Carlson Family Farm was started in southwest Iowa in 1973. It survived the farm crisis of the 1980s and then the conventional hog market crash in 1998. When Josh Carlson returned home after graduating college in 2011, he knew he wanted to spend his life preserving this land.
“A lot of people gamble, go to the casino, or play the stock market, but I enjoy playing in dirt gambling,” Josh tells Food Tank. The variability and risk of farming are why he loves it. Every year is different, especially when it comes to weather, and his work is never boring.
Growing up, Josh would follow his father around to take care of fieldwork. He credits his father for both his love of farming and his attitude towards life.
“To be a farmer, you’ve got to be an eternal optimist,” Josh says. “Any weather change or disease could come and take out everything in a year, so you have to be optimistic that it’s all going to work out in the end.”
The Carlsons knew they needed to diversify and expand the farm to help bring in the next generation, including Josh’s brother. They considered building hog confinement facilities, but the upfront cost was too high.
Then, they met Ron Mardesen, another Iowa family farmer who has been raising hogs for Niman Ranch since 2002. Niman Ranch is a network of more than 750 independent family farmers that uphold high standards of sustainable and humane farming. The Carlsons learned that partnering with Niman meant a guaranteed market for their product, and they wouldn’t have to worry about the volatile conventional hog market that they left in 1998.
Most importantly, Josh could get started raising hogs for Niman with a low startup cost.
“They helped us expand and bring another generation back to the farm, and they even helped me get a farmer loan,” says Josh. “They understand the need to support the next generation. If I hadn’t started with Niman Ranch, I wouldn’t be raising pigs today.”
Now, the Carlsons humanely raise hogs and grow crops including corn and soybeans. They use practices like crop rotation, no-till, and terraces to protect and improve their soil health, and they grow oats to make their own hog bedding and feed. For Josh, farming this way helps maintain a delicate balance of farm health and profitability.
“If you take care of the ground, it’ll take care of you. It’ll produce for you, and then you can pass it on to the next generation,” Josh says.
The Carlsons value raising hogs outside in their natural environment, instead of forcing them to spend lives in confinement. Josh especially enjoys allowing the hogs to move around and express themselves freely.
“We do what we can, feeding them the best diet. Being able to see the finished product is pretty fun and very rewarding to me,” Josh says. “Oh, it’s something special.”
The Carlsons plan to continue expanding, especially as their family grows in the future. But Josh emphasizes that he would “rather be known as the best farmer around than the biggest farmer around.”
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Photo courtesy of Josh Carlson