Sarah Willis is the daughter of Niman Ranch’s founding hog farmer Paul Willis. Sarah works for Niman Ranch as a Sustainable Agriculture and Family Farming Advocate. Having grown up on the original Niman Ranch free-range pig farm in Thornton, Iowa, she has been passionately devoted to raising awareness about the dramatic changes that have impacted agriculture over the past 25 years.Today, she continues the tradition of farming with her father and her daughter, Sophia. Through daily hands on experiences Sarah is instilling in her daughter to maintain these farming traditions, that the land and their livestock deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
Recently, I met a retired math teacher from Osage, Iowa. He said that he was so fortunate to have a majority of rural children in his classes. He told me farm kids were great at learning new concepts and applying them because of their daily experience with this type of thinking on the farm. Farming is all about problem solving, so if you didn’t know how to do something, you have to figure it out. That’s not much different than math. This gets at the heart of what I loved about farm life. There was always something to figure out.
As the snow falls in the country, it tucks us in for winter as it blankets the fields. It’s beautiful and peaceful, but as soon as the temperatures plunge our thoughts immediately turn toward our pigs. Time to bundle up, put on those insulated coveralls, hats, scarves, gloves and rubber boots and head outside to make sure the livestock are doing well and our hog waters are working properly.
Recently, while I was representing our farmers at Chipotle Mexican Grill’s Cultivate Festival in Miami, I was asked why it matters how we treat our livestock on the farm if we plan to eat them in the end anyway. I have thought a lot about this subject over the years, ever since I was a little girl on our farm tending the animals that I loved so dearly. Most farmers take pride in their care of for the livestock. Here are a few of the reasons why I believe farm animal welfare matters.
We have an old apple tree that grows right next to our gas barrel here on the farm. Admittedly this is not an ideal location, but these are the very best apples for making apple pie. My grandmother planted a crabapple tree (the only native apple tree to North America) there many years ago. In the wild, apples are highly heterozygous and don’t grow true to the subspecies of seed. Apples of all varieties are created by grafting trees onto a hardier apple root stock. This is how our favorite apple originated: from the root stock of the original crabapple, a separate seedling grew into another tree. We are not sure what kind it is but believe it to be a Mackintosh.
The tradition of the Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner is alive and well! We recently celebrated our 18th annual event at the Embassy Suites Downtown in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday, August 27.
Each year we painstakingly select a group of highly acclaimed chefs who meet our strict criteria. They are award –winning chefs in their regions and they have shown a real commitment to supporting Niman Ranch and our family of farmers and ranchers not only through purchasing Niman Ranch meats but by raising awareness about how our network of family farmers raise the livestock. Most often the initial reason many chefs choose Niman Ranch is because of the outstanding meat quality, but once they realize the connection with flavor and how the animals are raised, they become advocates for our entire program.
We’re kicking off summer with our annual Picnic on the Prairie, where we host Niman Ranch hog farmers, our country neighbors and local community. It’s a potluck, so we ask guests to bring something homemade with seasonal, local, and sustainable ingredients. We plan our picnic around the Summer Solstice to celebrate the vibrant abundance brought on by the summer months.
When Father’s Day has arrived, I find myself reminiscing about my dad and my childhood growing up on our farm in rural Thornton, Iowa. My mom was in charge of our household and proudly introduced herself as a “farm wife”. She cooked three meals a day and washed our dishes by hand. My father was in charge of the farm work. He was a bit untraditional in that fact that he liked to cook as well.
The planting season is in full swing and many farmers have already finished. For organic farmers, timing and location is even more important than for traditional farmers. They have to be very strategic about when the seeds are planted. One farmer told me he has to wait for just the right moment, after the weeds have had their first big growth spurt. He cultivates the weeds first, then plants the corn so it doesn’t have competition.
As we near Memorial Day, I decided to visit my Grandpa Oscar’s grave site at Pleasant View Cemetery. It seems like yesterday that Oscar would stop over for coffee and offer up his advice about the farm operation, keeping us posted about the latest news in Thornton. He passed away a few years ago when Sophia was just in elementary school.
It’s invigorating to be able to get outside and work in the soil once again after a long winter, much of which was spent making plans for the growing season. During preparation there are so many things to consider, including possibly adding a new or different aspect to the farm. This could include increasing the diversity of our livestock operation by adding chickens, or adding cover crops to conserve our precious natural resources and stop soil erosion. Before we do anything new, we spend time thoroughly examining our options to figure out what’s the right fit.