A version of this piece was featured in a special edition of Food Tank’s newsletter. To make sure it lands straight in your inbox and to be among the first to receive it, subscribe now by clicking here.
“It all started with a porkchop…the most delicious pork I had ever eaten,” says Ed Behr, Editor at the Art of Eating.
I just returned from one of my favorite events, the Niman Ranch Hog Farmer Appreciation Celebration in Des Moines, Iowa, at which Food Tank is honored to co-host an Educational Summit.
Now in its 25th year, Niman Ranch is a network of more than 600 small and mid-size farmers and ranchers across the United States who all adhere to high standards of sustainable and humane farming practices. In exchange, the farmers receive a guaranteed market for their products and an invaluable support system.
I have been fortunate to call Niman Ranch Founding Hog Farmer Paul Willis a friend for many years, and I still get emotional at this event.
Paul and Niman Ranch have an incredible story—one that’s interwoven with the future of the food system. Most of the multi-generational farmers the company brings together say that they wouldn’t be able to raise hogs anymore if it weren’t for Niman Ranch.
Ron Mardesen, Niman farmer for more than 21 years, used to stay up at night worrying about losing his farm. But now, he says that he confidently plans for the future. Deleana and Tim Roseland say that working with Niman completely changed their lives. Now, they plan to actually retire and pass their farm to their son, a 4th-generation farmer and U.S. Army veteran.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the number of farms with hogs in the U.S. declined by more than 70 percent from 1990 to 2022. But the Niman Ranch network weathered the hog market crash of 1998—a time when most other farmers were paid as little as 8 cents per pound for their products, but Niman paid 43.5 cents—as well as the COVID-19 crisis.
“When I met Paul, the sense I got was desperation in farming,” Ed Behr says. “Now, I see all these happy people that are succeeding.”
We need more storytellers like Ed to help shine light on the humans behind our favorite products—and we also need to recognize the people behind our favorite recipes.
Toni Tipton-Martin, a James Beard Award-winning journalist and Editor-in-Chief of Cook’s Country, works to dispel misconceptions about the origin of foods and celebrate African Americans’ incredible resilience within the food system. These are stories that are too often ignored and forgotten.
“Africans are the only community that did not arrive here as immigrants, we were not allowed to outwardly maintain our food traditions,” Toni says.
I am inspired by more and more chefs who are stepping up and using their platforms to celebrate the rich history of recipes and the farmers who grow and raise our food.
Adrian Lipscombe, Chef and Founder of the 40 Acres Project, which preserves the legacy of Black farmers and foodways, says that, for her, “the farmer is a part of the restaurant.” For Lamar Moore, James Beard Ambassador and Executive Chef at Bronzeville Winery in Chicago, who grew up on a farm himself, “it’s about being able to touch backward and then move forward.”
As Gustavo Arellano, one of my favorite food writers and author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, says, “chefs are so crucial to getting Americans to eat better.”
And while storytelling is critically important, there will be no systems-wide change without policy.
Nina Oduro, CEO of the agency Dine Diaspora, reminds us: “We have to get laws in place for really big change in society, and we have to keep folks accountable after the policy is in place.”
There is so much that the U.S. Congress can do to push forward legislation to help support family farmers and marginalized communities working in the food system.
“The role that agriculture has to play has a lot to do with social justice now,” says Michelle Hughes, Co-Executive Director of the National Young Farmers Coalition.
What I love about the Niman Ranch network is that they are not afraid to stand up for what’s right, even when they get pushback from their own industry.
For example, Niman was the only pork company to submit an Amicus Brief to the Supreme Court in support of Proposition 12. California’s Proposition 12, which passed in 2018, required farmers to provide more space for egg-laying hens, breeding pigs, and calves raised for veal, while also banning the sale of products in the state that do not meet these standards. The Proposition passed overwhelmingly—but was met with a flurry of legal challenges, and enforcement was halted.
Since day one, Niman Ranch has been one of the only companies to ban the use of crates for raising hogs. When the industry claimed Prop 12 was bad for family farmers, Niman Ranch spoke up to tell their farmers’ stories of profitability and resilience without the use of crates. And on May 11, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Proposition 12 as constitutional—an enormous win for sustainable and humane animal care.
Talking with family farmers, retailers, food producers, journalists, chefs, and advocates from across the country this weekend reminded me that we all have a role to play in supporting farmers.
So THANK YOU to all the inspiring speakers and moderators during Food Tank and Niman Ranch’s Education Summit program this weekend: Gustavo Arellano, LA Times; Ed Behr, Art of Eating; David Borrowman, Niman Ranch Farmer; Maral Cavner, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; Evadne Cokeh, ButcherBox; Monica Eng, Axios; Helena Bottemiller Evich, FoodFix; Jamey Fader, Marczyk Fine Foods; Chris Green, Harvard University’s Animal Law & Policy Program; Michelle Hughes, National Young Farmers Coalition; Julia Jordan, Compass Group; Lindsay Larson, Larson Family Farm; Jo Lerma-Lopez, Luna Mexican Kitchen; Adrian Lipscombe, 40 Acres Project; Pushkar Marathe, Ela Curry Kitchen; Pete & Barb Marczyk, Marczyk Fine Foods; Ron Mardesen, A Frame Acres; Katherine Miller, Food Systems and Policy Consultant; Lamar Moore, James Beard Foundation, Bronzeville Winery; TJ Murphy, Baldor Specialty Foods; Nina Oduro, Dine Diaspora; Chris Oliviero, Niman Ranch; Clint Rainey, Fast Company; Daniel Rath, Natural Resources Defense Council; Ethan Roberts, Roberts Family Farm; Deleana Roseland, Roseland Family Farm; Brandon Rosenberg, Miami Purveyor; Mike Salguero, ButcherBox; Maeve Sheehey, Bloomberg; Michael Showers, High West; Stan Swinton, Sprouts; Joel Talsma, Talsma Family Farm; Nina Teicholz, The Big Fat Surprise; Toni Tipton-Martin, Cook’s Country; Paul Willis, Niman Ranch; and Kristina Wohlenberg, Shake Shack.
But there’s still so much work to be done.
“It’s a travesty that doing things better and different in the food world isn’t the majority, it’s the minority,” says TJ Murphy, CEO at Baldor Specialty Foods Inc.
Let’s change that NOW!
To hear select sessions from Education Summit, check out the latest episode of “Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg” below.
Articles like the one you just read are made possible through the generosity of Food Tank members. Can we please count on you to be part of our growing movement? Become a member today by clicking here.
Photo courtesy of Sparks Johnson, Unsplash