To reach a sustainable food system, “integrity has to run through the whole system, especially with the farmers,” say Jan and Steve Petersen, Niman Ranch farmers. “We have to learn to care for our shared resources, like soil, water, air, and ecosystems.”
Steve returned to the Petersen Family farm in Decatur, MI in 1973 as a fifth-generation farmer determined to treat the fields and woodlots with integrity. “He was always interested in growing food and growing it naturally,” says Jan, who joined the farm in 1987 after acquiring small-scale farming, permaculture, and homesteading skills at a school lead by Michigan Land Trustees, an organization encouraging young people to return back to the land.
Jan and Steve created a family of sustainability advocates. Their son Ted continues to work on the farm part-time, while their oldest son Luke works with farmers and ranchers in California to encourage sustainable farming practices as a conservation biologist. “He doesn’t hesitate to feed his dad ideas on new practices and technologies,” says Jan. Luke, a conservation biologist, received a Niman Ranch Next Generation Scholarship Award in 2008 to help him continue his farming practices.
The family feels a deep connection to the land and farming. “It’s hands on and uses one’s full senses,” say the Petersens. “We love working with animals and we get to watch the whole amazing circle of life play out over and over again and see how the pregnant sows build their nests and care for their babies. A nest of piglets has a wonderfully sweet aroma. I bet not many people know about that!”
“You get to be your own own boss and have a job that is consistent with your values,” the Petersens told Food Tank. Niman Ranch recognized the Petersens as Farmers of the Year in 2007 for their animal husbandry and sustainable farming practices.
“To us, sustainable farming means protecting our soil, water, and ecosystems for future generations,” say Jan and Steve. The Petersen family always farmed hay and corn sustainably and raised their pigs naturally. “Pigs spend their entire lives in pastures, with metal Quonset huts for shelter,” according to Jan and Steve. “We have always rotated pastures and crops, using mostly organic practices. We rotate pastures and crops and never allow livestock near the creek that runs through our farm.”
The family is excited about the rest of the world following suit with best practices at every level of the food system. “We’ve seen a trend toward the more conscientious food system that we only dreamed of when we first got married,” say the Petersens. “Sometimes we pinch ourselves in disbelief. The word ‘organic’ used to be a dirty word mocked by universities and major corporations. We love that people want to know where their food comes from and how it is raised.”
The Petersens joined Niman Ranch in 2003 for the support it provided farmers raising pigs naturally without confinement after the hog market crashed in 1998. “We suddenly had a sense of camaraderie and support, becoming part of a whole network of farmers who shared similar values,” explain Jan and Steve. “This matched our personal passion for community revitalization and the promotion of responsible land use practices.”
In their community, the Petersens have a great passion for responsible land use and its benefits for the food system. “We realized early on how farmland preservation is connected to all sorts of land use issues, so we got involved on many levels” say the Petersens. Steve chairs the local planning commission. And Jan not only started the community’s farmer’s market, but also serves on the conservation district board and on the county Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, encouraging businesses to redevelop neglected properties. Together, the Petersens also rehabilitate historic property in their community, “saving examples of beautiful architecture in the fabric of our downtown landscapes.”
“We feel we are caretakers of not just the land on this fifth generation farm, but also the historic house and barns, circa 1871, here on the Petersen Farm. We always hope the wildlife appreciates our commitment to avoid farming the whole place into the ground,” say the Petersens.
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 Jan and Steve Petersen.