Paul Willis, Farmer and Founder of Niman Ranch Pork Company, is speaking at the inaugural Boston Food Tank Summit, “Investing in Discovery,” which will be held in collaboration with Tufts University and Oxfam America on April 1, 2017.
As a fourth-generation hog farmer from Iowa, Paul is dedicated to promoting animal welfare, stewardship of the land, and sustainable farming methods both on his own farm and in the food system. Niman Ranch, a leader in humanely and sustainably raised pork, beef, and lamb, sells to grocery stores and restaurants around the nation. With a focus on sustainable practices and fair pay to the family farmers who supply their meats, Niman Ranch has grown into a network of more than 720 family farmers supplying meat that is free of antibiotics, hormones, and certified humane.
Food Tank had a chance to speak with Paul about growing up on a family farm and the importance of sustainable practices in agriculture.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Paul Willis (PW): The fact that industrial hog production, in particular, was squeezing us out of the market. I thought there would be a place for a brand of clean, humanely raised pigs. One of the things that caught my attention was the introduction of microbreweries instead of commodity beer (back in the late 80s). I also saw free-range chickens in the market in California and they were getting a better price. Customers said it tastes better. I knew we could create the best-tasting pork by following the highest standards.
FT: What makes you continue to want to be involved in this kind of work?
PW: The need for a healthier cleaner, food system—world-wide! I want to see sustainable farming practices and the humane treatment of animals. Moving that direction is something that is inspiring, and through Niman Ranch, we are a part of that.
FT: Who inspired you as a kid?
PW: My grandparents. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents because my father died when I was very young. My mother’s parents lived on a farm. I gardened with my grandmother and I had my own chicken. When I was four, I had my own flower garden. Planting something was amazing—the seeds looked so different and then real things would come up. Just the whole setting and introduction was inspiring. My grandparents on my father’s side were also influential. My grandfather always cleaned his green beans on the back porch. We had a family competition as to who could get the first radish each spring. An awareness of food was always part of my upbringing.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
PW: The demand by the public to want cleaner and better food. The awareness of how it all connects to public health and the environment. The trend is with us.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero who inspired you?
PW: Meeting Bill Niman was inspiring and connecting with him was really critical. He understood that I was selling whole live pigs, not a part (pork chop). We were in sync as to how we thought the animals should be raised—the animal husbandry. And through Bill I met Alice Waters and Marsha McBride. It was one of the first experiences I had going to a renowned restaurant with a top chef preparing my food at such a high caliber. Best pork chop I ever had in my life and she said it was the best pork chop she had ever had to cook with. Memorable. A watershed moment.
FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?
PW: We’re using a lot of pesticides that are contaminating our food system. It doesn’t make sense putting it on our food. Doing this type of farming has been supported by large agriculture and it is a big shift to change.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
PW: Every person can ask and inquire about their food. Chicken, fish, a carrot, or a pork chop. Keep it in the back of your mind. You can be conscious about eating things that are cleanly raised. Know your brands. Ask what the label claims means. Know where your food comes from.
FT: What advice can you give to President Trump and the U.S. Congress on food and agriculture?
PW: We need more farmers and more good food opportunities for small and medium-sized farmers to raise clean food.
Click here to purchase tickets to Food Tank’s inaugural Boston Summit.