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.
The beginning of winter offers new challenges on the farm. Weather is unpredictable all over the Midwest. Our first blizzard hit us before Thanksgiving, when we received about 2 feet of snow in one day. The snowflakes were beautiful as they billowed noiselessly to the ground.
Do you care where your meat comes from and want to feel confident when making purchases at the grocery store? Have you considered asking your local butcher about the farm producing the meat you are buying, and how the animals were raised on that farm? If you haven’t, you should, because the way the animals were raised plays into the quality of the meat.
A feeling of accomplishment sets in as another year of school is finished and Sophia is ready for summer. Today she couldn’t wait to spend time swimming with friends. It’s been a little crazy this year wrapping up the eighth grade and looking forward to beginning high school in the fall.
It’s that time of year again. Spring signifies new life, which is easily observed here on the farm. Recently, I visited fellow Niman Ranch Farmers Paul and Andrea Brown, who farm with their children right here in Iowa. They raise pigs for Niman Ranch – just part of their entire operation. They rotate the pig’s pasture from year to year, incorporating livestock with their crop production to enrich the soil.
I often get asked what we use to take the place of farrowing crates. I like to say we take our lead from nature. Animals are already given the tools to reproduce and care for their own. Farrowing in the pasture begins in the spring. I know my dad’s goal was to have everything set up for the sows in the field by April 1. Historically, hog farmers utilized A- frame houses as shelters for pigs raised on pasture.
It was a cold dreary day in February when our good friends from La Quercia, Herb and Kathy Eckhouse, called me to see if they could bring three people from the Boston Area including; Chris Himmel, Chef Nick Deutmeyer, and Chef Eric Brennan, from Grill 23, Post 390 and Harvest Cambridge, on a Niman Ranch farm tour. Their guests were interested to learn more about where their pork comes from, how the pigs were raised and why that matters in the creation of La Quercia’s artisanal meats.
We took our guests to visit long time Niman Ranch farmers Marlin and Judy Mowry. They came outside to greet us wearing warm winter coveralls while their farm dogs playfully pranced around with excitement. They said most of their pets were rescued from various bad situations, and were now finding solace here in a loving and safe environment. You could see the pride they take in the care of all their animals. The Mowrys were thrilled to host the tour and explained to us that they chose to work with Niman Ranch because they felt the animal handling protocols fell in line with their own core personal values about treating all life with respect.
January and February are often focused on planning and preparation for the year ahead. Not only do we start working on annual Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner, which will be held in September, but it’s also time for the Niman Ranch hog farmer regional meetings. Our local Niman Ranch Field Agents organize regional get-togethers at the start of the year because it’s usually a slower time of the year for us-well, less field work anyway!
The meetings are a time for learning and also a chance to connect with one another. Farmers are served lunch featuring our own Niman Ranch Pork- from the animals we raised- while brushing up on a few things and exchanging helpful hints.
As is true for many of you, the weather has been interfering with our regular activity schedule lately. My daughter, now in 7th grade basketball, often waits to hear whether or not their games will have to be postponed. I’ve had to pay extra attention to our chickens as the wind can blow the cover off their coop, or the water may freeze – so many things can go wrong! I get many questions this time of year about how Niman Ranch pigs handle Iowa winters.
Niman Ranch farmers raise their pigs outdoors on pasture or in deeply bedded pens. The deeply bedded pens can be in old fashioned barns, hoop buildings or other traditional farm structures. The pigs love to root through the bedding and find a nice soft place to lie down. This deeply bedded system provides warmth during these frigid temperatures. When the bedding gets soiled by the pigs the farmer applies clean bedding on top. This starts a composting process which generates heat, like an electric blanket for the pigs. The pigs can go outside to eat and get a drink whenever they want or stay inside the deeply bedded barn or hoop building to keep warm. Inside they have plenty of room to move around and behave naturally. Our farmers take special care during these winter months in raising their livestock.
Recently, I was invited to speak at the Farmer Veteran Coalition’s Empowering Women Veterans Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. The Farmer Veteran Coalition, founded by Michael O’Gorman, is a veteran outreach organization offering employment and farm education programs for veterans. Niman Ranch has been working with the organization to provide opportunities for veterans to join the Niman Ranch community of family farmers.
It’s an understatement to tell you how honored I was to speak at the Empowering Women Veteran’s Conference on Agriculture, Business and Well-being. I was so impressed with this group. Many of the attendees were actual veterans themselves, while others were spouses of veterans, including several who were married to persons who died in service to our country. All of the attendees continue their tradition of serving to make the world a better place, this time through farming.