After learning this past week of the sale of Niman Ranch, I called Paul Willis our Iowa hog farmer and co-founder of Niman Ranch Pork Company, to make sure he was OK. We were just beginning a week of Whole Hog dinners. The Niman Ranch name and the network of several hundred hog farmers who share animal treatment, feed and handling standards remain, but the company has not made it through this economy. Read Pork Magazine story here.
Back in 2001 Maggie and I visited Paul and his family, here is a film from that visit:
We have been very close to Paul Willis, Bill Niman and former CEO Mike McConnell, almost from the beginning of the hog company, and we have seen how extraordinarily difficult it has been for them. The meat business is truly nasty. In the early days of this restaurant, periodically there would be someone who would come by with some great meat from a new source. They would take our order, deliver some wonderful meat, but be out of business by the following week. Niman Ranch had been the only meat supplier to last, and develop into something true and substantial. They have been so important to us, and I would think to many quality restaurants and consumers, and to hundreds of old-style hog farmers who have been kept alive by Niman Ranch.
It turns out, Paul is fine. I had not realize this, but he’s the co-founder of Food Democracy Now, a group that has become successful advocates of a more sensible agriculture policy to our new administration. http://www.fooddemocracynow.org/ .
And, Paul promises to continue sending us a whole hog every week.
Paul Willis still lives on the farm where he grew up, in Thornton, IA about 100 miles north of Des Moines. Paul’s passions have always included animals and taking care of the land. It is this passion that led him to join the Peace Corp where he worked as the Young Farmers Club Organizer for the Nigerian Ministry of Agriculture. In 1995, Paul was looking for a way to market natural “free range” pigs when he met Bill Niman. Paul wanted to revitalize traditional hog farming in the Midwest at a time when economics forced many farmers to sell out or turn to factory/confinement hog growing. Niman Ranch offered Paul the opportunity to raise pigs the humane, old-fashioned way and these outdoor-raised pigs quickly became a favorite among Niman Ranch customers. Today, Paul manages a network of over 500 family hog farmers. In addition to managing the Niman Ranch pork operation, Paul still raises 2,500 Farmers’ Hybrid hogs with his wife, Phyllis, and business partner, Jon Carlson, on the Willis Free Range Pig Farm. He also grows his own non-GMO soybeans and organic alfalfa and oats which are used for feed and bedding.
The natural time for animals to be born is the spring. Most pigs go to market at age 6-7 months.
The cost of feed. Niman Ranch tries to maintain a study supply of pork throughout the year, but it can be challenging. It can be difficult to supply pork in July, as those pigs must be born in December, which is a tough time for births
Paul finds pig farming satisfying and fulfilling. Paul likes interacting with the animals. In the past ten thousands years, raising livestock has been a part of the human experience. If his only option was factory farming, then he would not farm.
Animals that run get more oxygen in their systems. They build different types of tissue. They are happier. Willis’s pigs are allowed to socialize, play, root-around, and the piglets are kept with their sows for a full six weeks. This animal friendly environment means the product tastes better.
Length of relationship with Oliveto
Willis is part of the San Francisco Bay area Niman Ranch Food Company. Niman Ranch farms are independently owned. The brand gives these farmers access to the marketplace that they would not otherwise have.