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Going niche with Niman Ranch pork
Plan B for Ron Mardesen came hard and fast in the winter of 1998, when hog market prices plummeted to under 10¢ a pound. Earlier that year, the Elliott, Iowa, pork producer had read about Niman Ranch in an article in Successful Farming magazine.
The Niman philosophy of raising pigs on pasture “the way God intended,” as Mardesen describes it, appealed to him. His own farm, A-Frame Acres, was already a good fit for that niche market. But after making some inquiries, Mardesen decided against joining the company.
A few months later, Mardesen had to pursue alternatives if he was going to continue to raise pigs. “It was an absolutely horrible time,” he says.
He signed up with Niman and sold his first pigs in the program in 2002. “I am grateful for the opportunity to work with Niman, and I haven’t looked back,” he says.
Today, Mardesen has 80 sows producing pigs for Niman Ranch. The company is humane certified, which means the pigs have to be raised to stringent, humane health care standards. Pigs are raised either in a pasture or in deeply bedded pens. There are no crates, no antibiotics unless a pig is sick, no tail docking, and 28-day weaning.
“Niman has given me the opportunity to look ahead,” says Mardesen. “Niman sells the meat for me so I can concentrate on being a better producer, knowing that I have the stability and the opportunity to move my product.”
Niman boasts that it sells the finest-tasting meat in the world, so it has to back that up, he explains. Every Niman farmer has meat evaluated on a yearly basis for color, intermuscular fat, and more. “We are all compared against each other. If you wind up in the bottom 10%, Niman comes out and helps you,” he says. “We are always improving.”
Production numbers for the farm can’t compete with confinement operations, and he’s OK with that. No crates mean more baby pig loss. Outdoor farrowing means not ideal temperatures. His average litter size is 10 and weaned is 8.4. “If the weather is really hot or really cold, we cannot save as many little pigs as if they were locked up in the building,” he explains.
The Mardesen farm is 131 acres, “and we are making a comfortable living on it,” he says. His mother is still active in the farm. He hopes to pass the operation down to one of his three children.
“Niman is all about bringing young farmers home,” he says. “Every generation puts its own stamp on the land. I have no problem with whatever happens next. If there is not a pig on the place, I will be sad, but that’s not the end of the world. The point is, the farm will go on.”