Photographs courtesy of Aaron Williams.
Aaron Williams is a sixth-generation hog farmer on Williams Family Farm in Villisca, Iowa and a second generation Niman Ranch producer, following in his father’s footsteps—a first generation Niman Ranch farmer starting in their 1998 program. Currently, Williams has 125 sows with about 800 finish pigs with access to two year-round hoop barns, modified Cargill units to socialize and feed, a bedded farrowing building with birthing areas, and a modified A hut unit. Williams started selling hogs to Niman Ranch in 2013 after he graduated from Iowa State University. In the last two years, he’s sold between 1500 and 1750 pigs to Niman Ranch each year, and is hoping to increase numbers in the near future.
Farming on Williams Family Farm is a full family effort. William’s mother and father help around the farm with the hog operation and his brother assists with 300 acres of corn, soybean, and small grain row crop maintenance. His father owns a herd of 50 cow calf pairs and his grandfather owns all of the crop land and provides steady guidance on operational improvements.
Food Tank spoke with Aaron about the importance of small family farms and his efforts to improve his land so it is healthier for the next generation of farmers.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Aaron Williams (AW): I come from a farming family and was given the opportunity to take over the family farm and continue our legacy of raising pigs for Niman Ranch.
FT: What attracted you to pursue the opportunity to work with Niman Ranch?
AW: I have always known that I wanted to be my own boss and as early as I can remember. I have always loved taking care of pigs. With Niman Ranch, I am an independent farmer, I can do what I love, and I’m able to make a living while doing it.
FT: What does it mean to you to be a part of the Niman Ranch family?
AW: If Niman was not around, I honestly don’t believe the opportunities that allow me to farm today would have existed. I am so grateful for the support they have given me as a young producer, allowing me to grow and start something for my family.
FT: What sustainable farming practices do you use on your farm?
AW: We practice no-till farming to preserve the ground soil and also use contour terraces. Additionally, we have built multiple buffer strips near our creeks and rivers to prevent herbicide and other agricultural runoff.
FT: What do you think is the most important reason to farm sustainably?
AW: Sustainable farming is important because we need to take better care of the land and surrounding areas. We need to pass off the land to the next generation in better condition than when we started. We need to continue to improve on these practices in order to grow the operation.
FT: What is your family’s favorite farming activity?
AW: We love moving our pigs from their bedded farrowing pens and walking them together as a group to their even larger communal pens.
FT: What about farming keeps you on the land year after year?
AW: I love that every day is different and that I directly benefit from every ounce of energy and effort that I put into the farm.
FT: What is the biggest change you’ve encountered in agriculture during your years farming?
AW: When I started farming, corn had just peaked at US$7 and beans were US$15. They are now worth half of that. Crop farming is not as profitable as it was when I started. That is why diversity is so important and Niman Ranch is so beneficial to my operation.
FT: Have you observed changes in the number, size, and type of farms that are found in your immediate locale? What is your attitude toward any trends you may have noticed?
AW: Farms continue to get bigger and bigger and it’s getting harder to make a living as a small producer. Maybe someday I can grow my operation to support more people and families.
FT: How do you see your role as a Niman Ranch farmer? How do you see your role in the community?
AW: As a Niman Farmer, I see myself as part of their network and I know that my farming practices impact their reputation. As far as the community, I run a local business and I stimulate the local economy with every dollar I spend on feed, supplies, materials, and equipment.
FT: If you could broadcast a message about farming to people across the country, what would it be?
AW: I am concerned with the current climate of the pork industry and how the entire market and supply chain is owned by just a handful of companies. It is so important that companies like Niman Ranch provide opportunities that allow young and small local farmers to run profitable hog operations, allowing us to make a living doing what we love.
FT: What is the best opportunity for young or aspiring farmers and entrepreneurs to get a foothold in America’s agricultural future?
AW: If you are young and want to get into agriculture it has to be through livestock. It requires more labor and less capital than crop farming. Niman Ranch has been a great partner for me and allowed me to grow my business and create a great living for myself.
FT: How can we best stimulate young people’s curiosity about food and agriculture and encourage their participation in building healthier food systems?
AW: I think transparency and knowledge are the key. The customer is seeking more information about the food they eat and how it was raised. We are proud of what we do and want the customer to know why we do it.
Farmer Friday is a bi-weekly series featuring up and coming livestock farmers selected by Niman Ranch, a network of more than 700 family farmers raising livestock in a traditional, humane, and sustainable way. With more than 40 years as an industry leader, Niman Ranch works with small, independent family farmers and ranchers across the United States to encourage better food system practices. All Niman Ranch pork, beef, lamb, and prepared products are certified under the Certified Humane® program and available nationwide at both food service and retail locations.