Every day, Paul Willis steps away from the home office at his Iowa farm, Niman Ranch Pork Company, and wanders around the 160 acres that he restored to tall-grass prairie in 2002. Hundreds of native plants have returned to the wetlands, as well as pollinators and trumpeter swans. In a region of the Midwest dominated by corn and soybean fields, he says, it’s an oasis.
Twenty-five years ago, Willis was pasturing 3,000 hogs, letting them roam around his family farm instead of keeping them in cramped pens. But he was struggling to compete with the industrial livestock operations moving into his corner of Iowa. At the time, his commitment to both the humane treatment of his animals and the environment was virtually unheard of in hog farming, which is notorious for its unsavory practices. A friend introduced him to Bill Niman, whose San Francisco operation, Niman Ranch, was selling sustainably raised, high-quality beef and lamb. Niman told Willis that if he could figure out how to ship his pork to northern California, Niman would buy it—at a fair price, no less.
That first shipment: 30 hogs. Niman Ranch Pork now supplies 5,000 a week, and has grown from one family farm to a network of more than 650 in 15 states—farmers Willis recruited from across the country and helped to implement his good practices. Willis worked with the Animal Welfare Institute in the 1990s to create the first welfare standards for the hog industry. The high animal-husbandry measures he developed for Niman Ranch Pork—which include eschewing antibiotics, requiring bedding in all pens to allow the animals to root around and nest, and forbidding confinement to crates—were the first of their kind. And they still stand. Willis’ dedication to bringing well-raised pork to scale—something available nationwide, not just at the small-scale local level—is a feat we consider deserving of a lifetime Food Hero award. “Paul’s welfare standards informed the public that it was possible to produce pork using alternative practices, and as a result, pressure was applied to the industry at large to make changes,” says Mark Rasmussen, director of Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
These days, Willis is less involved in day-to-day operational duties at Niman, but he remains a key voice in the company and the initiatives it pursues. Last year, Niman pledged $200,000 to help its network increase pollinator habitat on their farms. If Willis has his way, swaths of Iowa prairie like his won’t just be oases. They’ll be a rebirth of the land itself.