On “Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg,” Paul Willis, founder of Niman Ranch Pork Company, and Elle Gadient, intern at Niman Ranch, talk about their love for humanely treated, free-range pigs and the farmers that raise them. “When we talked about free-range pigs the first time, it sounded odd to even say that,” says Willis. Before industrial practices became popular, says Willis, “pasture pigs were the norm; there were many hog operations, almost all pasture type, in those days. There were no confinement buildings.”
“I had been raising outdoor pigs, and selling them at the commodity market. We were being squeezed out. The price was getting worse when I met Bill Niman. He’s the first person to ever ask me what I wanted for my pigs,” says Willis. In 1995, Willis and Niman partnered to expand sustainable and humane hog farming methods across the Midwest, now including more than 720 family farmers.
Niman Ranch’s standards of treatment and taste attracted partnerships with top chefs including Alice Waters and national stores and restaurants such as Whole Foods and Chipotle. “We’re doing something special. Being put on the menu gave us recognition,” says Willis.
“Time marches on. We need younger people to pick this up if it’s going to thrive and move forward. But that very process happening creates opportunities for people wanting to be involved in agriculture. I think everybody should be a farmer,” says Willis. This year, Niman Ranch awarded over USD$100,000 through its annual Next Generation Scholarship Fund to help open opportunities in agriculture for youth by helping cover their education costs. One scholarship recipient and intern at Niman Ranch, Elle Gadient, feels herself constantly returning back to agriculture. “My passion is sustainable agriculture, so forever it will hold my heart. Supporting family farmers supports the environment, taking care of the land, and animal welfare.”
Being part of a farming family, “I couldn’t have grown up better,” says Gadient. “Just every day, so close to life[…] I think that really made me value life and respect life to a whole new level. When that’s our whole livelihood, the animals are depending on us for everything”
Catering to each animal’s wellbeing on free-range farms requires dedication and love, explains Gadient. “The farmers who raise animals outdoors are working so hard from sun up to sun down. They’re only working this hard because they love it. For so many farmers, it’s because of their concern for the next generation, and their love of the land, and also they love the connection to the animals.”
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Photo courtesy of Bill Adams.