BY CHEF JAMEY FADER
I'm a born-again skeptic and lean heavily towards cynicism. My perspectives are neither derogatory nor malicious. I simply need proof. I gotta see that pudding and give it a taste.
Over the years I've moved to a plant-based diet. I'll spare you any preaching and proselytizing because that's not my bag. It just works for me. On many, many levels.
As a chef, you get to see just how much we as human beings consume. We take in A LOT of product and in order to meet those demands our industrialized food system has come up with some truly ghastly ways to "farm meat." Inhumane conditions and mistreatment of living creatures are unacceptable to me. I refuse to support those practices and have not purchased commodity meats in more than a decade and a half because of this.
This past weekend I was fortunate to be presented with an opportunity to visit a hog farm in Iowa that uses the Niman Ranch methods I also got to attend the yearly Hog Farmer Awards dinner and ceremony. I was eager to see the practices being put into play and, quite honestly, to see if the hype was real or if it’s all just a great story.
I'd never been to Iowa (nowhere to surf and nowhere to snowboard) and was curious as to farm life, the Midwest, and our corn belt. How it all works and the people who make it so. Mostly though, I was intrigued by the prospect of inspecting a program we at Marczyk Fine Foods fully support to see if it's as great in practice as it is on paper.
The recap is as follows: We hit Des Moines, which I was shocked to see has a large, lazy river of the same name running through downtown. It's a beautiful, impeccably clean little city filled with kind folks who readily offer up smiles and salutations. We drove two hours, past the sleepy hamlets of Atlantic and Griswold, deep into corn country where roads have no names and everything looks the same for miles and miles and miles. We ended up at the A-Frame Acres farm, an idyllic slice of Americana replete with red and white barns, silos, corn stalks waving in the evening breeze, and a farmhouse with a wrap-around porch that dreams are made of.
At the farm we saw the Niman Way in practice. I have a great love for animals. All creatures great and small deserve respect and dignity — an opportunity to live peaceful lives free from harm and neglect, abuse and torment. While I don't eat much meat, it's necessary to know that when I do, it's from animals treated well so that I'm not ingesting that toxicity and supporting unethical and what I deem to be immoral practices.
What I encountered was real. Real people. Real animals. Real practices. Good people who care about their legacy and the animals they raise. Yes, these hogs are food; that's their purpose. But that does not negate their daily reality and, in my opinion, their right to lead a darn good life free from harm.
Each farmer had a tale of success to tell thanks to a program that is designed to see each hog, hog farmer, and the industry at large succeed. It begins with free gilts. These are young females, typically under a year old, that will be ready for breeding in the coming months.
The only caveat is that 100% of the raised hogs from those gilts are then sold to Niman Ranch…
...at fair market value.
The rest...well it goes like this...
Envision a gorgeous Midwest evening. A few puffy clouds dapple the pure blue sky that stretches from one horizon line to the next. Gentle breezes blow, creating a swaying chorus line of corn silk tops and wild sunflowers. Dotting the hilly landscape are A-Frame structures that act as houses for the mamas delivering and raising their young. They're free to come and go as they please, often meandering through the fields foraging for treats, lazing in the shade, or wallowing in the ample mud holes that keep them safe from pestering bugs and summer heat. The babies stay with their mamas until fully weened, after which time they begin their own journeys with newly made pig friends from other litters.
The hogs are fed a mix of self-foraged items and grain until they make weight; then they are harvested, processed, and sold to market. No electric prods are allowed. No containment cages are ever used. We had a doctor break down the meat showing how unloved muscle purges moisture and has a sickly grey hue. We also saw Niman pork that was deep in color and rich in flavor. The comparison was startling.
The verdict: Niman is legit. The practices are the best I've ever seen. The people care about their livestock and the quality meat they produce. Be proud of the meats we sell because the farmers sure are.
Single-feed-lot, commodity farms produce an obscene amount of hogs with a high death rate percentage due to poor conditions. The Niman process has almost a zero mortality rate among livestock.
Single-feed-lot, commodity farms produce a sickening amount of waste due to overcrowding. Niman farms have numbers that are sustainable for the size and scope of their land, reducing waste that composts naturally and, surprisingly, producing no odor. None. It smelled like earth and animals, not the putrid stench of ammonia and waste commonly found in these subpar operations.
To top it all off, Niman is pushing to ensure the future of our crops via a pollinator program where percentages of property are left for the bees to do their thing in a healthy, natural environment.
The icing on the cake was the awards and scholarships handed out to proud and deserving farmers and their kids. Marczyk Fine Foods raised over $50K for these young, hard-working kids who will go to school and bring back their education to the family farm, ensuring another generation of ethical hog farming.
Skeptical no more. I have seen the light and it comes in the form of happy families raising happy hogs naturally.
I'm proud of our vendor choices.
I'm proud to know that we are so deeply involved in a program that puts our farmers and their livestock first.
I'm proud of Pete Marczyk for raising an additional $60K in a matter of 10 minutes or less at the awards dinner.
I'm proud of Niman for changing the course.
I'm proud of the farmers for their commitment to these sustainable, humane practices, and I’m proud of their families, who deliver on tough promises every day.
We're all doing the right thing, and I'm proud of us all for choosing Niman.