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.
Autumn is here and as I was trying a new recipe with my mother for apple cake, our conversation turned towards the changing landscape.
We are in the midst of harvest season. Much of the corn and soybeans which surrounds us is being combined (a large machine which harvests crops) out of the fields. No more “corn corners”- a term those of us in rural areas use to identify intersections in the country where the visibility has decreased significantly due to the height of the corn. The landscape has opened up again and we can see far and wide.
The Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner is the highlight of the year for many of us! In appreciation for the hog farmers who raise hogs humanely and sustainably for Niman Ranch, a group of highly acclaimed chefs from across the country take time off to travel to Iowa to cook this special dinner for our farmers.
This year we were honored to have the most distinctive line-up yet, with:
This was the fifteenth year for the Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner Weekend. The main event is a farm-to-table dinner held on Saturday evening at the Embassy Suites in Des Moines honoring the network of family farmers who supply pork to Niman Ranch. The event is free of charge for the farmers. Seven highly acclaimed chefs from across the country – all of whom are true culinary leaders and influencers in their regions and understand that good food starts at the farm – traveled to Iowa to tour a farm that is part of the network of farmers who supply Niman Ranch and to cook this six course meal in celebration of these farmers.
Recently I visited the Brown family at their farm in New Providence, Iowa. They are a part of the network of family farmers who supply pigs to Niman Ranch. It was a beautiful drive about an hour and a half south of my house. I couldn’t help but notice that there were many fields that remained bare because of the record amounts of rain we received in May, our prime time for planting here in Iowa. Unfortunately, some fields won’t be planted because not enough time remains in the growing season to produce any kind of yield. Many farmers may plant cover crops to prevent erosion and to have something on the land.
When I arrived at what I thought was the Brown farm, I was confused. There was a sign posted in the yard that said: “Alderland Farms.” I thought I may have gone to the wrong property. But then I saw Paul Brown, who gave me a warm welcome and invited me inside their farm house.
It’s great to see that so many people are gaining awareness about the increasing obstacles family farmers across America are facing but many don’t know what to do about it. Fortunately for us, Niman Ranch recognized early on that young and beginning farmers lack the support and tools they need and often go looking for opportunities elsewhere abandoning their family’s tradition of farming.
To slow this trend, Niman Ranch set up the Next Generation Scholarship Fund. This fund supports the children of farmers within the Niman Ranch community of family farmer by offering them scholarships to help them seek a higher education in areas that would improve their family’s farming operation and their rural hometown communities.
I participated recently in Food Revolution Day at Google campus in Seattle, Washington. It was part of a broader event held nationally at all of the Google campuses and worldwide as part of Food Revolution Day. This is a day to reconnect people with real food and essential cooking skills. It was started by television personality Chef Jamie Oliver. He describes the Food Revolution on his website as:
“a chance for people to come together within their homes, schools, workplaces and communities to cook and share their kitchen skills, food knowledge and resources. Food Revolution Day aims to raise awareness about the importance of good food and better food education for everyone by focusing on three simple actions – cook it, share it, live it.”
For the past ten years, Sophia and I have been living on a farm just a mile away from where I grew up. Last month, we finally decided to make a change and move into town. It was a tough decision, we’ll no doubt miss living on a farm, but we are close enough to still help my father. This realization made the transition a little bit easier.
Remember that six-pack of chickens we bought back in March? Well, they grew pretty fast and I have to confess their home our basement where we were keeping them became a bit of a nuisance. It was a real chore to clean it every day and the chickens were going through the feed like you wouldn’t believe. We brought those chickens with us when we moved into town and move them to a fancy little chicken run and hen house we found at our local farm supply store.