Mindy and Drew Duff met as elementary school teachers in southern Iowa. Mindy taught music while Drew taught physical education and coached. After they married, Drew helped Mindy’s father out on their century-old family farm in northern Iowa. By 2009, he started asking, “What if we moved up here and did this full-time?”
Today, the Duffs—now with three young children—farm on the family farm, and together with Mindy’s lifelong friend Brent DeGroote, they raise more than 1,000 hogs throughout the year.
“Farming is stressful, and there’s a lot that you can’t control,” Drew tells Food Tank. “But the lifestyle grabbed us. There’s a lot of enjoyment in helping to feed a lot of people.”
The first spring that they lived on the farm, Drew and Mindy raised six pigs to feed the family. But they quickly grew to love the work.
“What I enjoy the most is this way of raising pigs. They’re in their own environment and get to exhibit their natural behaviors. It’s fun,” Drew says. “When you put in new bedding and they run around and play, it’s like Christmas.”
He and DeGroote partnered raising hogs and started DuDe Pork. The pair followed in the footsteps of DeGroote’s father by partnering with Niman Ranch, a network of more than 750 small, independent U.S. family farmers and ranchers.
“Niman has always appealed to me. There are so many like-minded people wanting to do the right thing for the land and keep the soil healthier for their kids,” Drew says. “They’re doing it in a way that they feel is the best to make things better for the future.”
Niman Ranch farmers uphold high standards of sustainable and humane farming in exchange for a guaranteed market for their hogs. The network’s robust support system helps guide farmers towards a different, more sustainable way of raising pigs. According to Drew, DuDe Pork wouldn’t be able to raise hogs at their capacity in the conventional market.
“It’s great to have that support system with the Niman Ranch family and then the values to align on top of it…it’s amazing that it even exists,” Mindy says.
Sustainable hog farming practices have supported the Duffs’ efforts to improve soil health throughout the farm: Drew raises pigs with fresh bedding, which gets eventually composted and returned to the land to build soil organic matter.
Over the past couple of years, Drew also noticed that his bean crops improved as he reduced tillage. Now, he’s looking into how minimal or vertical tillage can benefit soil health and crop quality simultaneously, while also using less fuel.
“It’s been really fun to watch,” Mindy says. “With apps, you can see the different colors in the fields, the strips that we’ve been working on [to improve soil health].”
Mindy became a certified health and nutrition coach after moving back to the farm, and for her, this way of farming is like nurturing gut health with nutritious foods.
“We’re basically trying to give the dirt probiotics…and it’s been really interesting to see the changes in yields, changes in everything,” Mindy says.
But the Duffs emphasize that shifting farming practices is a difficult and complex process, especially with northern Iowa’s unique climate and growing season. According to Mindy, new practices need to be tailored to each farmer’s land, “because what works on one field is going to perform differently on another field.”
Mindy says that choosing to farm more sustainably isn’t simply a matter of what’s better for the environment, farmers need to maintain economic sustainability, too: “That new equipment costs money, and if you can’t financially swing it, you’re not going to be farming at all.”
For the Duffs, sustainability means being able to keep farming in the family. Their 12-year-old son has been interested in farming since he was two years old and wants to raise pigs for Niman Ranch when he grows older, just like his father.
“I’m the fourth generation farming here,” Mindy says. “Someone in our family has been taking care of this land for that many years. We do it because there is that sense of pride and a sense of purpose…It’s not just about making a buck. If it was, we wouldn’t be doing this.”
“It’s a labor of love,” Drew says.
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Photo courtesy of the Duff family