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.
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.
Taylor, Missouri high school senior Ruthie Carpenter, who is also a Niman Ranch hog farmer and student vice president of her local FFA chapter, traveled with her mother Carolyn to speak at Wellesley College on April 15, at the request of their director of food service, Executive Chef Keith Tyger. He heard her speak at our annual Farmer Appreciation Dinner in 2015 and was greatly impacted by her words. He wanted the students at Wellesley to hear from her first hand about the humane practices she employs as a Niman Ranch hog farmer and the sustainable attributes of farming this way.
This time in Iowa is the beginning of farrowing season. For those of you unfamiliar with farm terminology, it’s the time of year when sows give birth. Many farmers have been working diligently in preparation for pasture farrowing. They’ve been busy moving hog houses from last year’s plot to the next field. It might seem like a lot of work, but pasture farrowing is not new. It’s a traditional farming practice that has been passed down for centuries.
During winter, the Iowa prairie covered in snow blends seamlessly into the stark white sky, which can make it very difficult to see at times. I have resorted to wearing my sunglasses so I don’t go snow blind! It’s fun to observe the beauty that can be found during the winter months, while understanding the unique challenges that accompany it. Winter brings about unpredictable weather. Yesterday it was 40 degrees and today it’s 16. Thanks to the most recent winter weather, the ground is covered in a blanket of snow scattered with animal tracks.
In preparation for the Super Bowl, I hit the grocery store and spent some time preparing snacks. Despite not being a big football fan, I enjoy getting together with friends and family or just hanging out with my daughter to watch the big game.
This year, we experienced a blizzard warning during the game, which gave me another reason to head to the grocery store. Blizzard shopping is a tradition on the prairie. Of course, I live in town now, so there’s was not as much reason for me to make an emergency trip to the grocery store anymore. But I still did it out of habit. I’ll always be a farm girl no matter where I live.