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June 02, 2014

Going Whole Hog

Long before nose-to-tail and farm-to-table became trends among the best chefs, farmer Paul Willis was raising pigs sustainably and humanely, and producing tastier pork. Lucinda Scala Quinn stops in on his Dream Farm in Iowa.

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As of-the-moment as Paul Willis’s work is, you wouldn’t call it part of the latest trend. Nor would you consider this pig farmer, known for his commitment to humane husbandry, a hipster. At the Willis Farm, in Thornton, Iowa, he is simply raising hogs in much the same way his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather did before him, on the very land where he grew up. Here, his pigs graze on open pasture, live in deeply bedded pens, and aren’t dosed with antibiotics. Paul Willis stands at the exact spot where old-school meets hip.

Willis’s philosophy is refreshingly concise: “Let a pig be a pig.” It’s that credo -- and the results it reaps -- that have compelled chefs, writers, activists, and policymakers to seek his counsel for more than 20 years. It’s also why when Niman Ranch, the esteemed producer of natural free-range beef, decided to expand its offerings to include pork in 1995, the Willis Farm, with its superior meat, quickly became the standard-bearer for all the company’s other pork providers. (Today, Willis helps manage Niman Ranch’s network of more than 650 independently owned small farms and ranches.)

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Pigs graze near Quonset huts, which are used as roomy farrowing sheds.

Following the model developed by Willis and the Animal Welfare Institute, farmers raise the livestock outdoors, where they are allowed to express natural behaviors; don’t go into confining, cagelike gestation or farrowing crates; are not given antibiotics, hormones, or synthetic growth promotants; and are never, ever fed animal by-products. According to Peter Kaminsky, author of "Pig Perfect" (Hyperion, 2005), Willis is “among the most influential [farmers] who are employing modern business practices in the service of traditional agriculture.” To Willis, practicing sustainable farming and treating his animals humanely result in better-tasting meat. Pasture-raised pigs, he reasons, are healthier and less stressed than pigs from industrial farms. Animals that live in stressful conditions are subject to fear, and that fear leads to the release in their bodies of lactic acid, which breaks down muscle structure and leads to a tough, tasteless meat. So it turns out that farming practices that are good for the planet and respectful of animals actually make the meat taste better, too.

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The farm’s main barn dates back several generations.

These days, Willis surveys the very same acreage he did as a boy, when he’d bike out to the hog field every day to check the pigs’ water, food, and wellness. He dreamed of moving to a big city someday, and he did, living in Iowa City to attend the University of Iowa. Then, as a Peace Corps volunteer, he served the Nigerian Ministry of Agriculture in Gombe, where he organized the Young Farmers’ Club and its 10,000 members. But at a certain point, the big city stopped beckoning, and instead he discovered that his heart belonged back in the country, on what has come to be known (in Niman parlance) as the Iowa Dream Farm.

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Sunflowers bloom in the restored prairie land.

Part of Willis’s dream, more recently, has been restoring the prairie that surrounds his land. Tall-grass prairie, which once occupied 140 million North American acres, is now more than 99 percent eradicated, making it rarer than rain forest. Under Willis’s watchful eye, this ecosystem of birds, animals, insects, wildflowers, and tall prairie grass is thriving on his land.

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Fifth-generation farmer Sarah Willis stands with her daughter, Sophia.

Protector of both pigs and prairie, Willis is also cofounder of Food Democracy Now, a grassroots organization dedicated to building a sustainable food system that protects our natural environment, supports farmers, and nourishes families. And of course, he keeps busy with the hogs, working alongside his daughter Sarah (a Niman employee) and his own prairie companion, granddaughter Sophia, the farm’s chief chicken wrangler -- and proud sixth-generation “dream” farmer.

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