Update from a midwest friend

Suprise visit from Sarah Willis

Suprise visit from Sarah Willis

Last night we had a surprise visit from an old friend, Sarah Willis, daughter of Paul Willis. Maggie and I met her ten yeas ago when we were out making this video, and we’ve long felt a bond with Paul Willis and family. This was the early days of restaurants thinking about meat as “whole animals,” and the early days of Niman Ranch Pork Company, of which Paul was a founding member.

So, we have brief updates from Sarah:

The number of factory hog farms continues to grow in Iowa BUT, Niman Ranch Pork company has now grown to 700 independent family hog farms. They’re in part heartened by the return of bald eagles. Sarah and Paul were driving near their farm in Thornton, IA and counted 35 bald eagles along the way.

2017-09-12T15:48:06-07:00May 24th, 2012|Ranchers, Willis Farm|0 Comments

Prosciutti Tasting Goes Exotic

Oliviero Colmignoli (Olli)–the prosciutto-maker with Ossabaw procuitto at the SF Fancy Food Show

Oliviero Colmignoli (Olli) the prosciutto-maker with Ossabaw prosciutto at the SF Fancy Food Show

[see the 2011 Whole Hog menu]

The Duroc is a good pig. Back in the day, people were really happy with a nice Duroc. We still like Paul Willis’s hogs, a mixed breed known as Farmers’ Hybrid. This is a combination of older breeds, having good mothering skills, higher backfat than conventional pigs and a sturdy constitution for outdoor living.

In recent years there has been increasing interest to find the “next big thing” in regards to pig breeds. This has led to tracking down small ranchers working with lesser know breeds, as well as a restored interest and a deeper understanding of breed traits and quality.

You can really taste good pork in cured meats, particularly prosciutto. And some of the breeds now finding attention can be truly delicious. So, for the 2011 Whole Hog Dinners, we’ll be offering tastings of some of these newly re-discovered breeds.

The Ossabaw variety is directly descended from pigs brought by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. A herd of them has lived wild on the island of Ossabaw, off the coast of Georgia, isolated from other varieties of pig, its gene pool intact. It is similar in flavor and cooking characteristics to the Senese pig of Tuscany — lean, slow-growing, with fat that melts at low temperatures. We met Oliviero Colmignoli (Olli), the prosciutto-maker who uses this amazing animal at the Fancy Food show in San Francisco last month. He promised us a prosciutto for this year’s hog dinners, even though it won’t be available in stores or online for a few months. It was the talk of the show, and is extraordinary.

The Olli Salumeria in Virginia, which has created this magnificent prociutto from an Ossabaw hog, also has access to the Mangolitsa hog, a Hungarian variety that was near extinction until recently. It has an unusually high percentage of fat with great flavor, thus making superlative lardo and guanciale. We’ll offer both.

And, not to be out done, Herb Eckhouse is providing us a special “green label” prociutto from La Cuercia his company in Iowa. This organic prosciutto is from an acorn-fed, Jude Becker raised Berkshire hog and has been aged 20 months. Jeffrey Steingarten calls it “the best prosciutto imported or domestic you can get.”

We regret going fashionable on you, but these pigs are really good.

2017-09-12T15:48:26-07:00March 3rd, 2011|2011, Events, Happened already..., Willis Farm|0 Comments

This Out & About, We’re All About Porchetta Sandwiches

Oliveto's pig roast at the Rockridge Out & About Festival 2008

Oliveto’s pig roast at the Rockridge Out & About Festival 2008

Next Sunday, September 27th, Oliveto will be participating is the annual Rockridge Out & About Street Festival. This is a really nice event with many activities for both kids and adults, and lots of great stuff to eat.

About fifteen years ago, we decided to roast a pig for the Out & About Festival and make porchetta sandwiches…and we’ve never been able to live that one down. We’ve tried to change it up a few times & got nothing but sad clowns walking around in a daze looking for “the pig.” So we’ve learned to stick with what we know best & give the people what they want. We’ve also learned that people really like porchetta sandwiches, and one pig just won’t do. So, this year we’ll be roasting two whole pigs & serving porchetta sandwiches. But be warned, even with two pigs we usually sell out, so don’t come rolling in around 5:30 looking for “the pig” because all you’ll find left will be some cute kid licking his fingers.

Rockridge Out & About 2009
Sunday, September 27th
11 am – 6 pm

2017-09-12T15:48:55-07:00September 18th, 2009|Events, Willis Farm|0 Comments

From the Field – Niman Ranch Update

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.

2017-09-12T15:49:10-07:00February 12th, 2009|2009, Events, Happened already..., Ranchers, Willis Farm|0 Comments

Willis Farm – Profile

Willis Hog Farm from Oliveto Community on Vimeo.



Paul Willis

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

10 years


Thornton, Iowa




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.



2018-02-22T14:24:36-08:00January 1st, 2009|Ranchers, Willis Farm|0 Comments
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