Mark and Mikeal Sperfslage fondly remember meeting for daily farm chores when they were growing up in northeast Kansas. The cousins would work eight hours, play outside for a while, then gather at their grandmother’s home to share a meal with all of their siblings, aunts, and uncles. Now, Mark and Mikeal are farmers themselves, the fourth generation to sustainably raise livestock on Sperfslage Family Farm.
“Farming is in our blood. Ever since we were little, we always wanted to farm and be like our dads,” Mark tells Food Tank. “But the older I got, the more worried I was that I wouldn’t be able to.”
Many farms in the area struggle to get by due to rising expenses and low commodity prices, Mark explains. Bigger equipment saves money on field costs, and more land means more profit overall, so farms have grown larger and larger in recent years.
“If you’re a part of hogs, you’re not raising them like we are, you’re more likely doing confinement operations,” Mikeal says.
Especially as young farmers (Mark and Mikeal are 21 and 24, respectively), they knew how difficult it is to get started on a smaller operation with little equity. According to Mikeal, making a profit off of raising just a couple hundred pigs is “unheard of” in their county.
“It’s either go big or go home here,” Mark says. “When we found Niman Ranch, it was a blessing. Without them, I probably wouldn’t be farming.”
Niman Ranch is a network of more than 750 small, independent U.S. family farmers and ranchers. This network provides a consistent market for the Sperfslage hogs and allows Mark and Mikeal to diversify their operation, making the business more resilient when unexpected losses occur.
Niman Ranch hog farmers use sustainable and humane agriculture practices, follow strict animal welfare protocols, and never give antibiotics or added hormones to their animals. For the Sperfslages, this meant farming hogs the way they learned to as kids, spending more time with their animals and making sure they’re well-cared for.
“Vitamin D is the best thing for the hogs. You can see it in them, too, they’re running around and enjoying the sun, rooting around in the dirt,” Mikeal says.
Mark and Mikeal run their own farms but constantly help each other out, just like they did as kids. Together, they raise hogs, stock cows, and feeder calves and grow corn, soy, and alfalfa crops. Mikeal describes their approach as a cycle: the corn feeds the pigs, the pigs produce manure, and the manure fertilizes the farm to produce the next crop, which again feeds the pigs. They don’t till their land, and they use cover crops and crop rotation to boost soil health.
The Sperfslages credit their partnership with Niman Ranch for allowing them to keep their family farm. “With Niman, we can remain a small farm but part of a big movement,” Mark says. He thinks it’s important to share his and Mikeal’s story—and that of the thousands of other small farmers championing sustainable practices in the U.S.—to get consumers more interested in their food sources.
“I think that’ll be this generation’s biggest challenge, and our biggest achievement,” Mikeal says, “connecting on social media to try to lessen that growing gap” between eaters and where their food is grown or raised.
For Mark and Mikeal, being successful family farmers is also about preserving their way of living for the next generation.
“The size of farms and how they farm is very different from 50 years ago. When we’re at my grandma’s, it’s like we’re in the old days, this big family getting together and eating around the table,” Mark says.
“I want the same thing for my kids,” Mikeal says. “Everything I’m doing—the reason I farm and the reason I try to be successful—is so that I can stay on the farm and provide that same kind of living and childhood experience to the next generation.”
Photo courtesy of Mark Sperfslage