Dee Sandquist’s ancestors emigrated from Sweden to eastern Iowa, in 1847. Now, Dee and her husband Harold are the fifth generation to be farming at Johnson Farms. The Sandquists are farmer ambassadors, mentors, local educators, and community leaders. For them, farm diversification is a top priority—it’s how they grew up.
“My business has always been food,” Dee tells Food Tank. The Sandquists left Iowa after college, and Dee worked as a registered dietician for about three decades, educating her clients about where their foods come from. When they returned home to Johnson Farms in 2008, “it was like we never left, in a way,” says Dee.
The Sandquists grow corn, soybeans, oats, hay, and turnips using sustainable practices like no-till, cover cropping, terracing, and buffer strips. They raise hogs for Niman Ranch, a network of more than 700 small farmers and ranchers across the United States that adhere to high standards of sustainable and humane farming practices.
“The best thing we’ve ever done is raise pigs with Niman Ranch,” says Dee.
As Niman Ranch farmers, Dee and Harold receive a guaranteed market for their hogs. This means a fair income without needing to market their product—and it’s been a critical support to help keep their farm going.
“The main thing I need to worry about is making sure the hogs are happy and healthy,” says Harold. This has also allowed him the freedom to focus more on diversifying their farm.
According to Dee, this type of business model is “hard to find in today’s world.” And the company works to make it accessible to new and beginning farmers.
Niman Ranch provides grant money for equipment—or even the pigs themselves—to help farmers get started. And the Niman Ranch Next Generation Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the company, has distributed more than US$1 million through scholarships and grants since 2006.
“There are a lot of incentives and help for people who really want to put in the work. And it is work,” says Dee. “This is more labor-intensive than other ways to raise pigs, but it’s worth it.”
The Niman Ranch network also allows the Sandquists to access community within the individualized and often-isolated world of farming. Farmers maintain their independence while receiving critical resources and support.
“You can tell Niman cares about their farmers. That’s the biggest difference,” says Dee. “It’s like a family. The farmers are able to get together…there’s a lot of sharing and camaraderie.”
The Sandquists have traveled across the country as Niman Ranch farmer ambassadors and spokespeople. They meet chefs that use their pork and talk to them about the farm’s sustainable practices and healthy pigs.
And according to Dee, the product speaks for itself: “It’s the finest tasting pork in the world. There’s no comparison.”
Back home, the Sandquists help local farmers get started with more sustainable ways of farming and provide mentorship throughout their community. They employed a new farmer to help on Johnson Farms while he builds his own farm business—something that’s difficult to do without a farming background or inheritance. “That’s been our way to mentor,” says Dee. As a thank you for their commitment mentoring their community, Niman Ranch named Dee and Harold 2022 Farmers of the Year.
For the Sandquists, farming has been about continuing the lifestyle and stewardship they grew up with.
“It’s about taking care of the land. That’s the way we were raised and that’s why we want the farm to continue,” says Dee. “We recognize how important land is, especially in a heritage farm.”
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Photo courtesy of the Sandquists