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.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Farm

Here in the midst of the heat and humidity of July, the pale purple cone flowers have just finished blooming.  The heat is oppressive during the daytime, but it’s a relief when the sun sets.  At dusk the lightning bugs appear like magic, flickering like star dust above the grasses of the landscape. It’s a magical time on the prairie here at Willis Dream Farm.  The land is alive with action and the air is filled with a symphony of insects.

Prairie 2

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Farmer Picnic on the Prairie

We work so diligently during the summer months here in Iowa.  There is only so much time for planting crops, farrowing, lambing, calving, construction and home improvement projects.  But in the midst of all this work we still make time to gather together for weddings, ball games, soccer matches, family reunions, dance recitals and picnics.

After planting season is over here at the Willis Dream Farm, we hold a farmer picnic in our three-sided shed, which overlooks 140 acres of native tall grass prairie. The picnic is a get-together of Niman Ranch hog farmers, along with friends in our local community. Everyone brings a pot luck-style side dish, casserole or dessert.  We always throw Niman Ranch Fearless Franks and sausages on the grill as the crowd gathers.

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Earth Day & Small Communities

Earth Day is the time in April when we strengthen our practices of good stewardship by taking simple steps like growing our own food, planting a tree, decreasing our waste and supporting businesses whose values mirror our own. We focus on issues like sustaining our natural resources for future generations, on maintaining clean drinking water and clean air to breathe and creating healthy communities to live and thrive in.

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Spring Into Farming

On March 4, the high temperature in Iowa was 16 degrees with a low of -4, withIMG_7507-1024x768 snow along the roads and in the fields. Just two weeks later, we experienced some of the warmest weather this year with a high reaching 63 degrees. And technically it’s still winter.

As you can imagine the snow has been melting very quickly releasing moisture into the air in the form of fog. With most of the snow is gone as the sun shines brightly, nature is giving us a reminder of all of the work to be done in the coming weeks.

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National FFA Week

IMG_1710-blog-1024x768National Future Farmers of America week, observed from February 21 -28, celebrates our connection to agriculture and supports our next generation of farmers.  Various local FFA chapters have different ways of engaging with their communities, but one of the simplest is encouraging folks to grow some of their own food.

Many farmers, along with passionate gardeners, begin planning their gardens now. Planting seeds indoors is a great way to get a head start.   My father likes utilizing the simple seed-starter kits that you can find just about anywhere.  These starter kits can last for years if you use and store them properly.

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Spring Catalogs

Jan-1-1024x768It’s been pretty quiet on the farm this January.  The land is covered in a blanket of snow and temperatures occasionally dip to -40 below zero with the wind chill. Our farmers keep pretty busy checking hog waters and ensuring they aren’t frozen, cleaning out farm buildings and adding bedding for farm animals to keep them warm and cozy.  Evenings are filled with after school activities like basketball, band and choir concerts, wrestling meets and the like. Playing Scrabble or card games is also popular this time of year. Anything you can do indoors to keep warm!

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Holidays Growing Up on the Willis Family Farm

stamping-paper-Dec-1024x768 Growing up, we wrapped all of our Christmas presents in newspaper. My mother insisted for several reasons:

  1. It was cheaper than buying wrapping paper
  2. It was an easy way to recycle the newspaper cutting down on waste
  3. It was fun

You might think it wouldn’t be as beautiful, but we take pride in decorating our newspaper. We make it really special by stamping our own Christmas designs all over. We created our own stamper by carving potatoes. I usually carved a Christmas tree or snowman. This is still a good idea – Sophia loves doing crafts like this.

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Winter on the Farm

nimanranch-339-1024x768Each season on the farm is different,year to year, region to region, based on anything from weather to corn prices and which of the kids is going to college. Here is some insight as to what some of our independent family hog farmers do when the fields fall dormant. You can be sure they keep very busy.

Many in the Midwest were hit with an early November snowfall that postponed harvest. Luckily, it warmed up enough to finish the harvest. December has been mild and fairly dry thus far, but farmers will not easily forget last winter’s record-breaking low temperatures. They’ll have to keep an eye out for frozen water sources to keep the hogs hydrated as the season progresses.

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Harvest, Nostalgia & Thanksgiving

Me, Dad and my sister, Anne, on top of our rock pile, 1986.
Me, Dad and my sister, Anne, on top of our rock pile, 1986.

Farmers are real rock stars this time of year, working long hours in the fields to harvest crops.  For me, autumn brings feelings of nostalgia about past harvest seasons.   I’m reminded that the wonderful abundance that surrounds me is the result of strenuous fieldwork done through the summer months. I remember those hot, sweaty days when my dad had us pick up rocks from the fields so we could avoid any damage they might cause our combine during harvest.  My sister and I used to spend days’ riding the “rock-picker,” which was hitched to the back of the tractor. We jumped off each time we found a rock and hurled it back into the picker’s bucket.  Soil stuck to our sweaty faces as we scoped the landscape for more.  It’s the kind of work you don’t hear much about. But it’s this kind of difficult task that brings another harvest we can all be thankful for.

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