Niman Ranch Weekend: Farm to Table at the Willis Hog Farm

Thursday, September 23, 2010
Paul Willis and his hog

Niman Ranch farmer Paul Willis and his hog

Today, LMS contributer Danielle Tsi transports us to the heartland of America to experience hog heaven at Niman Ranch’s farm-to-table weekend. Danielle is a photographer and blogger based in the San Francisco Bay Area who has a penchant for going beyond the plate to tell the stories behind every dish. When she’s not behind the lens, she can be found on her yoga mat perfecting the headstand.

Visiting Iowa isn’t exactly the sort of thing you’d do just for the weekend. After all, cornfields and farms aren’t really “weekend getaway” material. But when you’re spending it with Paul Willis and his family, their hospitality and warmth slowly chip away at your pre-conceived notions, until you’re completely bowled over by their Midwestern charm and forced to admit that, yes, you had a damn fine time in Iowa, and would jump on the next chance you get to visit them again.

Last weekend, Niman Ranch invited Lick My Spoon, their customers, partners and a couple of other bloggers out to Des Moines for a porky weekend culminating in their 12th Annual Hog Farmer Appreciation Dinner on Saturday evening.

The formidable Iowa pork sandwich at Centro (George Formaro)

After an utterly delicious lunch at Centro on the first day, where I met fellow blogging buddies John from Food Wishes and Tina from Carrots ‘N’ Cake, we boarded the bus for Thornton, IA, a town 2.5 hours northwest of the city, where the Willis family and their approximately 300 hogs were waiting to greet us. Driving through endless acres of golden, GMO-corn fields, I found it hard to believe that, just a day earlier, I was racing up the 101 to a jam-packed SFO. Apart from the occasional farmhome, there was not a soul to be seen. Possibly because the only other souls out there at three in the afternoon were clustered in these innocuous-looking structures…

Typical layer farms with over 2000 chickens in each shed

Typical layer farms with over 2000 chickens in each shed

Each of these sheds contain about 2000 chickens, stacked in wire cages, one above the other, while hogs were housed in these…

Where commercially raised pigs live

Where commercially-raised pigs live

Knowing what we know about the commercial farming industry, driving past these structures was depressing. The agricultural equivalent of concentration camps, if you will. And they couldn’t be further removed from the 20 acres of pasture that was home to the happy hogs on Paul Willis’ farm that ran out to greet us upon arrival.

20 acres of happy pigs on the Willis hog farm

20 acres of happy pigs on the Willis hog farm

Before giving us a tour of the farm, Paul gave some background about his involvement with Niman Ranch. The office that we were in was his childhood home, and his family has been raising hogs for as long as he could remember. After touring a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) facility when they first appeared in the 1960s, Paul knew, instinctively, that this wasn’t the approach he wanted to take to raise his hogs. And so he continued with the traditional methods – annually rotating crops and pasture, giving hogs freedom and space to roam and run around, using no growth hormones and employing antibiotics only when absolutely necessary. It wasn’t until 1995 when he met Bill Niman in San Francisco that he started supplying Niman Ranch with pork and, over time, established the Niman Ranch Pork Company, a subsidiary to the existing beef business. To meet demand, Paul recruited more and more hog farmers to the team and today manages a network of over 500 family hog farmers in the Midwest, all of them raising pigs according to strict and established animal husbandry standards that Paul co-developed with Diane Halverson at the Animal Welfare Institute.

Next, Lori Lyon, Field Operations Manager at Niman Ranch briefed us about the company’s standards for pork quality, and how to recognize a good quality cut of meat. All Niman Ranch farmers are assigned a number, and their hog carcasses are tattooed with that number at the packing plant. This is to ensure traceability of every cut of meat sold, which ensures quality control and rewards those farmers that consistently exceed Niman Ranch’s pork quality standards.

Lori Lyon (Niman Ranch) talking about pork quality

Lori Lyon (Niman Ranch) talking about pork quality

For Northwest Iowa, hogs are processed at the Sioux-Preme packing company, which is also where meat quality is evaluated, based on the following categories:

  • Color: Testers look for meat that is reddish-pink.
  • Marbling: The amount of marbling in a slice of pork, on a scale of 1-6 (lowest to highest).
  • pH levels:  The higher the pH levels, the more firm and juicy, and therefore tastier the meat. pH levels in the pork industry average at 5.7 and Niman Ranch aims for a pH of between 5.5-6 for their pork.
An example of low-quality pork (left); Kitty wanting to get in on some pork action (right)

An example of limp, pale, low-quality pork (left); Kitty wanting to get in on some pork action (right)

The key to ensuring high pH levels in pork is to subject the hogs to as little stress as possible and an efficient workflow that chills the meat almost immediately after slaughter. Paul’s favorite saying is that all Niman Ranch hogs have one bad day in their lives, and that’s the day that they’re slaughtered. The fact that Sioux-Preme has changed their slaughtering process – from stunning the pigs with electricity to gassing them unconscious with carbon dioxide – reflects both Niman Ranch’s commitment to producing high-quality pork as well as Paul Willis’ philosophy of treating animals with the respect and dignity they deserve. With the expanse of lush pasture, the many sheds and piles of bedding available and the friendliness of the hogs that came right up to us, it was evident that the Willis family love their hogs and that the feeling is mutual.


Dinner was held at the “Dream Farm” – the site of the Willis home, situated on the top of a hill overlooking about 120 acres of prairie land that had been restored over time. It’s as romantic a Midwestern scene as one can get and it’s not hard to see how this plot of land received its moniker. Where we were previously greeted by sociable hogs, this time we had curious chickens cautiously checking us out from a distance.

Happy chickens

Happy chickens

Paul’s wife, Phyllis, along with the help of many friends, prepared a buffet table of delicious appetizers and accompaniments to complement the main dish of the evening: a whole-roasted 200+ pound hog (the first picture in this post). It was truly an impressive sight to whet the appetite and send animal-rights activists running in the other direction. While the smooth deep-brown skin was impossible to eat, it did a fantastic job in sealing the sweet porky juices within the meat, making for what could only be described as the best-tasting pork in the world.

Farm to table dinner (left); Prairie wildflowers (right)

Farm to table dinner (left); Prairie wildflowers (right)

Before dinner, Paul took a bunch of us who were interested on a tour of the prairie, pointing out the areas that were natural, wild prairie, and those parts that were previously farmland and which had now been restored. The fields were lush with smooth blue aster flowers and maximilian sunflowers taking up every inch of available soil. The beauty of the landscape, to which my pictures do no justice, is bewitching, and instills a sense of respect for what Paul and Phyllis are trying to accomplish with conserving and respecting the land that they grew up with.

The prairie

The prairie

Prairie wildflowers

Prairie wildflowers: Smooth Blue Aster (left) and Maximilian Sunflower (right)

After dinner – consisting of two servings of pork, one serving of meltingly tender pork belly, followed by home-made pear pie and chocolate chip cookies – thanks were given to the different individuals who made dinner possible, and a hay ride was organized at the spur of the moment. Clambering up the wagon, we were just in time to watch the vermillion sun slowly setting behind the trees on the horizon. Truly magical. And dream-like.

A magical sunset

A magical sunset

Bumbling along on the bales of hay under the cloudy Iowa night sky, I didn’t want the evening to end. This was a side of America that one hardly reads or knows about these days: independent family farms, imbued with a love and respect for the land and its produce, part of a close-knit community and friends with which to share it. The realization that we, although individuals, are fundamentally interdependent on each other and on the land we live off on, made for an inspiring start to what was to be an eye-opening weekend.

Prairie Walk

Stay tuned for my visit to the Des Moines Farmers’ Market and the seven-course pork dinner held to honor Niman Ranch’s hog farmers!


Porkalicious Recipes from Food & Wine:

FOOD & WINE is giving away a year-long subscription to a lucky reader from Lick My Spoon. Click here to enter and read official rules here.

This post is part of a series featuring recipes from the FOOD & WINE archive. As a FOOD & WINE Blogger Correspondent, I was chosen to do four recipes a week from FOOD & WINE. I received a subscription to FOOD & WINE for my participation.

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14 Responses to “Niman Ranch Weekend: Farm to Table at the Willis Hog Farm”

  1. [...] enjoy some images of cute, newborn piglets and hogs striking a pose. You could also head over to Lick My Spoon where I’ve published my first recap of the weekend, along with some [...]

  2. Terrific piece! I have heard about them, so it’s great to get a real observer’s perspective.

  3. great photos and great post.  Loved it.  I did some styling work for Sur La Table, featuring Niman Ranch and I can vouch for the quality of their product.  Everything was absolutely delicious.  I am jealous of your adventure, I would have loved it!!  Thanks for sharing so I can live vicariously through you. 

  4. Thanks for the vote on PFB, I returned the favor!! Good Luck!

  5. What a fun event! Loving the pictures. 

  6. Rhonda says:

    Looks wonderful. I love the hog “condos” . Brings back memories of my many visits to Iowa. Wish I knew about Niman ranch when I was visiting. Thanks for the vote…you have my vote also!

  7. Rachael says:

    Thanks for your comment on my blog – I’m loving find new reads via this contest!
    Seeing a farm or ranch firsthand is always an experience, especially one in the “heartland” – I secretly would love some serious acreage, though our little urban farmstead is a good start!

  8. sydney says:

    How in the world do you get to go to so many cool things like this? The event in Hawaii, all the other events and now Iowa!! I’m so jealous. Soo cool. Bet you met so many foodies. You have to teach me the tricks of the trade!! Hahahah. I just don’t think blog writers are treated the same in ol Europe :(

  9. Chad (a Niman Ranch farmer) says:

    Looking forward to your take on the rest of your stay in Iowa. Glad you enjoyed it.
    I’m pretty sure we rode the elevator together from the 10th floor down to the reception.

    • Danielle says:

      Hi Chad, it’s pretty likely we ‘met’ in the elevator, although there were so many folks that evening, it was hard to keep track of faces :) Glad you enjoyed this post!

  10. [...] a full day of socializing and feasting with our fellow companions at the Willis Farm, Saturday morning dawned heavy and grey with a light [...]

  11. [...] don’t forget the Dunlops at what used to be TLC Ranch, Michael Pollan, Joel Silverstein and the good folks at Niman Ranch, each of them doing their part to improve the food system and consequently, our [...]

  12. [...] don’t forget the Dunlops at what used to be TLC Ranch, Michael Pollan, Joel Silverstein and the good folks at Niman Ranch, each of them doing their part to improve the food system and consequently, our [...]

  13. [...] and ranchers — 676 and growing. (You may remember our peek into life at Niman Ranch farmer, Paul Willis’ Dream Farm last year.)Niman Ranch hogs are raised outdoors or in deeply bedded pens on environmentally [...]

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