The concept of the Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner came about when my father, Paul Willis, was asked to be the guest of honor at a special restaurant anniversary dinner for Café Rouge located in Berkley, Ca lifornia. Chef Marcia McBride asked my dad if he would speak about our farm operation and why it was different or noteworthy, while the diners feasted on the masterfully preparedand flavorful pork from our farm. He was delighted to attend and was welcomed at the restaurant like a celebrity. “They really gave me the red carpet treatment”, I remember him saying. He explained how rewarding it was to interact with Chef McBride at the restaurant and be treated with such high regard. Mostly, it was amazing for him to see and taste what she was doing with the pork from our farm. How could bring this experience to all of the Niman Ranch hog farmers?
Several years later now, we celebrated the 13th annual Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner held on August 27, 2011. It has become a celebration of the true farm-to-table connection inspired by my father’s experience at Café Rouge. This is the biggest Niman Ranch event all year long. This year featured the following seven highly acclaimed chefs: Chef Curtis Di Fede and Chef Tyler Rodde, Oenotri, Napa, California; Chef Joseph Kudrak, T-bones Chophouse-Red Rock Casino, Spa & Resort, Las Vegas, Nevada; Chef Adam Longworth, Gotham Bar & Grill, New York City, New York; Chef Michael Schwartz, and Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, Miami, Florida. Together they prepared a six course meal for the 400 people in attendance at the dinner Saturday night. Most of the attendees were Niman Ranch farmers while the rest included friends and customers. The purpose is to celebrate the Niman Ranch hog farmers who have remained steadfast to the tried and true sustainable and humane farming methods employed by generations in their family along with the chefs who value and honor their hard work and stewardship. It is a celebration of heritage.
This weekend-long journey really began on Friday when our guest chefs, special guests and loyal customers were invited to tour the Willis Family Farm to see where some of their Niman Ranch pork comes from and what sustainability looks like to us. It was so exciting to see the bus come through our little town of Thornton, Iowa and make its’ way to our farm.
During the tour, everyone was put to work including my daughter, Sophia, now 10 years old, who seems to enjoy giving farm tours more and more each year. She showed the guests our pigs in the pasture as we talked about the sustainable farming practices we employ here on our farm, such as using our livestock as part of our crop rotation to enrich the soil. Our pigs are allowed to root and roam outdoors in the pasture with plenty of bedding and shelter as well. We explained a bit about breeding and our combination of select heritage breeds to create the Niman Ranch flavor profile and how the treatment of the animals is just as important when it comes to flavor.
Afterward we drove up the road to the“dream farm” for an outdoor dinner in our three-sided shed overlooking a plot of land that we have restored to its natural state: tall-grass prairie and wetlands. The delicious meal was prepared by our family and friends. My dad was excited to show off his heirloom variety tomatoes and laid them out on a picnic table for tasting. Our friends Bill and Mary Ann Korleski roasted a whole hog from our farm for this special occasion and beautifully presented it with an apple in its mouth. They have the best smokehouse around and helps to create the applewood smokiness we love about Niman Ranch bacon. It was a lot of fun to visit with such a variety of people many who had never been to Iowa before. We had a hayride through the 140 acres of prairie and got the tractor stuck in a rut, just before sundown. It wasn’t what we had planned but made for an exciting hike back through the thicket.
In Des Moines the next morning some of the chefs headed to the Farmers Market for last minute inspiration while others began working on their dishes in the kitchen. It was so exciting to see them at work. The food they prepared for us couldn’t have been better, but more than that, their camaraderie was felt by all. As Niman Ranch’s CEO, Jeff Swain, said,“it always feels like a big family reunion.” We were all so excited to see who would win the awards for outstanding pork and which farmer’s children would be presented with the Next Generation Scholarship, a scholarship designed to help them pursue an education in hopes they might return home and apply that knowledge to their families sustainable farming practices.
Tracy Ryder, CEO of Edible Publications, and Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, spoke to the crowded ballroom. They each gave inspirational speeches reaffirming the work of Niman Ranch farmers and emphasizing the importance of sustainable farming practices and it’s affect on our landscape, environmentally and socially.
All of those in attendance felt like part of the Niman Ranch family, as our best customers and friends showed their support through their generous contributions to the Next Generation Scholarship Fund which totaled $30,000 this year. Eating brings people together and understanding where that food comes from deepens that connection. Thank you to all of you who came to Iowa to show your appreciation for what we do on the farm every day. We want you to know how much we appreciate all of you who support us and make it possible for us to continue our families’ tradition of farming.