Tour & Dinner at Willis Farm

Mastermind Weekend 1/16

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I'm Tina

I’m the owner of Carrots ‘N’ Cake as well as a Certified Nutrition Coach and Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner (FDN-P). I use macros and functional nutrition to help women find balance within their diets while achieving their body composition goals.

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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! 😀

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Mama and piglet! 😀

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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

  1. It’s so sad to see all these animals and know that they’ll be killed. Tina, does it make you more hesitant about eating meat? I went on a volunteer trip recently and we were in a country where chickens were allowed to roam around freely in the streets, etc. After seeing that on my first day there, I couldn’t eat meat for the remainder of the trip because I kept thinking about the cute chickens we saw on the street.

  2. I think the pigs are so cute! I actually thought pigs were disgusting before reading this post. I didn’t know they got so big too! Great post. This post does make me want to eat less pork – still love poultry though!

  3. Being a person who has decided to become vegetarian due to the inhumane animals are slaughtered, I have to give a big thumbs up to this farm for slaughtering their animals in such a humane way. I love knowing that the pigs have a less stressful journey to the slaughterhouse and are basically put to sleep before being slaughtered. Thanks for sharing such a great experience and making me hopeful in a small sector of the meat industry!

  4. I don’t eat meat, but I definitely agree that their method is a lot more humane than most others. It is a part of the “circle of life” and you have to do what you have to do sometimes.

    That dinner looks like so much fun! Like a big potluck with healthy, flavorful food; very fall-like!

    And …(ahem)… will we be hearing some house news soon? 😉

  5. Hey, cool, you’re hanging with my buddies! Danielle and I went to Big Sur Bakery last week – isn’t she awesome? And of course Chef John is fabulous, obviously. I’m jealous of this amazing trip, but really glad you got to go on it!

  6. The piglets are adorable!!

    You have a really cute typo- the pigs are put to sleep before they’re “slathered”. That’s pretty funny! Slathered in honey glaze? 🙂 Butter?

    That looks like a really cool experience! Did they put an apple in the pig’s mouth?
    Happy weekend!
    Georgia

  7. I love your pictures– I miss my home state, but I’ll be back in November and your pics are making me so excited!! 🙂

    I’m so glad you had such a great time!

  8. I agree with you that it is sad that the pigs are killed, but it makes me feel better that for they are treated well while they are alive. I eat meat, but I perfer to eat meat that is raised in a respectful matter. I actually quit eating Tyson chicken after watching Food Inc. I can’t support a company or stand eating an animal the way they treated it!

  9. My children have raised animals in 4-H and we know going into it that the animals are terminal. It is hard to think about them being slaughtered especially when we get attached to them. I tell my kids, we have raised an amimal to feed people. We are doing a good thing.

  10. This method is DEFINITELY *more* humane, and definitely a far cry from the horrible conditions most hogs suffer through. Absolutely props to the farmers for caring about the hogs’ daily lives and trying to minimize their stress.

    But, in my opinion, “humane slaughter” is an oxymoron, and no amount of CO2 can change that.

  11. I would love to visit a farm like this — those pigs are HUGE — wow. I think it would be so hard to become attached to the animals (I know I would!) and then slaughter them. I appreciate their more humane methods — I wish all farms would adapt such methods.

    Tina I love that your meal was a little bit of “food” and then a few cookies and wine 🙂

  12. I really have been starting to ‘put it all together’ since reading blogs such as your own. I’m starting to feel more of a responsibility toward the meat I eat and where it is obtained. I wish there was a clear path for the clueless, such as myself, to be able to find humane sources of meat such as this farm (I’m in Ohio). I really admire what they are doing.

  13. It is great that the animals are treated so humanely, but it is still so sad to think about gassing and then slaughtering them. Also they are so cute!!!!

  14. @Tina: Tina, I give you a lot of credit for taking the time to get to know your farmer and how your food gets from the farm to your plate.
    @Mari, we are dairy farmers but also raise Natural Beef as well {these are a different breed from the dairy cows} and although it is sometimes difficult to think about the harvesting day for an animal….just know that naturally raised animals have a wonderful life they lead and some of them are put on this earth to help feed the world. When the day of harvest comes, they truly don’t know what has hit them, they do not suffer. Hope this helps ease the thought of the harvesting of an animal for you.

  15. wow. sounds like a great experience! I’m glad you spoke about the slaughter process. I think it’s important not to gloss over that part because it is what happens. As cute as those hogs are out in the pasture, enjoying life, they are there to ultimately end up on plates. It is sad, but a lot of people aren’t vegetarians and shouldn’t ignore what really happens.

    Looks like a great meal and evening the family had for all of you!

  16. That one hog if HUGEE!!!! Daggum! I like what he said about the “one bad day” and I believe him, the hogs looks like they were having a grand time- regular Babes 😉

    The hay ride made me smile. They never get old 🙂

  17. beautiful farmland. i guess i feel like humane and slaughter are mutually exclusive terms, but that’s just my opinion. that said, i do appreciate your sharing with us how this particular farm goes out of their way to use practices that treat the animals as well as possible. it certainly makes them stand out.

  18. Because of the global (warming) implications of importing foods, particularly soy, I think that small family farms are a responsible choice for folks who want to eat meat – keeps things local, and I find that bringing food production to a more human scale is much more ethical than our current corporate quandary.
    Glad you got to tour farms first hand – I wish, as a nation, we could support the very people who have traditionally been our lifeline!

  19. Really enjoyed your post. You did an excellent job of recounting your trip and telling the story of the Willis farm. Did you see any combines harvesting corn while you were on the road? Harvest is my favorite time of year in Iowa.

    By the way, “layer” barns are for chickens. The barns you saw on the road were probably hog barns. “Market” hogs are raised to about 250 pounds, and they aren’t kept in crates (they are raised in pens in groups), and they aren’t stacked on top of each other. Hogs are a little to heavy to stack 🙂

  20. I must say that it is great to see so many people who are really interested in where their food, in particular, meat, comes from. When I talk with people about meat and how it’s processed, most people interrupt and say “I don’t want to know” which is so bizarre to me! This was a good posting.

  21. Gas and slaughter?

    All that brings to mind is the Holocaust.

    I was disgusted by the picture of the pig roast, and heartbroken by the pictures of the innocent pigs, unaware they only had one purpose in life… to be food for human beings.

    This is no reflection on you, Tina. This post just saddened and angered me, because although it’s great to see an ethical farmer… those pigs deserve to live too, and because of selfish human desires, they won’t.

    No one can say that we absolutely ‘need’ to eat meat to survive, so yeah. It’s just heartbreaking to me.

  22. @Alexis:

    I have always loved pigs. Growing up I wanted a pet pig. Now I am married and my father-in-law has a diary/chicken farm. They too are treated humanely and each animal has its own personality. I cannot imagine eating any of his cows because I love each and every one of them.

  23. See, I am not sold by the “circle of life” argument. As humans, we have evolved far beyond the practices of most other animals, and just because some animals are carnivorous, I don’t necessarily believe we should be, too. I haven’t fully worked my way through these issues, but I think the “circle of life” argument encourages people to eat meat without really thinking about what it means. I am really happy to see animals treated humanely, but I would encourage everyone who eats meat to think beyond the justification of “other animals eat meat, so I should, too.”

  24. Niman Ranch does a lot of good for pigs. I really admire Bill Niman for starting this (for lack of a better word) trend.
    The one thing that they do different that Bill Niman used to insist on (he sold the company a while back) is that they ship the pigs farther than he liked to the slaughter house. He wanted to minimize stress on the pigs, and now they travel farther than he intended. I can’t say this is true for the farm you visited, but in California, they do this now.
    An interesting interview with Bill Niman: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/02/22/MNHM15ME01.DTL&ao=3
    He has his own farm, now and is unable to use his last name in association with his farm, since he sold it and his name.

  25. i know a lot of people were kinda harsh in the above comments but i guess freedom of speech wins out. i agree with you that its sad, but it is so great that there are farmers trying to move away from corporations and factory farming. i dont eat pork but the meat i do eat MUST be local or wild or organic. i feel theres no better choice to make than one that not only respects our bodies, but the animals’ too <3

    xoxo

  26. Who knew that you could have such a great time at a Hog Farm?! I give the Willis Farm a big thumbs-up for how they treat their cows from the pasture to the slaughterhouse. PS – I loved the “shabby-chic” look too! Perfect for dinner on the farm. 🙂

  27. I am also vegetarian, but I definitely have respect for the way they operate their farm. It’s nice to know that there are some farms out there which treat their animals well and actually care about their well-being. Thanks for showing us this Tina!

  28. I really liked your choice of words in describing the slaughter. I personally think humans evolved to where we are today BECAUSE we eat meat, so while it is sad, I think it’s part of the circle of life too.

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