Two decades ago, the confinement hog barn at Flaherty Family Farms in central Iowa, was degraded beyond repair. The cost of rebuilding was too high for Travis Flaherty and his father to continue with that side of their business. But Flaherty missed the pigs, so he took a chance on a new way of farming: small-scale hog production in the open air.
“I thought, ‘this is really stepping back. It’d be like giving up our cell phones today, going back to our landlines,’” says Flaherty. But after talking with Niman Ranch farmers, he was inspired to pursue it: “They said your equity is going to be your labor. And I said, well, I have that.”
Today, Flaherty raises about 900 pigs a year for Niman Ranch, a network of more than 700 small farmers and ranchers. Through the company, Flaherty receives a guaranteed market for his hogs in exchange for upholding high standards of sustainable and humane farming. But when Flaherty was getting started, many told him it wouldn’t be feasible.
“The biggest push is when somebody tells you it can’t be done,” Flaherty tells Food Tank. “There’s no one around me that raises pigs this way.”
When Flaherty asked for support from his bank to start this new operation, he was told he wouldn’t make it without antibiotics and conventional production methods. His parents were skeptical, too. They believed that the only successful hog farms were big ones. When Flaherty told his grandparents his plans, however, they were excited—this was how they remembered raising pigs growing up.
“In the Midwest here, you’ve [usually] got to be big or you got to get out. There’s no room for the middle guy or the little guy,” says Flaherty. But with Niman Ranch’s guaranteed market, the smaller operations have an opportunity to thrive.
“Niman Ranch doesn’t look out for just their bottom line,” says Flaherty. The company understands the financial struggles of its farmers and does as much as possible to help, including raising the price they pay to farmers when other factors—like the increasing cost of grain—put a strain on operations.
Flaherty has traveled across the United States representing the company: “I like telling my story and thanking [consumers] for buying Niman Ranch, because this is what’s keeping me on my farm full-time,” he says.
Flaherty wants consumers to know that there’s a face and a story behind each piece of meat that they buy, and that producers such as himself take pride in raising a good product. Traceability helps to tell this story.
Flaherty also emphasizes that this is not a typical 9-to-5 job: “Farm work is any day that ends in ‘Y’ and holidays, nights, and weekends. Anytime you’re needed.”
But he loves the lifestyle. Flaherty has cared for animals since he was five years old, and he always knew he wanted to be a farmer. For him, the most rewarding part is seeing his animals play in their natural element.
“When the sun starts to set a little bit, starts cooling off, there are pigs chasing each other around and around,” says Flaherty. “And out in the field with 20 or 30 calves, one takes off running, and the rest of them try to catch him…up and around the bales.”
Flaherty is thankful for those that doubted him when he first began, because it drove him to prove that it’s possible to thrive with this way of farming.
“You don’t have to be the biggest farmer in the county, you don’t have to be the one with the most animals…You can be small, you can do a great job, and you’ll be rewarded in pricing and the quality of animals,” says Flaherty. “There’s a lot of pride in that.”
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Photo courtesy of Martha Valencia