Women and the Land

I kicked off the new year of 2018 participating in a panel discussion at the Clear Lake, IA Public Library for a recently released book, Women and the Land, written by Barbara Hall and featuring photographs by Kathryn Gamble.  I like it because it challenges the visual stereotype that all farmers are men, showcasing a variety of women here in Iowa working and tending to their land and animals.  I am so happy to be included in this book with photographs of my daughter and my father along with the many other women here in Iowa featured for their work in agriculture.  Jan Libbey, another farmer, and local and sustainable food advocate working with Healthy Harvest of North Iowa & North Iowa Fresh, a local wholesale food hub, participated in the discussion last Saturday along with Charles City, IA farmers, Wendy Johnson, who is featured on the cover of the book.

We had a wonderful turnout, it was a great event supported by so many people who joined us to learn more.  I shared my experiences of growing up on our family’s farm in Thornton, Iowa and the work I now do as a sustainable agriculture and family farm advocate for Niman Ranch, where my father founded the pork division.  We have a lot of good news to report.  Since our family began supplying Niman Ranch all of its pork in the mid 1990’s (not quite 30 hogs per week), that through a growing consumer demand we  slowly created a network of farmers that has grown to over 720 independent family farmers and ranchers that are paid a premium price for raising their animals in a more humane and sustainable way.  All of our products are available in select markets nationwide. It is exciting to see the continued growth. And, for the first time in a few years, we’re actively looking for new independent family farmers.

It was heartwarming to see so many people interested to learn more about what our farmers are doing and I received a lot of questions about where they could purchase our products locally.  Since we live in a small town in Iowa, we don’t have a lot of choices – but we do have a few, including an independently owned and operated grocery store here in Clear Lake called, Simply Nourished. Ashley and her husband Shea Coleman have so many great products at their store including our recently released ready-to-go snack packs.  I stopped to visit with Ashley yesterday and grab a few things while I was there.

I encourage everyone to give these snack packs a try, they taste great and are a good value, and you are supporting traditional family farmers and ranchers who live and work in their rural communities.

Ringing in the New Year is always a reminder to me of the importance of friends and neighbors, especially in our changing economy. Starting the year talking about Women and the Land gives me hope that our rural communities will not only survive but thrive, as more families seek opportunities to grow their family businesses and farms.


Family Farmers: The Wright Family

Family Farmer: Meet the Wright Family

Kennley and Melissa Wright are family farmers who live and work on their farm outside of Colman, South Dakota (population 400) with their four young children.  

Kennley Wright is a fifth generation family farmer. His family emigrated here from Scotland and laid claim to the family farm in 1877.  Recently an elderly family member pointed out a section on their property as the site of their original farm settlement. Out of curiosity, Kennley explored the area using a metal detector and discovered remnants from that first settlement.

read more Family Farmers: The Wright Family

2017 Fall Harvest and Reflections By Sarah Willis

Fall HarvestIt’s the start of the 2017 fall harvest. For most people, the month of October consists of picking pumpkins, drinking hot apple cider, and trick-or-treating. However, for those of us on the farm, it’s the peak of harvest and a constant struggle between finishing the fall harvest, predicting what the weather will do along with other daily challenges.

read more 2017 Fall Harvest and Reflections By Sarah Willis

First day of Summer on the Farm

First day of Summer on the Farm

Since I was a little girl our family has hosted a Summer Solstice Picnic at the Farm.  A celebratory picnic featuring friends, family, Niman Ranch farmers and field agents is a special way to honor our livelihood and rural community. Wishing all of you a wonderful summer!

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Can Do Attitude

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.


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New Years on the Farm

New Years on the farmAs 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. read more New Years on the Farm

Giving Thanks

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.


Sarah's daugher, Sophia, at a young age with Sarah's father, Paul Willis, on the family farm.
Sarah’s daugher, Sophia, at a young age with Sarah’s father, Paul Willis, on the family farm.

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Recycling in the Farm Fields

As the daylight hours shorten, the landscape gradually transforms from the rich greens of summertime into various autumn shades of gold in the farm fields.  On the farm, that means one thing: harvest time! On our farm, we mainly grow field corn, soybeans, oats and hay. Some of these we grow organically, whereas others we use more conventional methods.


recycling on the farm
Sarah’s father, Paul Willis, with some farrowing hogs in the winter.

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Rural All American Apple Pie

Sarah Willis at her family apple tree.


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.

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The 2016 Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner

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.

read more The 2016 Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner