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.
It is beautiful as June approaches, the trees are leafing out and the birds are busy building their nests. If you will recall my daughter, Sophia, conned her grandmother into purchasing some baby chicks from the Tractor Supply Co in Mason City just a few weeks ago. They have already grown so much and have begun to feather out. We made a cozy little home for them in a tank in our outdoor dining room. Sophia takes them outside everyday just as a mother hen would, they love it. They explore and search for delicious bugs to eat. We also welcome the warm spring weather and all that comes with it, including wonderful things for us to eat; like asparagus, morel mushrooms and rhubarb.
Every spring when the rhubarb comes up it is hard not to be reminded of Garrison Keillor’s Rhubarb Pie song. Everyone seems to have their own patch of Rhubarb and that means lots of Rhubarb Pie! We love warm Rhubarb Pie fresh from the oven with a scoop of old fashioned vanilla ice cream. My mother, Phyllis, says it’s all in the crust and the best crusts are made with lard. We like to use our own lard from our very own Niman Ranch pigs. Making Rhubarb pie is like a competitive sport. We all have our own way of doing it and of course we think ours is the best. Here is my mother’s recipe off the top of her head this morning.
A new year has arrived and despite the cold and blustery weather here in Iowa it felt warm and cozy inside our little house on the prairie. The inclement weather did not stop time, but it did force us to make some adjustments to our plans. I had loads of paperwork to do and holiday functions to attend, but when the weather made a turn for the worst and my dad asked me to help with the pigs I had to drop everything. It was foggy and cold. The pigs needed bedding and we had to check to make sure the waters were working properly and had not frozen over. The fog lasted for days and had enveloped everything in sight with a fantastic surreal white frost known as a hoar frost.
I grabbed my camera and snapped a few shots while working with the pigs. Farmers have to be flexible because nature is unpredictable. It may seem inconvenient to have our lives interrupted by a force of nature but I welcome the interruption. It reminds me that I am part of it. I pulled on my coveralls, scrounged for some warm work gloves and boots and headed out the door. My job is pretty simple. I just have to watch the gate to make sure the pigs don’t get out Our dog, Nigel, loves to help. He is a Pembroke Welsh Corgi and naturally a herding dog. He is never happier than when he is working. The pigs don’t mind him at all. They seem to understand. My dad, Paul Willis, is so skilled at running the skid loader after many years that its movements look like their following my father’s instructions. He uses the bucket and clamp to grab a hold of a big round bale of corn stalks and the pigs run wildly this-way-and-that in playful anticipation of the new bedding.
It’s harvest time! The time of year when we reap what we have sewn. The fields of corn have evolved from the rich luscious green of July into an aged, well worn yellow ochre. We were feverishly harvesting and canning our prized heirloom tomatoes from the garden just weeks ago and now we are preparing for a great feast.
It’s that time of year when everything speeds up before it slows down. Winter is coming as you can see by just looking at the birds cascading across the countryside making their way south for the winter. It congers up feelings of nostalgia for me, reflecting on the summer that has just passed. The pigs born in the field in April, the tomatoes in my garden that took forever to ripen and now it’s time to clean up and make plans for next year.
I have an old leather bound book I found at a thrift store entitled, “Pigs Is Pigs”. Funny how just seeing that book in my bookshelf makes me think about how untrue that statement is. The other day another Niman Ranch farmer from Minnesota came to our farm to purchase some Gilts from us. A Gilt is a young female that hasn’t had a litter of pigs yet. A big part of raising livestock is being able to recognize good breeding stock. We take all kinds of things into consideration, body style, personality, agility, the number of pigs its mother had and so forth proving that “Pigs Is Pigs” just isn’t true.
This year we hosted our 11th annual Hog Farmer Appreciation Dinner. During this weekend-long celebration, we recognize Niman Ranch farmers who raise the animals and tend to the land. Each year, Niman Ranch selects a group of chefs to come to Iowa to meet and cook for the Niman Ranch Farmers.
We begin the weekend with a tour of the Willis Farm. This provides the chefs and other guests with an opportunity to see first-hand how we raise our animals traditionally, outdoors on pasture or deeply bedded pens and how that plays out in the flavor of the pork. Afterwards, we provide them with Dinner – or Supper I should say (in the country we call Lunch, “Dinner” and Dinner, “Supper”).