• Tour & Dinner at Willis Farm

    September 18, 2010

    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    The hogs were so adorable! They sort of remind me of pugs for some reason– lots of snorting, sniffing, and eating! ;-)

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    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.

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    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! :-D

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    Mama and piglet! :-D

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    This piglet was born yesterday morning!

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    Pig kiss!

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    Oink.

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    After touring the farm, we drove down the road to the Willis family’s “dream farm.”

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    It was breathtaking!!!

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    There, we enjoyed a lovely dinner prepared by the family.

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    There were lots of finger foods, vegetable dishes, freshly baked breads, and the like.

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    I loved the shabby-chicness of the mismatched plates, glasses, and silverware.

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    The meal also included a pig roast. I’ve never seen one so big!

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    I munched on a number of appetizers, drank some wine white, and then made myself a plate of food.

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    I also enjoyed a piece of apple pie and a bunch of chocolate chip-walnut cookies.

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    After dinner, I mixed and mingled, but I spent the majority of the evening with the two other bloggers on the trip: Danielle and John. The three of us had a ton to talk about!

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    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!

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    Sarah and Sophia demonstrated how tall the field had gotten. How cute are they?!

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    So pretty!

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    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!

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    { 66 comments… read them below or add one }

    Amber K September 19, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    I am so glad I can’t STAND the taste/texture of meat. I could never meet those piggies and then eat at a pig roast!

    Thanks for giving us all a look at this farm though, I learned a lot!

    Reply

    Shanna, Like Banana September 19, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    Very cute little piglets. I’d have a very tough time though..I can’t stand thinking about where (the very little amount of) meat I consume comes from. It makes me so sad!

    Reply

    Heather September 19, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    those piggies are so cute!
    I am def a meat eater, but its nice to see they are treated well.
    It makes me sad that people say its selfish to eat pigs but its ok to abort babies? ok off my soapbox :)
    thanks for the informative post, you always do such a good job with controversial issues!

    Reply

    Clare Allen September 19, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    I don’t think that slaughtering pigs for human consumption is part of “the circle of life” either.

    Reply

    Rachel September 19, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    Well. I love that you visited this farm! It is so refreshing to see pigs enjoying their time outdoors instead of stuck inside suffering.
    I’m an omnivore, but I have thought a LOT about what I eat and where it comes from. I enjoy eating meat, but I believe that I can “come to terms” with eating meat by knowing where my meat comes from. I highly recommend reading the book “Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. I just finished it and it has really changed the way that I feel about many things – including hunting, which I absolutely HATED. I eat a lot of meat-free meals, but once in awhile I get the craving, so I spend more money and buy grass-fed, well-cared for meat. I could go on forever about this topic…So, anyway – the pig roast and hay ride looked like a blast!

    Reply

    Amy September 19, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    @Kath: I very much agree that eating meat has been part of human evolution, and we probably wouldn’t be here without it! The question I keep asking myself is, have we moved past that NOW? Is eating meat necessary TODAY? The answers to those questions may very well be different for everyone, but I think it’s really interesting to think about.

    And just to be clear, there’s no judging on my part. I’m married to meat-eater. I’m just a proponent of critically evaluating the world, including our eating habits – and that’s obviously something you do. :)

    Reply

    Lisa September 19, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    The baby piggies are adorable. And I totally feel guilty about eating ham for dinner tonight….. ;(

    Reply

    Isabella September 19, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    Tina,
    I think that a lot of people are putting you down for recapping your visit to the farm and I hate to see that. Thank you for opening my eyes to where the food that I eat really comes from (I LOVE meat). Although I don’t like to think that an animal has to die so I can eat, you said it perfectly, “it’s the circle of life”. Do you think the first people on earth were worried about not eating animals? It’s how our ancestors survived and we are here today because they all ate meat. Enjoy your night at home with Mal and Murphy!

    Isabella

    Reply

    stacey-healthylife September 19, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    I love the country setting, so pretty.

    Reply

    kate September 20, 2010 at 12:01 am

    I was a vegetarian for 7 years and then hen I moved to Iowa I got the chance to spend time on farms like the one above and my outlook completely changed. It is possible to be an ethical meat eater.

    Reply

    jennie in wonderland September 20, 2010 at 7:27 am

    @Isabella:

    No one is putting Tina down. I think a lot of people are just concerned with the treatment of animals and their consumption as food product. Especially after seeing their little ‘faces’. It’s hard to look your food straight in the eye, after all.

    I’m a vegetarian and just wanted to share my opinion. An opinion is not an attack and I certainly enjoy Tina’s writing and her blog.

    Reply

    Kristy September 20, 2010 at 10:55 am

    Wow! What an experience! You are very blessed :-)

    Reply

    L September 20, 2010 at 11:01 am

    @Heather: I am with you here Heather. It is sad that so many people and the media make the killing of animals such an issue and yet, many (not all) of the same people are pro choice and think it’s perfectly fine to destroy a human life. This isn’t meant to start a debate or even discussion. I do eat meat but respect the opinions of those that choose not to. I would just encourage all the animal rights activists to consider the value of a human life too.
    Great job posting on this topic, Tina!

    Reply

    Erika September 20, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    I just wanted to say that my husband is a “conventional” hog farmer and he also uses the CO2 method when having to put hogs down.

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    Wendy H September 22, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Awe I want to go! The piggys are beautiful! so sad we have to eat them.

    Reply

    Ruth Jacobsen September 24, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    I am so proud of my cousins for their love of the land, restoration of acres of prairie lands and above all, their humane treatment of animals. We need to spread the word to stop the purchasing of meat and eggs from CRATE FARMS.
    Ruth J.

    Reply

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