’s, Danish pork burgers…they are always a hit. This year we had a bigger group coming so we roasted a whole hog for the occasion. It was a deliciously beautiful display of an animal that we took great care to raise.
Saturday begins with the guest chefs busily prepping in the kitchen for the farmer appreciation dinner that evening. This year, the chefs were made up of a wonderful group of people; Andrew Hunter (Culinary Craft – Los Angeles), California; Rick Moonen and Adam Sobel (RM Seafood, Las Vegas, Nevada); Harold Moore and Sara Woods (Commerce Restaurant, New York City); Kent Rathbun and Timo Plaza (Jaspers, Abacus, Dallas, Texas); and Brian Wubbena (Truluck’s, Austin, Texas). Every one of them was so attentive and gracious (not to mention talented). Everyone was amazed at the fabulous pork creations they cooked up for us at the dinner, which was held at the Hotel Fort Des Moines.
Every year the dinner is different and different things stand out. This year the awards and scholarships stole the show. The Niman Ranch Pork Company gives out awards to farmers, recognizing those who have consistently provided the best quality hogs. It is a huge honor. Can you believe that some of our farmers have been with the Niman Ranch program for 10 years? A few years ago, the Niman Ranch Next Generation and Dave Serfling Memorial scholarships were set up for children who are interested in continuing the tradition of sustainable farming practices or a related career. Support for the scholarships has grown and we are THRILLED by the very generous donations from Chipotle Mexican Grill and Steve Ells as well as Whole Foods and Theo Weening to name just a few. Thank you!
What an uplifting experience for all of us to get together and take time to appreciate the connection between the land, the farmers and the chefs. I felt very grateful for the whole experience and can hardly wait for next year!