Q&A with Paul Willis, Niman Ranch Founding Hog Farmer

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How did you come to care about the good food movement and good food for all?

Paul Willis: Being a lifelong farmer, good food produced responsibly has always been important to me. That said, the movement for a better food system really became my life’s work in the 1990s. During this time, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) were closing in around my farm in Iowa. Pork prices crashed to eight cents a pound and my neighbors were either adopting the industrialized hog production practices or losing the farm. I wanted to find a better way—one that was better for the farmers, the animals, the environment, and our communities—but I also knew I couldn’t do it on my own. Since then, Niman Ranch has grown one farmer and rancher at a time to build a network of 750 today.

From your vantage point, what is the biggest challenge to getting good food to the table?

PW: I’m concerned about getting the next generation of sustainable farmers on the land. It was definitely not easy in my early years on the farm, but the challenges young farmers face today are significant. Farmland is incredibly expensive, young people are sidled with debts from college, the food system is much more industrialized, which can make it hard to compete, and that’s just to name a few…That said, I have a lot of hope for young farmers. We partner with the National Young Farmers Coalition on their grassroots work to set this next generation up for success. We also have been working with our customers who are keenly interested in helping support our farmers. One great example is our partnership with a small independent grocer in Connecticut, La Bonne’s, who sponsored gilts (female pigs who haven’t yet had babies) for a young farming family so that they can grow their farm. Chipotle is also doing amazing work to support young farmers in Niman Ranch’s network by providing scholarships and three-year purchasing commitments for farmers getting their business started.

How has the food landscape and your thinking changed in light of the COVID-19 crisis?

PW: The general public is getting quite the education on the food chain, that’s for sure! There is an increased appreciation for knowing where your food comes from, who raised it, their practices and how it got from farm to plate. People are learning that “big is fragile,” as Dr. Temple Grandin recently put it. We are seeing the resilience of the Niman Ranch model on full display—we are less vulnerable and able to pivot to make sure our farmers and ranchers are protected from the market fluctuations. Speaking of pivoting, I have been so inspired by the restaurant community as they completely rethink their business models in the face of COVID-19. Their creativity and resilience gives me a great deal of hope for the future.

Please name someone who is really advancing good food in your region.

PW: It’s not a person, but a team. The organization Practical Farmers of Iowa is doing amazing work throughout the Midwest to support good food raised sustainably and in a way that supports farmer livelihoods. They are known for their innovative on-farm research on practices that balance the needs of the environment and also farmer profitability. Farmer-to-farmer learning is a big part of their work and a crucial tool to build a better food system. Advice means a lot more coming from a fellow farmer than from an academic institution.

What is one thing you wish eaters would do to advance the good food for all mission?

PW: Don’t be afraid to ask about where your food comes from and how it was produced. I’ve been saying this for decades, but it’s as true now as ever. If everyone did this at their local grocery store and restaurants it would go a long way to show businesses that eaters care about these issues and encourage them to make small and big changes to support a good food system. I know it can feel awkward to do so, but it makes a big difference. Be brave!

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