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Old-School Pig Farming at Niman Ranch Pork

Paul Willis is looking for a few good pig farmers – the old-school kind.

He’s the director of the Niman Ranch Pork division, a consortium of farmers who raise pigs the old-fashioned way: in pens, with bedding, and in the open air. 

California-based Niman Ranch buys slaughter-weight pigs from cooperating farmers and processes them at a plant in western Iowa. The pork is sold to health-conscious customers, restaurants, and natural food stores across the country.

The Niman Ranch website gives a full description of what it takes to grow pigs for the company. Following are a few highlights.

  • Pigs are raised with traditional, sustainable farming methods.
  • Pigs are never allowed in gestation or farrowing crates.
  • Pigs are raised outside on pasture or in deeply bedded pens.
  • Pigs are fed 100% vegetarian diets.
  • Pigs are never given hormones or antibiotics.
  • Pigs are raised with care.

Willis runs Niman Ranch Pork from his own farm in Thornton, Iowa, and says he is always interested in talking to prospective pig raisers willing to do it the old way. “I caution them that it might take a year or longer of talking before anything actually happens, though,” he says.

A Lost Art

Two things stand out as barriers to raising pigs this way, says Willis.

One is the facilities for allowing the pigs to grow in a natural environment. “On many farms, they’re not there anymore,” he says.

“The other thing is the skills for natural farrowing and raising pigs in bedded pens or on pasture. In some cases, the skills for doing that have been lost, too,” he says.

Willis doesn’t tell cooperating pig farmers which breeds to use, but he recommends crossbreds of Berkshire, Duroc, or Chester White breeding, all known for tender and juicy meat cuts.

The only size restriction is that producers must deliver a minimum of five pigs at a time to a Niman collection point. “You could have only one sow, I guess, but most of our producers have 50 sows to a few hundred,” says Willis.

The processing plant is in Iowa, but Niman operates collection points scattered from the Dakotas to Pennsylvania and has producers in most states along that route. It pools butcher pigs at the collection points and delivers them to the plant to be processed and distributed to buyers from coast to coast.

As for the farm economics, Willis says feed is the single biggest cost in the hog business, and feed efficiency in the Niman Ranch natural system may be slightly poorer than in a confinement system. That’s partly due to the type of pigs and the growing environment. 

“We pay our producers a premium over the commodity hog market, and it’s a significant premium,” he says as a counter to the increased feed cost. He won’t say exactly how much the premium is because it varies with the hog market and the cost of feed. It’s seasonally adjusted, too.

“Plus,” he continues, “we have a floor price that we don’t go below. The floor price means our producers always make some profit, even at market lows.”

The market for natural pork is growing fast, says Willis. “When we started Niman Ranch Pork in 1995, I shipped 30 pigs. Now, it’s a thousand times that!” 

Niman Ranch started with a natural beef program in the 1970s. It has also added lamb and egg programs in selected areas. Over 750 farmers in 28 states now raise animals for the company using the prescribed natural techniques.

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