A group of our friends from Minneapolis came for a visit this weekend taking in the beauty of the changing leaves of fall on their drive down. The children, Micah, and Ben were looking forward getting a farm tour from my daughter, Sophia. They are 6 and 3 years old and have always looked up to Sophia since she is a bit older at 10 years of age. They were especially excited to see the pigs and tractors. As a country girl it’s easy to forget the allure of the tractor. I made arrangements with my dad to make sure they would get a ride of some sort.
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?
I ran into Chef Martin Murphy of Canoe Club (Hanover, New Hampshire), one of the featured chefs at the Niman Ranch Farmer appreciation dinner, on a Saturday afternoon at the Gateway Market in Des Moines and he told me he brought butter from New Hampshire to share with everyone. He said, “We have to break bread as family.” And he was right.
That’s what food does. It brings us together as one. As heard during recent Rosh Hashana services, “There is holiness when we share our bread, our ideas, our enthusiasm.” For this, I give thanks.
The first time I was in Iowa, Paul Willis took me to see his hens. He put a warm egg into my hand and I don’t know if he knew at the time – it was the closest I’d ever felt to the origins of my food. Paul gave me some eggs and sopressetta to take home with me. I savored it for weeks. Each night I would cut a small piece of meat and eat it with a peach or some cantaloupe. When I was sad, it took me back to a place of joy.
It is beautiful as June approaches, the trees are leafing out and the birds are busy building their nests. If you will recall my daughter, Sophia, conned her grandmother into purchasing some baby chicks from the Tractor Supply Co in Mason City just a few weeks ago. They have already grown so much and have begun to feather out. We made a cozy little home for them in a tank in our outdoor dining room. Sophia takes them outside everyday just as a mother hen would, they love it. They explore and search for delicious bugs to eat. We also welcome the warm spring weather and all that comes with it, including wonderful things for us to eat; like asparagus, morel mushrooms and rhubarb.
Every spring when the rhubarb comes up it is hard not to be reminded of Garrison Keillor’s Rhubarb Pie song. Everyone seems to have their own patch of Rhubarb and that means lots of Rhubarb Pie! We love warm Rhubarb Pie fresh from the oven with a scoop of old fashioned vanilla ice cream. My mother, Phyllis, says it’s all in the crust and the best crusts are made with lard. We like to use our own lard from our very own Niman Ranch pigs. Making Rhubarb pie is like a competitive sport. We all have our own way of doing it and of course we think ours is the best. Here is my mother’s recipe off the top of her head this morning.
Yesterday was a perfect spring day, except that we were out of cat food. I had been watching my granddaughter, Sophia (who is 9 years old), for the day. I asked her if she wanted to go to Mason City to go shopping and pick up some cat food to which she replied, “Can we go to Tractor Supply Co and get some baby chickens?” Here is where the real story begins. Baby chickens are quite the responsibility and I wasn’t sure I was up to the task. They need heat, a safe place to sleep out of reach from natural predators as well as food and water. We already have two flocks of chickens in our yard now with two separate houses. Where would we put these new babies if I agreed to allow Sophia to get them?
It’s officially spring! Here on our farm we’ve been seeing the signs that spring was on the way for a couple of weeks now. We’ve spotted the first Sandhill Cranes on the pasture and an early Robin flying through the backyard. The Bluebirds have been staking their claims on the birdhouses that we have provided for them and two of our Chantecler chickens have gone broody and are sitting on a clutch of eggs. In the garden, the crocuses are in bloom and the daffodils and tulips are starting to emerge. For me, the beginning of spring is bittersweet. After the long winter I’m certainly ready to welcome this change and look forward to the growing season that is ahead. At the same time, however, I realize we are about to become extremely busy with field work and planting! We’ll be putting some long hours in the next few months, so right now we try to concentrate on enjoying the weather and spending as much time together as possible.
A new year has arrived and despite the cold and blustery weather here in Iowa it felt warm and cozy inside our little house on the prairie. The inclement weather did not stop time, but it did force us to make some adjustments to our plans. I had loads of paperwork to do and holiday functions to attend, but when the weather made a turn for the worst and my dad asked me to help with the pigs I had to drop everything. It was foggy and cold. The pigs needed bedding and we had to check to make sure the waters were working properly and had not frozen over. The fog lasted for days and had enveloped everything in sight with a fantastic surreal white frost known as a hoar frost.
I grabbed my camera and snapped a few shots while working with the pigs. Farmers have to be flexible because nature is unpredictable. It may seem inconvenient to have our lives interrupted by a force of nature but I welcome the interruption. It reminds me that I am part of it. I pulled on my coveralls, scrounged for some warm work gloves and boots and headed out the door. My job is pretty simple. I just have to watch the gate to make sure the pigs don’t get out Our dog, Nigel, loves to help. He is a Pembroke Welsh Corgi and naturally a herding dog. He is never happier than when he is working. The pigs don’t mind him at all. They seem to understand. My dad, Paul Willis, is so skilled at running the skid loader after many years that its movements look like their following my father’s instructions. He uses the bucket and clamp to grab a hold of a big round bale of corn stalks and the pigs run wildly this-way-and-that in playful anticipation of the new bedding.
It’s harvest time! The time of year when we reap what we have sewn. The fields of corn have evolved from the rich luscious green of July into an aged, well worn yellow ochre. We were feverishly harvesting and canning our prized heirloom tomatoes from the garden just weeks ago and now we are preparing for a great feast.
It’s that time of year when everything speeds up before it slows down. Winter is coming as you can see by just looking at the birds cascading across the countryside making their way south for the winter. It congers up feelings of nostalgia for me, reflecting on the summer that has just passed. The pigs born in the field in April, the tomatoes in my garden that took forever to ripen and now it’s time to clean up and make plans for next year.
I have an old leather bound book I found at a thrift store entitled, “Pigs Is Pigs”. Funny how just seeing that book in my bookshelf makes me think about how untrue that statement is. The other day another Niman Ranch farmer from Minnesota came to our farm to purchase some Gilts from us. A Gilt is a young female that hasn’t had a litter of pigs yet. A big part of raising livestock is being able to recognize good breeding stock. We take all kinds of things into consideration, body style, personality, agility, the number of pigs its mother had and so forth proving that “Pigs Is Pigs” just isn’t true.
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”).