As we start summer, I am sitting here listening to the thunder roll through… a rare sound these days, and reflecting on the farm activity over the spring. It has been pretty dry and we were hoping for rain, it’s a welcome sound for sure. Here in Iowa we are ruled by the ever-changing weather. During spring we expect to get rain but we also hope that it stays dry long enough to get the crops planted and the pig field rotated.
Recently there has been a lot of talk about how farm animals are being raised. I have received several calls here at the farm about whether or not Niman Ranch farmers use something called, gestation crates. If you are wondering about that too the answer is no. Niman Ranch protocols don’t allow the use of gestation crates. “Then how are the gestating sows handled?” a journalist recently asked me. FYI: Sows are a breeding female that has had at least one litter of pigs. Niman Ranch farmers know the best way to treat their sows is to allow them plenty of room to move and behave naturally. I offered to provide some pictures to the journalist, but they said they would rather take their own. So I arranged a tour with one of the earliest members of the Niman Ranch network, Farmer Paul Menke and his wife Lenice. He has been farming with his family for generations. Raising pigs just comes naturally for him.
As we enter the New Year it has been unusually warm and it doesn’t look like winter. The landscapes are painted in toasty yellow ochre and sepia tones, not the high contrasts of bright white snow and stark grayish blue shadows we’ve come to expect from our winters here in Iowa.
With Thanksgiving behind us I have noticed my friends and family posting updates on Face Book about the things they are most thankful for. I saw one that said, “The happiest people don’t have the best of everything they just make the best of everything”. I just love that saying and it made me think about the life we have here on the farm. I was contemplating that while looking at one of my favorite photos of my father with my daughter, Sophia, holding a newborn piglet. I cherish the memory of that day, Sophia’s look of delight as she holds that baby pig in her arms while my dad looks on with his encouraging smile.
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.