Expert Spotlight: Five Questions with Paul Willis of Niman Ranch

We’ve said it countless times -- it’s more important than ever for consumers to support farmers and ranchers who raise their livestock without antibiotic overuse. Hundreds of studies over the past 50 years have found that antibiotic use in agriculture can create antibiotic resistant bacteria that can make people and animals sick. One simple way people can help fight antibiotic resistance is by voting with your fork and purchasing meat raised without antibiotic misuse. That’s why we love the opportunity to spotlight companies and farmers who are committed to raising livestock without antibiotics (as well as those who use antibiotics responsibly). One such company is Niman Ranch.

Started in the early 1970’s, Niman Ranch has grown from a small ranch in California to one of the largest and most trusted sustainable meat brands in the country. Paul Willis is the company’s founding hog farmer and answers our five top questions.

1. Tell us a little bit about Niman Ranch. What animals do you raise? How many farmers are in your network?

Niman Ranch began early in the 1970’s by Bill Niman in the San Francisco bay area, pioneering a movement for all-natural meat, focusing on quality.  Our philosophy has always been that animals “Raised With Care” results in the finest tasting meat that both consumers and chefs demand. Today we are a national leader in sustainable agriculture and humane livestock practices.

Niman Ranch starts with the best traditional breeds of livestock for beef cattle, hogs and sheep, raised outdoors on pasture, including deeply bedded pens for pigs, with plenty of room to move and behave naturally. Our network of more than 720 independent family farmers and ranchers have great expertise in raising heritage breeds.

Consumers have been a driving force behind Niman Ranch since the beginning, voting with their forks, seeking superior quality that they can taste and feel good about. Every dollar is  supporting our growing network of family farmers and ranchers who raise their livestock in a humane and sustainable way without the use of antibiotics.

My personal journey started in the early 1990s when I found myself as one of the few remaining hog farmers in the Midwest raising pigs traditionally -- meaning outdoors on pasture. I instinctively rejected the rise of industrial pork production of Confined Animal Feeding Operations but found myself at a loss as I struggled to compete on the commodity market where the focus was about quantity not quality, “pork the other white meat.” I was penalized in the marketplace and was losing money because my pigs were too “fat”, I had to find another way.

I knew the pork I produced had superior eating quality. I began looking for a market where folks would be willing to pay the true cost of what it takes to raise livestock traditionally, humanely and sustainably for the finest tasting pork available.  During my search, I was introduced to Niman Ranch through mutual friends and ranchers in California. They said my values aligned perfectly with what Niman Ranch was doing.  We met and I sent them a sample and the rest is history. Their most discriminating customers requested my pork specifically, including Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. From then on, I sorted out the challenges we faced logistically and became the founding Niman Ranch hog farmer, initially supplying all Niman Ranch pork, and was thrilled to be earning more money to continue my family’s farming operation.

In 1996, when I could no longer meet the rising demand for our pork I brought other like-minded farmers into our network. I was able to do this because of our relationship with well-known farm animal welfare expert, Diane Halverson, who assisted us in creating our animal husbandry protocols. Temple Grandin was another of our mentors in setting the highest standards possible.

2. Your slogan is “Raised with Care,” can you tell us more about that? What is Niman Ranch’s antibiotics policy and how did this policy come to be?

“Raised with Care” means taking into consideration what the animal wants and its natural behaviors. Niman Ranch farmers are dedicated to promoting animal welfare, stewardship of the land, and sustainable farming methods both on the farm and in the food system. This includes an environment where pigs can be pigs. For us this means pasture or deep bedded pens where animals can live in groups and carry out their natural behaviors like rooting, exercise, socializing and having baby pigs in an area where they can make a nest and give birth. Niman Ranch never uses gestation or farrowing crates.

For the past 40 years, Niman Ranch has adhered to strict protocols and the highest standards for antibiotic use. We started with no sub-therapeutic antibiotics and in 2001 we created the No Antibiotics Ever program that we use today. Of course, it is also very important to treat a sick animal. We offer our farmers free veterinarian support and advice. Farm animals treated with antibiotics are removed from the Niman Ranch system.

3. Can you tell us a little about the Niman Ranch farmers?

I am proud to work alongside Niman Ranch’s farmers and ranchers. Our network of independent U.S. family farmers are among the hardest working people I know, committed to traditional farming methods that are good for both their livestock and the environment. Our farmers are paid a premium for their products in advance to defer the fluctuations and create consistency for their families and rural communities.

Every farmer is part of our larger network. We communicate regularly with farmer newsletters and other outreach. We have field agents that visit farms many times a year. We host a highly popular Farmer Appreciation Dinner every year with national thought leaders and speakers in addition to some of the best chefs in the country cooking for our farmers.

Our farmers are multi-generational, new and experienced. We have a commitment to Young Farmers that has helped us bring the average age of our farmer down to 47 years old, 11 years younger than the national average of 58. We have a mentor program, online how-to videos, loan programs, quality incentives and many other opportunities for all of our farmers.

4. What do you think companies like Niman can do to help address the global public health threat of antibiotic resistance?

High animal welfare standards allow our farmers to raise their livestock in a healthy way, almost eliminating the need for the use of antibiotics in livestock production altogether.  The more we are able to conserve the use of antibiotics in farming and elsewhere the more potential they have to remain effective in treating deadly illnesses.

Niman Ranch continues to set the bar on animal welfare standards and protocols. Niman Ranch is the largest company in Western Hemisphere to be Certified Humane® and we also have GAP approval.

5. Several of our colleagues debate which Niman Ranch sausage is the best! What’s your most popular product? Which is your favorite product?

My favorites are the jambon or petite hams and the roast pork shoulder - they couldn’t be easier to cook and always come out delicious! Our bacon is our most popular product! It is currently being featured at Shake Shack with a classic bacon themed menu. Watch for our brand new prosciutto that will be perfectly aged and ready this Fall!