Shortly after Paul Willis began selling his hogs to Niman Ranch, he came to San Francisco from Thornton, Iowa, to meet some
of the chefs serving his pork. This was a new experience for Paul, who had previously sold his hogs to whatever
packer—Cargill, Hormel, Tyson—was offering the best price. Typically, like most farmers, he had no idea where the hogs went
once they left his farm. At the Zuni Café in San Francisco, the chef came to Paul’s table. “I don’t know what you do to those
hogs,” she told Paul, “but that’s the best pork I’ve ever had in my life.”
Paul would attribute a big share of that superior flavor to genetics—good breeding, in other words. His first hogs, purchased
in the mid-1970s from a neighbor whose breeding stock came from the Farmers Hybrid Company in Des Moines, had a sterling
Farmers Hybrid sold a line of nine different crossbreeds developed before the rise of confinement factories and lean pork.
These were rugged outdoor hogs that grew quickly, converted feed to meat efficiently, and produced robust piglets. They had
the thick layer of insulating back fat that enabled them to survive Iowa winters and summers outdoors, fat that worked its
way into the muscle to make tasty, well-marbled meat.
With the advent of lean hogs raised indoors, Farmers Hybrid hogs all but disappeared. The company did not follow the lean
trend, and in 1998, after sixty years in business, it shut its doors forever. Paul and a few other farmers bucked the tide as
well, and never stopped raising Farmers Hybrid hogs. Now Niman Ranch farmers are revitalizing these and other valuable
heirloom breeds because they perform so well outdoors, and, as chefs confirm, they provide outstanding pork.