Yesterday afternoon, I boarded a bus with members of the media, chefs, restauranteurs, and farmers to the heartland of Iowa. We drove about 100 miles north of Des Moines to Thornton to tour and enjoy dinner at the Willis Farm.
Willis Farm is just one of 650 independent farmers and ranchers in the Niman Ranch network. Whether they raise hogs, beef or lamb, they all share Niman Ranch’s dedication to strict protocols and the belief in all-natural, humane, and sustainable methods of farming.
On the drive, we saw tons and tons of corn and soybean fields as well as a bunch of “layer farms,” where up to 2,500 animals are housed in crates on top of one another.
When we arrived at Willis Farm, Paul Willis welcomed us to his farm, which is the same one where he grew up. Today, Paul manages a network of over 500 family hog farmers, 30 – 40% of which are Amish. He also grows his own non-GMO soybeans and organic alfalfa and oats which are used for feed and bedding.
Willis Farm is not USDA-certified organic, but all Niman Ranch animals are humanely raised, never given antibiotics or hormones, and are only fed top-quality, all vegetarian feeds. The Willis Farm is not certified organic because the family doesn’t want to increase the costs of their meats to consumers.
After learning about Niman Ranch and Willis Farm, we headed out to pasture to visit the hogs. Paul raises about 300 hogs at a time.
The hogs were so adorable! They sort of remind me of pugs for some reason– lots of snorting, sniffing, and eating!
What surprised me most about the hogs is that they were incredibly friendly. There were close to 100 people in the pasture with them and they didn’t mind at all. They actually seemed quite stress-free with all of us walking around and snapping photos of them.
Even though it’s not a fun thing to talk about, I received a few questions about the slaughtering process of these animals. Paul Willis told us: “Niman hogs only have one bad day,” which is slaughter day.
Once the hog reaches “market size” (about 260 pounds), they are sent to a meat packing facility. Willis Farm ships their hogs together to help minimize the stress on them. When they’re with their herd-mates, it makes the process less scary for the animals. When the hogs arrive at the packing facility, they are guided into a room where CO2 gases render them unconscious. Basically, the hogs are put to sleep before they are slaughtered. One of the Niman Ranch field representative told us that the slaughterhouse is actually very quiet because the hogs aren’t frightened and don’t squeal.
It’s sad to think about what happens to these animals, but it’s all part of the circle of life and it’s a much more humane method of slaughtering than using an electrical stun-gun, which is often used in conventional farming.
Ok, enough of the sad stuff. Here are some more pig photos!
Mama and piglet!
This piglet was born yesterday morning!
After touring the farm, we drove down the road to the Willis family’s “dream farm.”
It was breathtaking!!!
There, we enjoyed a lovely dinner prepared by the family.
There were lots of finger foods, vegetable dishes, freshly baked breads, and the like.
I loved the shabby-chicness of the mismatched plates, glasses, and silverware.
The meal also included a pig roast. I’ve never seen one so big!
I munched on a number of appetizers, drank some wine white, and then made myself a plate of food.
I also enjoyed a piece of apple pie and a bunch of chocolate chip-walnut cookies.
Toward the end of the evening, Paul and his daughter, Sarah, and hgranddaughter, Sophia, offered to take guests on a hayride tour of their farm. Of course, I didn’t turn down the opportunity!
Sarah and Sophia demonstrated how tall the field had gotten. How cute are they?!
We left the Willis Farm around 9:00 pm and drove back to Des Moines. It ended up being a late night, but well worth it. I passed out as soon as I got back to my hotel room.
Many thanks to the Willis family for giving us a tour of their farm and hosting dinner. I had a wonderful time!