A host of farmers in southeast Iowa have connected with a company that believes humane treatment and sustainable practices are the key to its success.
The company is Niman Ranch, started in the early 1970s on a family-owned cattle ranch in Bolinas, California, just north of San Francisco. According to the company’s website, the company gained a reputation as one using humane methods and all-natural feeds, and before long, became a hit in local grocery stores and popular San Francisco Bay restaurants.
In 1995, the company expanded to raising hogs when the founders met Paul Willis of Thornton, Iowa. At the time, Willis was busy revitalizing sustainable hog farming methods in the Midwest, moving away from the common industrial practices.
“His dedication to animal welfare and stewardship of the land closely matched our stringent principles,” the company writes on its website. “A partnership was quickly formed, allowing us to proudly offer a variety of proteins.”
Today, Niman Ranch’s network includes more than 740 family farmers and ranchers throughout the country. Whether they’re raising hogs, cattle or lamb, they share the company’s commitment to raising livestock under strict protocols and the belief that humane and sustainable methods produce the best flavor.
Iowa has become one of the top producers of Niman products, accounting for 200 of the company’s family farms. One of those family farms belongs to Dee Sandquist, who is in her fifth year of selling through the company.
Sandquist met Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig at a conference and invited him to tour her hog farm. When he came to the Greater Jefferson County Fair in late June, Naig stopped at Sandquist’s farm and at a farm run by Justin Engwall, who also sells through Niman Ranch. Engwall does farrow to finish while Sandquist does ween to finish.
“It’s been an excellent way to diversify our farm,” Sandquist said.
Engwall said he wanted to start raising pigs, but wanted financial security. Since Niman Ranch tells him the price he’s getting ahead of time, it allows Engwall to calculate how much he can spend on capital investments and other inputs.
Farmer Steve Gunderson helps Sandquist on her farm and has hogs of his own. Gunderson, in his third year with the company, said it was important to him that the animals be raised with compassion.
“They get more space than they do in a confinement,” he said. “We don’t dock their tails or clip their teeth. We treat them the best we can while they’re here.”
Niman Ranch announced three years ago it had become Certified Humane. Livestock are always raised either outdoors or in deeply bedded pens, they are not housed in cages or crates, and do not receive added hormones. The company requires its animals be treated humanely in transport, too, where there are minimum square footage requirements just like there are minimum square footage requirements for them in the barns.
Engwall said the feed is “plain Jane” soybean meal and corn without much else. He believes it affects the animals’ meat. Before cooking, the meat from his Niman Ranch hogs is a dark red, whereas meat from pigs raised in a confinement is white.
Sandquist noticed the same thing while eating Niman Ranch pork and asked her husband, “Why does this taste so good?” And he said, “Dee, it’s their diet.”
“It’s because they’re not in a confinement laying in gases all day,” Gunderson said. “It makes a huge difference.”
Engwall, in his second year with the company, chimed in that he believes stress hormones affect the taste of meat, that the less stress an animal is under, the better its meat will taste.
Gunderson said the medical protocol they follow is to vaccinate pigs against disease, but not to treat them with antibiotics. If a pig needs antibiotics, they will administer the drugs, but will then separate that pig from the rest of the herd.
Sandquist said consumers are beginning to demand antibiotic-free meat, a market that Niman Ranch is trying to target. She also mentioned that the company is worried about the overuse of antibiotics and how they can create supergerms that are resistant to antibiotics.
If Niman Ranch can produce a better tasting product while treating the animals kindly, why hasn’t the rest of the industry followed suit? There is a catch, which is that following Niman Ranch’s protocols is more labor-intensive than raising pigs in a typical confinement. That said, Sandquist, Gunderson and Engwall said they had an easier time getting their foot in the door through Niman Ranch because their overhead costs were low.
Niman Ranch’s products are typically carried in specialty stores and are commonly found in urban grocery markets. Sandquist said the company has made its way into a number of restaurants. A farmer near Hillsboro sells through Niman Ranch, and they had their products for sale at a food truck on the side of the road when RAGBRAI came through the area in late July.
Fairfield Economic Development Association’s executive director Joshua Laraby said farmers are willing to try to sell new products if there is a market for it, and Niman Ranch has shown there is a market for humanely, sustainable pork.
“When we look at the next chapter of farming, this is the model to follow,” Laraby said.
Farmers like Gunderson, Engwall and Sandquist own their hogs. Engwall said that’s part of what he likes about this arrangement, that he feels a sense of pride from owning his own hogs.
Sandquist raises 800 hogs a year. Gunderson said in July he had about 300 hogs on his farm at that time, but that he processes closer to 500 in a year’s time. Engwall’s operation typically includes 24 sows, four boars and 200-240 feeder pigs.