Niman Ranch Pork Company

Paul Willis and his Thornton, IA, hog production operation have received some pretty heady notoriety over the last year. There have been articles in New York City publications, articles in the San Francisco Examiner, appearances on TV, and editorials in, among other publications, the Des Moines Register. Several specialty trade publications dealing with production agriculture or with food topics have highlighted his efforts.

What’s so special about the way Willis raises and sells pork? Just about everything.

Willis is part of the San Francisco Bay area Niman Ranch Food Company, a firm that offers free-range meat products, pork in the case of Willis. Among the biggest claims of Niman Ranch is that the meat offered by the company to West Coast outlets and high-caliber restaurants simply tastes better, according to some. It tastes better, they say, because of the natural way it is raised – lots of space, humane conditions, no growth hormones or sub-therapeutic antibiotics.

Willis can take the description of how special growing translates to better product further. Animals that run, get more oxygen in their systems. They build different types of tissue. They are happier. And this animal friendly environment means the product tastes better.

Niman pitches the story as a contrast to the “mass production of meat on modern factory farms.” The company, which began operation more than 20 years ago, has established, it says, a reputation for the best tasting meats available. Its meat products are often listed on the menu with the word “Niman” attached. The writings of food-related editors on the West Coast, where Niman products abound, underscore the claim.

Willis thought he would be done with farming after graduating from the University of Iowa in psychology. He went into the Peace Corps and was placed on assignment in Nigeria. As it turned out, the contacts developed during those years may have set the stage for his pork-raising operation.

He had re-entered farming in Iowa and, until six years ago, was raising pigs the way he had always raised them. For the most part, they received few antibiotics and chemicals, were range-raised and were treated in what Willis terms a “humane” way that allowed them to produce what he believed was better meat.

Then he made the connection with Niman Ranch meat products through a Peace Corps friend who had marketing links to the organization. It was the kind of specialty market he had been looking for. The requirement was for free-range hogs, fed without using meat by-products, not given steroids or sub-therapeutic antibiotics or other artificial growth stimulants, and raised with “dignity and respect.”

At that point, Willis and another hog producer from California were the only producers from whom Niman purchased pork. The other producer did not continue to live up to the standards set by Niman, so Willis’ operation within the last couple of years has suddenly become the sole provider of pork to Niman. “All of a sudden, there was demand for my raising 2,500 hogs and there were certain times we didn’t have enough pigs.” That was the beginning of the Niman Ranch network, now at 40-50 producers in the Midwest. The search continued for other pork producers who fit the “type.” Pigs need to be raised in pasture or bedded pens/ hoop houses and meet the other special Niman criteria. According to the quality manager of Willis’ operation, increasing numbers of applications come in to the business from producers who would like to sell hogs into the Niman network. Each applicant must meet the criteria of a Quality Standards Affidavit, send copies of feed ingredient labels and feed formulas and send samples to the Thornton farm as well as to the Niman Ranch headquarters in California. If everything holds up to standards, someone from Niman Ranch Pork Co. will make a site visit to the producer.

The following are among criteria sent to potential Niman ranch producers. Pigs must:

  • have been raised on pasture or in deeply bedded pens;
  • have not been given any form of growth-promoting hormones or steroids; and
  • have never been given antibiotics.

Recently, the Niman/Willis enterprise was approved by the Animal Welfare Institute. A set of standards that must be adhered to by each producer in the network is lengthy and detailed, covering such aspects as bedding, window openings, and, most of all, kindly treatment of animals. It requires that farms, in order to meet criteria, must be family farms and the term “family farm” is defined in detail. Networking is allowed among family farms.

The Niman Ranch Pork Company of Iowa received Extension 21 funding in 1998 and a report issued as follow-up from Extension 21 listed the numbers of hogs produced by the group as 3,000 in 1997; 10,027 in 1998 and an estimated 15,000-20,000 in 1999. Producers averaged $43/head over market price, according to the report.

The Difference
Timing and connections just seemed to work for Willis. He has a built-in market for the specialty hog he wishes to produce. However, the majority of Americans (and others) who purchase pork products at meat counters are not necessarily in tune with the flavor and humane issues that are so important to those involved with Niman Ranch products.

There is some progress, however, Willis noted. People, he said, are beginning to want to know how their meat was raised, where it comes from and why they are better off buying one brand vs. another.

A few months ago, families involved with the Niman network were in Washington, D.C., at a natural foods conference. Interest seemed strong. Willis said that the 13th largest grocery chain in the country and several other large chains are “natural foods” stores. The growth and success of these companies indicates, he said, that at least a segment of our consumers are interested in knowing more about their food and believe in the better taste or value in “whole” foods. These consumers – as well as the restaurants and the customers to whom the restaurants cater – all seem willing to pay higher prices for this distinctive pork product and the flavor and the values they perceive it brings to them.

Fall 1999

For more information about the alliance, contact:
Niman Ranch Pork Company
228 Eagle Avenue
Thornton, IA 50470
Phone: (641) 998-2683

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