Benjamin and Bryanna Harner met as high schoolers in Pennsylvania through their local Future Farmers of America program. They worked together on Ben’s family farm after marrying in spring 2018, but Ben always had his heart set on moving to the Midwest.
“I’d always admired the Midwest, especially Iowa, in all aspects of crop and livestock production,” Ben tells Food Tank. “There’s a lot of respect for the agriculture community.”
The Harners moved to Iowa in 2019. Ben found a job taking care of about 10,000 pigs for a hog integrator, but he was constantly looking for property to start a farm of their own. Eventually, he found a listing in Columbus Junction that checked all the boxes, but there was a catch: it was built for cattle with five hoop buildings. “I was like, what will we do with all this?” Bryanna says.
Ben reached out to Niman Ranch, a network of more than 750 small, independent U.S. family farmers and ranchers that he had heard about through his agriculture community in Pennsylvania. The Niman team quickly came to meet the Harners at their potential property—they were interested in partnering.
Farmers in the Niman Ranch network have a guaranteed market for their product and own their own hogs, which is unusual compared to confinement production. Importantly, the Harners could also use this property’s current infrastructure, including the hoop barns, to get started with Niman. This meant a much lower initial investment while maintaining the freedom to make their own decisions as an independent producer. In exchange, Niman Ranch farmers uphold high standards of environmentally sustainable and humane farming.
Ben explains that their initial plan—buying a home on bare ground and building a 1,200-head confinement hog operation—would likely be a US$500,000 investment. “And then you would be locked in with an integrator for a number of years,” he says. In the end, “the decision was a step out in faith.”
The Harners partnered with Niman and closed on their new farm in the middle of a global pandemic: June 2020.
With pigs in the barns before they even moved in, Ben and Bryanna worked together for months lowering gates, switching pens, and restructuring the layout of the farm. Today, they raise about 1,000 hogs annually, produce 20 acres of crops, and have plans to continue expanding sustainably.
“My whole life, I was bullheaded that the only way to raise hogs was confinement hogs,” Ben says. When they first moved to Iowa, he says that he wouldn’t have even entertained the prospect of working with Niman: “But as time went on and I learned to be more open…it was the best decision ever to get in contact with Niman Ranch and grow with them.”
This was a new way of farming for the Harners. They learned to adapt to weather and seasonal changes, which aren’t issues in temperature-controlled confinement. They plan to seed cover crops to boost soil health and plant native wildflowers to create more pollinator habitats. Now, they’re looking into a Conservation Reserve Program to attract wildlife to their cropland while protecting soil and water quality. One day, they hope to install solar panels to power the farm.
“There’s never a dull moment,” Ben says. For him, the main difference between confinement operations and Niman Ranch’s model of production is that he’s learning every day. Niman’s support system includes one-on-one advising that is unlike anything he would see from an integrator in the confinement world: “Niman Ranch is very dedicated to the small family farmer and always there in any way possible to help you succeed,” Ben says.
The Harners’ pigs are notably happier, too. “Their temperament is different” compared to confinement, Bryanna says. “They’re friendlier and calmer overall. It’s cool to get to see them in their natural habitat… They love to lay out in the sunshine on a cold day. They also love to root around and dig in the bedding.”
As a young family starting out on their own in a new state—and during a pandemic—Ben and Bryanna have had a lot of support from their community in Iowa. Ben says it’s rewarding to be feeding families every day while also contributing to the health of the land.
“The land gives you something, so in return, you should give something back to the land,” he says. Their land gives corn to feed the hogs as well as keep them clean, dry, and comfortable year-round with bedding, he explains. They apply the manure back onto the land, so all those nutrients and organic matter can feed soil health year after year.
Now, when Ben goes into a confinement operation, he knows he made the right decision.
“I personally would not want to go back into the confinement world full-time. You don’t have the fresh air and sun going through all day, you deal with a lot more sick animals compared to what we do,” Ben says. “If we were in confinement, I don’t think I’d be as happy.”
Photo courtesy of Niman Ranch