The Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner provides an opportunity for our featured chefs and special guests to gain a deeper understanding of what traditional, sustainable and humane family farming looks like by visiting us here at Willis Farms in Thornton, Iowa.
Every year we provide a farm tour and this year it was more special for me than ever before as I worked side-by-side with my daughter, Sophia, many good friends and family members including some extra help from a crew of friends from out-of -town. Pete Marczyk and his entourage from Marczyk Fine Foods who had traveled all the way from Denver, Colorado, to help us prepare the outdoor dinner.
This year’s 14th annual Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner was a unique farm-to-table event which celebrated the hard work and independent spirit of the farmers who supply humanely and sustainably raised pork for Niman Ranch.
It all started in mid-July. Sophia and I bought some sweet corn from a local purveyor, I am not going to name names, and that very night I made it for supper for my parents and a few friends. I was embarrassed by just how tasteless and chewy it was. It just wasn’t as sweet and tender as the corn we were used to; my father even seemed to think that perhaps I was sold field corn instead.
So that started our sweet corn tasting extravaganza. We were on a mission to find the best sweet corn. The next day we bought the Candy Corn variety of sweet corn from another family farmer. What a contrast, it was beautiful with golden yellow nuggets, sweet yet savory especially when covered in salted butter. My father liked this much more however, he was certain that the Peaches and Cream variety was better yet.
Early in July we had a special visitor to the Willis family farm, Ken Myers and his two adorable children stopped by during their summer vacation. Ken had visited us a few years ago with a group from Chipotle Mexican Grill. To support its mission of Food With Integrity, each year Chipotle sends employees by the bus-load to visit our farm to gain a deeper understanding of what the mission means. The employees learn more about farming sustainably, the humane treatment of farm animals and how all of this plays into the flavor of Niman Ranch pork.
Ken was so inspired by his trip to our farm that he has been telling his children stories ever since and wanted them to see our pigs the way he did : pasture-raised, curious and friendly. When they arrived it was one of the hottest days during this hot and dry Iowa summer. The pigs were just lazing about and were not very interested in our visitors. However, they were interested in the mudhole by the water tank, which the pigs use to cool down on hot summer days. The children were excited to walk into the field and finally see the pigs they had heard so much about.
At a recent event in New York, someone told me they had never met anyone with a stronger sense of place than my father, Paul Willis. I have been thinking about that comment for awhile and believe it is an attribute so many family farmers in the Midwest have in common. I began thinking about my own sense of place and feelings about being raised on a farm in Iowa. Having lived in other parts of the country – Iowa will always be home to me.
This brings me to my latest visit to a hog farming family who supply sustainably raised hogs to Niman Ranch. Richard and Delores Blackford have been selling pigs to Niman Ranch for well over 10 years. Now their daughter and son-in- law, Carolyn and Marty Osterman, are running the hog farming operations. Arriving on a bright summer.
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.