For Niman Ranch farmer Steve Howe, raising pigs is not just about maintaining an average day-to-day: “it’s such a mystery to raise pigs this way, knowing that you can always do better. We care about pigs. We realize that they’re intelligent and that they deserve better than they’ve been treated in the past.”
On Howe Family Farms in Thurman, IA, treating livestock humanely is a tradition that spans generations. Howe and his wife—Christina—his mother, and three children help maintain the family’s best practices on his mother’s farm. “We’re a pretty spread out generational family. I would be the fifth generation on this farm,” Howe told Food Tank.
“We raise at this point 100 percent corn and alfalfa,” says Howe. But for Howe Family Farms, these crops are not commodities for sale. “They’re just so much more valuable for me to not sell any commodities in any kind of market, so we use it all internally,” explains Howe. “I can keep everything here within the same system.” The corn and alfalfa feed the pigs, which, in turn, provide manure to fertilize the crop.
Managing manure is one of the ways the Howe family maintains sustainable practices. For them, sustainable farming is not an option to consider against others. “Sustainability to me is the ability to move forward into the future without having to stop because you did something wrong. I couldn’t think of a reason to not farm sustainably,” says Howe. “It’s for the ability to pass it on in better shape, and to keep being able to do what we do for multiple generations.”
Howe joined Niman Ranch because it offered him a price guarantee after falling prices in the pig market cost him much of his income. “That was extremely appealing to me, that I wouldn’t get the rug pulled out from under me again,” explains Howe. But Howe’s choice to remain with Niman Ranch follows the relationships he’s built over 13 years with them. “It’s been, very much, like a family over the years. I would say one example of that is that when my father passed away in an accident, my [Niman Ranch] field agent was my third phone call,” Howe told Food Tank.
When farmers join to pursue a common passion in groups such as Niman Ranch, notes Howe, more opportunities open up for them. Howe believes this is the route to create opportunities for young farmers: by embracing new, inclusive movements like the food movement and by passing collective passion on through mentorships. “It’s not something that the government can do. It’s not something that an organization can do. It has to be a one on one connection with a mentor and a mentee,” says Howe.
Creating opportunity through mentorship is “two things: it’s making people successful now, and successful enough so they can afford to help somebody else,” says Howe. Howe and his wife are mentors in their community, providing on-farm experience for local students and holding virtual seminars for students from the farm.
While young farmers face massive challenges finding opportunities to begin farming, Howe notes that experienced farmers encounter their own sizable challenges. “We recently had a tornado come through. It destroyed almost a third of my buildings,” says Howe. “It displaced about 1,500 pigs.”
“It’s been a little crazy. But we’re getting our feet back underneath[….] Certainly, we’ve never been busier,” Howe told Food Tank. Farming’s unpredictability and variability is precisely what keeps Howe on the farm. “The biggest draw for me is that it changes all the time. We never have a day that’s the same as the day before and I really enjoy working with the pigs.”
Howe hopes that people see pig farmers’ passion for farming through their work to treat the pigs humanely and with love. “We truly care about the animals that we’re raising[….] That’s the reason we’ve chosen this career. It’s not because it was our only option,” says Howe. “Farmers have chosen their role because they want to care for pigs as best they can.”
Farmer Friday is a monthly 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.
Photos courtesy of Steve Howe.