Paul and Andrea Brown started Alderland Farm in New Providence, Iowa about three decades ago. Together with their children—fourth-generation farmers Derek, Landon, and Allison—they use sustainable and humane farming practices to grow corn, soybeans, oats, and alfalfa while raising chickens, cattle, and hogs.
“Dad gave me an orphan litter of pigs when I was probably three or four years old,” Derek tells Food Tank. “I knew I wanted to be involved in livestock when I was older, and I always hoped that I could come back and farm with dad.”
Paul had learned to raise pasture pigs from working with Andrea’s father, and he later taught this way of farming to his own children. But after experiencing the hog price collapse in 1998, the Browns were drawn to a different, more stable market for their hogs. In 2000, they partnered with Niman Ranch, a network of more than 750 small, independent U.S. family farmers and ranchers.
“Niman commits to buying the pigs that you produce, and then on top of that, they pay you a premium above what commodity prices are,” says Derek. “The stability that they provide, in what can be a really volatile market, really helps.”
Niman Ranch farmers receive a guaranteed market for hogs that are raised under high standards of sustainable and humane farming. According to Paul and Andrea, this is what allowed their family to keep the next generation farming: “Bringing Derek back to the farm would not have been possible without the premium we receive for our production practices.”
Derek is a two-time recipient of the Niman Ranch Next Generation Foundation Scholarship Award, a fund to help young farmers return to their families’ farms by helping cover education costs. And in 2014, Niman Ranch awarded Paul and Andrea the Farmer of the Year Award to recognize their passion for their community. Known as “Farmer Brown” to many locals, Paul has opened his home many times to share his knowledge about sustainable agriculture.
Today, the family is continuing to improve soil health across the farm. They recently transitioned to no-till on most of their acres and grow rye as a cover crop, in addition to using crop rotation and rotational grazing practices. According to Derek, this is helping to reduce their use of farm inputs not only now but for future seasons.
“There are tons of microorganisms living in the soil, and every time you disturb the soil, you’re disturbing those microorganisms. You’re killing some of them,” Derek says. “Leaving the soil as undisturbed as possible allows the things underground to flourish and helps with everything down the road.”
For Derek, seeing improvements from year to year is one of the most rewarding aspects of work on the farm. He enjoys brainstorming to solve the various health problems his hogs might face. And he says the Niman Ranch team provides critical support—through field agents, fellow farmers, in-person meetings, and events, Niman Ranch farmers share ideas and best practices to help keep their hogs in the best health.
This year, the 24th Annual Niman Ranch Hog Farmer Appreciation Celebration will include a tour of Alderland Farm.
“It’s an honor to host the tour,” says Derek. “There’s a sense of pride knowing that the way you’re raising your pigs makes a difference for grocery store owners, restaurant owners, wholesalers, customers that value those things. You know that down the line, you’re making an impact on lives.”
Farming—and especially raising hogs the way that Niman Ranch farmers do—is labor-intensive. But Derek appreciates that this way of farming is “very family-oriented.” His three children enjoy coming out to help in the pastures and fields.
“It helps with teaching character traits and life lessons,” says Derek. “It takes responsibility to take care of animals and it takes time management to organize your day and figure out what needs to get done…these are things that I learned growing up on a farm.”
Derek and his wife Jessica emphasize that their lifestyle takes sacrifice and a different kind of work than the typical office job. Work on the farm starts at 6:00 AM or 7:00 AM and sometimes isn’t done until 10:00 PM, often seven days per week. But for them, it’s driven by a larger purpose.
“God has given us earth to be caretakers of it for the short time that we’re on it,” says Derek. “And so, we need to do our best to take care of it. I’ve been able to come back and farm because dad took care of the land…and I would love to see my kids do the same if that’s a desire that they have.”
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Photo courtesy of the Browns