Niman Ranch Farmers John W. and Beverly Gilbert of Iowa Falls, IA have a profound message: “Farming—properly structured and informed—has the potential to mediate climate change, rebuild rural America, address nutritional injustice, help with income inequality and general divisiveness, give meaning and structure to our lives, and provide a means for family members to contribute to a common effort.
These award-winning farmers run Gibralter Farms along with John W.’s brother Greg and his wife Barb, as well as John W.’s son John C. and his wife Sarah. John W., who is the Niman Ranch 2017 Farmer of the Year, has been farming on this multigenerational farm—established in 1899—since the late 1970s. Today, the Gilberts raise Brown Swiss dairy cows and pigs in addition to growing crops like corn, soybeans, and oats. They use a variety of sustainable farming practices including crop rotation, cover cropping, rotational grazing, and terracing.
“The most important reason we farm sustainably,” say John C. and Sarah, “is because we recognize the responsibility we have, not just to the land we farm and the animals we raise, but to our neighbors, everyone who eats Niman Ranch products, and everyone who wants to eat food and use land in the future.” The Gilberts have been selling hogs to Niman Ranch since 1998, and they say they originally became involved with Niman Ranch due to price considerations but that “eventually, it became being a part of an exciting and unique partnership between family farmers, dedicated staff, and loyal customers.”
Now as long-time members of the Niman Ranch network, they say “there is no other opportunity to market something we raise to an organization that truly appreciates our efforts, and goes out of its way to ensure our welfare. Customers are really partners and generally take a real interest in us as individuals.” John C. and Sarah, who joined this operation once it was established, add, “We’re very proud to be the exceptions to the rule of industrial agriculture, an example of how things can be done differently and sustainably.”
John W. and Beverly worry that many farmers are “too willing to follow the crowd, to believe in technologies and purchased inputs rather than their own intellect, abilities, and experiences.” “So much of what producers hear is maximizing the number of acres, maximizing yield per acre, minimizing tax liability,” add John C. and Sarah. “Where is the discussion of maximizing the welfare of farmers, animals, and consumers? Where is the discussion of maximizing social wellbeing, of accepting the responsibility and the opportunity of stewardship? Or even the basic discussion about the declining nutrient value of the food we’re producing?”
They have also noticed changes in their own community, including the decline of local co-ops and an “absentee” trend where landowners hire others to do the farming. For the Gilberts, that has meant losing neighbors as well as a “tradition of stewardship.” “Not only are the farms producing commodities, but the land itself is viewed as a commodity, just an asset on a balance sheet,” explain John C. and Sarah.
Still, the Gilberts are optimistic about cultivating interest in food and agriculture among young people. John W. and Beverly explain that many people want to farm but need opportunities, experience, skills, or encouragement. Some of these opportunities, they point out, could be in related occupations, such as processing and marketing. These experienced farmers advise young and aspiring farmers and entrepreneurs to “start small,” partner with more established farmers, gain skills, build cash flow and new wealth (not just profit), control costs, offer services or products that are not already available, be flexible and adaptable, and ask questions. They also pass along advice they were given: “raise what you feed, and feed what you raise.”
The Gilberts also emphasize the importance of realizing that “we’re all in this together.” “Those who eat because of the efforts of farmers need to know they benefit most when the farmer gets a fair deal,” John W. and Beverly point out. “It’s not a question of winners and losers,” add John C. and Sarah, “but a question of how we can all work together to provide maximum nutrition in the most sustainable way.” Explaining that they see farming as caretaking, John W. and Beverly say, “Agriculture’s overriding purpose is the survival of our species and our world. None of us knows how long forever will be, but that’s how long our ag resources must last.”
Farmer Friday is a bi-weekly series featuring 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.