According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the American population consumed 59.2 million pounds of pork in 2012, roughly the same amount as previous years. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found in a recent survey that the number of hog operations in the U.S. has fallen over the past two decades from 666,000 to about 69,000, even though the same amount of pork is being produced and consumed each year. As livestock production operations are getting larger, and cultivation methods are becoming more industrialized to meet the same demand for “The Other White Meat,” small family farmers are being pushed out of the market by large industrial meat production corporations. This trend of the disappearing family farm is what companies like Niman Ranch Pork Company and its founder, Paul Willis, are fighting, by providing sustainable family farmers a viable and secure market for their product.
Niman Ranch Pork Company is the pork production arm of Niman Ranch, a meat processing and distribution company in the San Francisco Bay region founded in 1969 by Bill Niman. On its website, Niman Ranch points to the role of the giant food industry in crippling small U.S. family farms: “This industrial livestock system is breaking traditional connections between farmer, animals, land and surrounding communities, which ultimately drives full-time, professional farmers out of business.” Niman Ranch works exclusively with a network of small livestock farms throughout California and the Midwest, all of which must adhere to the company’s all-natural, humane cultivation standards. These criteria include total exclusion of antibiotics and added hormones in raising livestock, exclusively vegetarian feed, and the requirement that all animals be raised humanely and sustainably on U.S. family farms and ranches.
“By working with family farms and ranches, we are helping to strengthen rural America and reverse the destructive trend of industrial agriculture” the company explains.
“Niman Ranch farmers have to be owners and be taking care of the animals on a day-to-day basis,” says Willis, “which is a little different than absentee factory farm owners. In fact, it’s much different.”
Willis knows first-hand the importance of family farms. A fourth generation farmer, Willis was born and raised in Iowa on his family’s hog farm. After attending college at the University of Iowa and spending two years in Nigeria with the Peace Corps, Willis returned to the Thornton, Iowa farm and took up the family business, raising hogs in as natural a way as he could: free range, annual crop and pasture rotations, and with as few chemicals and antibiotics as possible.
Willis met Bill Niman in 1995, and soon thereafter began doing business with Niman Ranch. Out of this partnership came the Niman Ranch Pork Company, which formed in 1998, and now manages over 500 family hog farmers across the Midwest. Niman Ranch Pork Company operates from the same farm where Willis was raised.
Niman Ranch Pork Company supplies pork to a wide range of partners. Willis attributes the success of these partnerships and the high demand for his pork to the sustainable methods he uses to raise his pigs, which leads to great tasting meat. For him, there’s scientific thought behind his practices that directly effects the quality of his end product: “If [the pigs are] frightened, you can take a great animal and produce really bad meat because that fear will release lactic acid that will break down the muscle structure, and you’ll end up with tough, nasty meat. So it ultimately does really make a difference in the quality of the pork.”