Joe Mickelson is a fifth-generation farmer at Mickelson Family Farm in southern Iowa. After working close to a decade in confinement hog operations, Mickelson now focuses on small-scale diversification. Together with his father and two brothers, the family grows corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and wheat and raises pigs, cattle, goats, sheep, and chickens.
“When I was in the confinement barns, I knew that I liked the pigs, but there was always something that kept me from really loving my job,” Mickelson tells Food Tank. “I couldn’t quite put my finger on what that was until I started raising pigs for Niman Ranch.”
Niman Ranch is a network of more than 700 small, independent U.S. family farmers that receive a guaranteed market for their hogs in exchange for upholding high standards of sustainable and humane farming. For Mickelson, raising pigs in the open air was a new—and much more enjoyable—experience.
“I had the pig, but I didn’t have the pig in the right environment,” Mickelson says. Now, his pigs play around in their bedding, dig in the dirt, and eat grass.
Partnering with Niman Ranch also meant relearning much of what he knew about how to farm.
“I felt like I knew how to raise pigs. But I’ve found since working with Niman that most of what I knew was how to control a technological barn and give shots,” says Mickelson.
Factors like efficiency and cost of production are lower on Mickelson’s list of priorities with this new way of raising pigs. Instead, he focuses entirely on the pigs’ comfort levels and health—including feeding and filling water by hand.
“The pig will take care of itself if it’s well cared for,” says Mickelson.
Expertise and support from the Niman Ranch field staff—and the company’s farmer resource network—have been critical in making this transition. And now, Mickelson is thinking about how to diversify and increase sustainability throughout the farm, such as having more perennial pastures or longer crop rotations to boost soil health.
“I always thought that in order for me to make a living and leave something behind for my kids to make a living, we were going to have to ‘get big or get out,’” says Mickelson. “Raising pigs with Niman opened my eyes to different ways of doing things…I went from a mindset of ownership to a mindset of stewardship.”
Mickelson sees a growing awareness that small, diversified farms can produce a viable income for farmers. As more young farmers are eager to invest in “out-of-the-norm” practices—like raising pigs in the open air—he says this way of farming is no longer seen as just a hobby within the community.
“There’s something inherent within us that likes the idea of being a small, diversified farmer rather than just doing one thing all the time,” Mickelson says. “I think for a lot of us, it’s just the lack of awareness—we don’t know the options that are out there.”
Mickelson has found that working with the animals and nature, rather than against them, is a more fulfilling experience. And in the end, it produces a better product for consumers.
But most important for Mickelson is providing his own children with the type of lifestyle that he experienced as a child. He grew up seeing his grandparents every day and working together across generations on the farm. Now, his four young children are eager to help and take on their own farm chores—something that wasn’t feasible when Mickelson worked in confinement barns.
“Having moved away from Iowa for a while and done different things, I’ve realized that what I had was pretty unique, and pretty special,” says Mickelson.
“I do want my kids to be able to make a living on this farm someday if they so choose. It’s my responsibility, dad’s responsibility, and my brothers’ responsibility to make sure that this farm is better when we’re gone than it was when we inherited it.”
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Photo courtesy of Emily Mickelson