To say the Willis family farm stands in stark contrast to the factory farms that surround it doesn't do it justice. To me this is literally hog heaven vs. hog hell.
I was invited by Niman Ranch to attend their 12th Annual Farmer Appreciation Dinner in Des Moines, which was lovely, but the real highlight of the trip was meeting Paul Willis, and touring his family's hog farm.
Joining a large, diverse group of chefs, purveyors, restaurateurs, and reporters, we headed north by bus about 100 miles to Thornton, Iowa.
Along the way, Ashley, one of Niman Ranch's field inspectors, pointed out the many CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) we were passing. The destruction that these "farms" do to our land, water, and arguably souls, is well documented.
Having read books by people like Michael Pollan, and seen movies like Food Inc., I knew about such places, but there was something eerie and ominous about driving by so many (there are over 8,000 CAFOs in Iowa alone) on the way to the Willis farm. By the way, if you are into horizons, you should really take a bus trip across Iowa's flat plains.
When we got to the farm, we were greeted by Paul Willis, the man most responsible for Niman Ranch's thriving network of over 500 hog farmers. Niman's motto is "Raised with Care," and after hearing Paul talk about his animals, his farm, and his mission, you could tell this is much more than just an advertising slogan to him.
Before we hit the field, someone from Niman Ranch showed us some pork raised in a factory farm (on the left) vs. pork raised under their strict guidelines. As the photo here illustrates, pork is not suppose to be "the other white meat." Real pork is marbled with fat, has a beautiful pink/red hue, and firm texture. Conventionally raised pork is pale, squishy, and almost devoid of the naturally flavorful fat. Hey, at least it's really cheap.
Then we got to meet the pigs, but not before being made to put on these clear plastic boots. I'm not sure why we were all made to slip these on, but I assume it's some sort of odd Iowan fashion thing.
I kind of liked the look, but I was amazed at how much my calves and ankles sweated. The good news is my lower legs have never looked more toned.
After a short walk through native grasses and alfalfa, we were right smack in the middle of Paul's 300 hogs, which could only be described as "happy." I know that may sound Pollyannaish, but that's exactly the vibe I got. Pigs are very intelligent animals, and quite emotive, and to watch them frolicking around, and interacting with this large group of strangers, you got the clear sense they were enjoying every minute of it.
I swear some were actually smiling at me, although in fairness it could have been gas, but still. Some of the larger sows seem to gravitate towards the photographers like attention starved, albeit overweight, Hollywood starlets.
In general, I'd have to say most of these pigs were just big hams. Wow, it took eleven paragraphs before I resorted to a bad pig pun. Not bad.
The stars of the show were clearly the newly born piglets, some small enough to juggle (which I was asked to stop doing for fear of injury). They darted here and there, disappearing in and out of the tall alfalfa. There's cute, and then there's baby pig cute. Here's a very short video I hope captures some of their adorableness.
So why are these hogs so seemingly happy? Niman Ranch points to their strict protocols, which Paul Willis helped develop. The animals must be given plenty of room to graze, be fed only high-quality, vegetarian feed, and never be subjected to antibiotics or growth hormones. As Paul joked, his hogs really only have one bad day.
So your thinking, sure they're probably happier and healthier, but do they taste good? Oh yes, they do. After our tour, we stripped off our plastic booties (which by that time I'd grown strangely fond of) and headed down the road to the Willis' family home for an amazing whole hog roast, complete with a table full of delicious food prepared with obvious love and pride by Paul's wife Phyllis.
The scene was right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The sweet smell of manure, weathered barns, tall grasses bending in the breeze, cats bouncing, dogs begging, cocks crowing, and a hayride.
Here you see me along with Paul, and two fellow bloggers, Danielle from Bon Vivant, and Tina from Carrots 'N' Cake. The setting was so perfect, and the characters so authentic, we three joked that these must be actors brought in by Niman Ranch for the weekend.
After a gorgeous sunset, we headed back to Des Moines, bellies full of pork, hearts full of joy in the knowledge that people like this really do still exist, and that their numbers are growing. My sincerest thanks to the Willis family and Niman Ranch for an unforgettable experience.
The following evening we enjoyed a wonderful meal at the 12th Annual Farmer Appreciation Dinner, and I will post a photo recap of that tomorrow. Stay tuned!
All photos (c) John Mitzewich, except hayride photo (c) Tina from Carrots 'N' Cake.
Disclosure: All travel, lodging, and food on this trip were provided for by Niman Ranch.