Guest post by Abby Larsen who farms with her husband Kyle for Niman Ranch in Iowa
My husband, Kyle Larsen, has been putting more gravel in his travel this winter. He is logging more miles not only because our farrow-to-finish hog farm has expanded to more sites, but also because he has eagerly attended as many Niman Ranch regional meetings as possible to tell other farmers about our “Pay It Forward” program. The new “Pay It Forward” program awards grants funded by Niman Ranch farmers for Niman Ranch farmers to support farm and breeding stock expansions and overall operation improvements.
The idea for Pay It Forward originated from our love for the community-driven culture of Niman Ranch and the warm-fuzzy feeling it provides. When we were driving home from the 2018 Annual Niman Ranch Hog Farmer Appreciation Dinner, Kyle felt bummed about not donating to the college scholarship fund this past year and we promised ourselves that we would show up in the program as a donor in 2019. We are inspired by all of those who do donate each and every year to help members of Niman Ranch farm families pay for higher education. As a past Next Generation Scholarship recipient, Kyle has felt the immense support of Niman Ranch. In fact, the flexible scholarship allowed for the financing of the hog operation that has helped pay off additional student debts.
We asked ourselves, what about those next-generation farmers who are just starting their own hog farms? Over the past few years, we have expanded our own farm and felt financial stressors from many directions and realized that the need was great for support for folks in positions like us. Thus, the Pay It Forward grant was born.
The “Pay It Forward” grant is purposed for beginning farmers to make investments in their farm like putting a down payment on a new barn project, purchasing reliable breeding stock, or renovating an existing barn to meet Niman Ranch’s high standards. The possibilities are endless. Donations are entirely optional, but the more farmers that contribute to this grant, the more opportunities abound. Powerful things happen when Niman Ranch supports its farmers and when farmers support each other.
It is no secret that America is seeing a decline in young and beginning farmers. Some may blame it on the pull coming from “Corporate America.” Some blame it on the extensive costs, labor, and time needed to dedicate to a break-even career. We have seen a fair amount of that firsthand on our own farm. Financially speaking, the costs add up quickly: the pigs to breed to make more pigs; costs to feed, water, house, medicate (if necessary) those pigs; costs to maintain the machinery that help with those activities; costs to update and improve things on the farm; and finally, getting that healthy hog safely to market. You get the picture. The hog industry is wildly competitive so from a financial and capital standpoint, entering the industry from ground zero seems intimidating. We have built multiple buildings from scratch and while the initial down payments may feel gut-wrenching, the return on investment is well worth it. It takes grit, determination, and always putting the wellbeing of the pig first.
Niman Ranch is built differently than traditional hog commodity companies. Niman Ranch is forward-thinking and has a strong foundation built by direct relationships with a network of uniquely different independent family farmers. The community amongst the farmers is evident and you see it at each and every Niman Ranch event. Many mentorship relationships have been forged by the annual and quarterly regional meetings. These relationships and contacts are vital for young farmers as they endure the highs and lows of building their dream careers. Most importantly, ideas are shared. While all Niman Ranch farmers must meet the company’s strict protocols, they have flexibility on how they manage and operate their own farm because there is no “ideal” hog farm set up. Pig farming is like the human diet; there is no one-size-fits-all approach but rather it’s about what works best for the farmer and their land. Niman Ranch is focused now more than ever on sharing farmer experiences openly. The more knowledge we can arm our producers with, the stronger the Niman Ranch network and brand.
By supporting our young farmers both in mentorship and in financial gain through the Pay It Forward program, we are helping each other to make the best decisions for our farms as well as investing in the continued success of Niman Ranch.