“The physical work is probably the easiest part of farming,” Shaun Miller tells Food Tank. “But being profitable and sustainable year over year, it really takes smarts.”
In two years, Miller Hogs and Hay in central Iowa has grown from just a few hogs to nearly 40 sows on a 160-acre farm. Miller raises animals and grows corn, oats, and hay while working full-time as an engineer at John Deere. All his vacation time and days off are spent working on the farm and caring for his animals—and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s hard work, and it’s honest work,” Miller says. “Every time I walk out the front door, I can see my accomplishments. It really feels like home.”
While Miller is now the fourth generation in his family to be farming, he wasn’t always certain that he could be a part of the industry. He grew up spending summers on his grandfather’s small farm, but his father lost their family farm during the farm crisis of the 1980s. Miller recalls seeing independent livestock farms decline significantly in the early 1990s as the industry consolidated.
“Those were the glory days of commercial production,” he says. “I saw that industry change as destroying my way of life. The industry was going in a much different direction than I could participate in, and it nudged me out.”
Miller worked as a mechanic for a farm equipment dealership after high school and later returned to college for agricultural engineering. After working at John Deere for more than a decade, he started repairing farm equipment as a hobby. “It quickly consumed all my free time and energy,” he says, and soon he moved out of the city to farm.
For Miller, getting back into farming meant bringing back the way of life he grew up around: “Back to a time when it wasn’t all about numbers and quantity, it was more about the practices, care, and time that you put into farming.”
There was no question that his farm would use sustainable practices. “Resources are finite, and you have to have those things available for the next generation,” he says. But Miller quickly realized that this wouldn’t be possible without support.
“There was no market for me in the commercial system. I wanted to raise pigs in the same manner that my grandfather did, and the commercial industry just doesn’t reward those practices,” Miller says. “I was quitting the hog business, because the way I wanted to do it and the way the industry is today didn’t mesh.”
Around this time, a colleague at John Deere connected Miller with a fellow farmer raising hogs for Niman Ranch, a network of more than 750 small, independent U.S. family farmers and ranchers. Niman Ranch farmers uphold high standards of sustainable and humane farming, so it was a natural partnership for Miller—it provided the market that he needed to keep going.
“It made it profitable. Without them, my farm couldn’t exist,” he says.
This network allowed true sustainability for Miller’s farm that wouldn’t be possible on his own, he says: “Sustainability has to go across the entire spectrum. I can have a sustainable operation, but if I don’t have a sustainable market outlet, there’s a missing piece of the puzzle.”
In the future, Miller hopes to retire early from his day job and work on the farm full-time. Until then, he’s sharing his story to raise awareness about the importance of sustainable and humane farming practices.
“Twenty-five years ago, there was nothing but paper magazines. We didn’t have the channels of communication to connect people in different parts of the world like you do today,” he says. “Now, someone can read my perspective who’s not around this lifestyle at all.”
Miller sees a growing interest in where food comes from, especially compared to his childhood, when humanely raised and antibiotic-free products were hard to find on grocery shelves.
“It’s trendy among the younger generations to know where your food comes from,” he says. “That gives me hope because it feeds an industry like this. I can adhere to those principles whereas a large, commercial producer cannot.”