My father, Paul Willis, was invited by Iowa State Representative Todd Prichard to talk to the Agricultural Committee in Des Moines at the state capitol on February 15th. Dad discussed sustainable, humane and traditional farming opportunities created by Niman Ranch for farmers in the state of Iowa, along with the rural economic development created through this niche market.
We reviewed sobering statistics about the painful transformation American agriculture has experienced in recent years when many of America’s small independent family farms were pushed out by large-scale corporate operations. It was eye-opening to see that in 1970 there were 570,000 hog farmers living and working in rural America while today only 60,000 hog farmers remain. There are fewer people involved in diversified farming operations. Instead, they have been replaced by larger farms that have negatively impacted our rural economies and the environment. The commodity market favors large-scale operations for the quantity they produce, oftentimes penalizing the small independent hog farmers, while Niman Ranch has rewarded smaller family farmer’s for producing a higher quality pork product, one that tastes and looks like pork, not a bland “other white meat.”
We discussed the Niman Ranch difference, including how our network of over 720 independent family farmers and ranchers focus their efforts on producing high-quality pork, beef, and lamb for which the most discerning consumers and chefs in the country are willing to pay more and brand on their menus or highlight on the shelves or behind the glass counters in their stores.
It was important to communicate with our legislators about supporting these markets that truly benefit our rural communities and economies where our farmers live and work. We are proud to have started the Niman Ranch Pork Company right here in Iowa. In fact, it’s something that all Iowans can be proud of.
We presented our map of the Midwest with pinpoints representing the location of our family farmers and it was striking to see the increase we have seen over the years. Niman Ranch has supported the independent family farmer by paying a premium for every animal we buy. We never wanted to lose a farmer due to financial strife. We raise a special product and we pay a special price – one that looks at both a floor price protecting our farmers from extreme price drops along with a premium price that is fair to the farmer and fair to our customers.
A photograph from the early days of the first farmers who supplied our pork company shows a handful of farmers gathered together at the Willis Family Farm, in Thornton, Iowa. Our family remains grateful for the opportunity provided by Niman Ranch. It has been so meaningful to us because our family was able to continue our farming operation due to our relationship with Niman Ranch. It meant even more to us to be able to share that opportunity with other like-minded farmers we knew who continued the tradition of raising their hogs outdoors on pasture or deeply bedded pens in a more humane and sustainable way with no antibiotics. This alternative market we created with Niman Ranch rescued us from our dependence on the commodity market and empowered us with a choice and a cause.
My father’s dedication to our traditional raising methods and utilizing heritage breeds has not only been beneficial for our family farm but hundreds of others.
We have returned hundreds of millions of dollars in Capital Contributions to farmers as they have retired. All the money was fully paid out in January of 2018, with a final payment of $1.3 million going directly to our farmers.
I would like to thank the Iowa State Legislature’s Agriculture Committee for the invitation to come and speak about rural economic development and Niman Ranch. It was an honor for me and my Dad, but also for Niman Ranch, to give a presentation about what our network of farmers are doing and how that has benefited so many rural communities right here in Iowa.