One of our spring activities on the farm is we begin to save some of our chicken eggs for incubating. It’s exciting to watch them as they hatch through the glass window of the incubator. This year we put eggs in the incubator on March 1 and are expected to hatch in 21 days.
It’s February and we are emerging from the dark days of winter. These are the days when a winter storm warning or dreaded “wintery mix” can leave us stuck on the farm for days. During these times I confess I sometimes yearn for the conveniences of city life.
With the beginning of the New Year I like to reflect on the past. Recently, I joined my mother and her group of friends who meet for coffee every Thursday morning. These women have known each other for decades. My mother remembers some of them from her childhood when the Danish Brotherhood, a national organization of Danes in America, would gather.
We have been experiencing unusually warm temperatures this winter. Just two weeks ago I had to mow the yard, unheard of in December, but great weather for farm chores. I expressed my disappointment to my Dad that we probably wouldn’t be having a white Christmas but he reminded me how a mild winter works out just fine for taking care of the pigs.
During the month of November we often take time to reflect on the things we are thankful for, which is why this is the perfect time for Part III of my reflections on the Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner. This event is our opportunity to show appreciation for the farmers’ hard work and integrity.
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.