Staying Small to Keep Farming
“I’ve been farming for thirty-five years and I saw the writing on the wall when the hog market dropped in 1998 and prices for hogs fell to eight cents a pound,” explains Marlin Mowry , the fourth generation to farm his 350 acre family farm in Lowden, Iowa. “Time for us to do something unique and different or we’d be out of business.” Today, Marlin and his wife Judy, both in their 50s with grown children, recast their farming approaches and now raise natural, humanely treated pigs as suppliers for Niman Ranch, a national,sustainably-raised meat company. “Our animals management changed and as a result our lifestyle changed for the better. We can’t beat that equation,” adds Marlin with a smile.
When the hog market downslided in the late 1990s, Marlin and Judy reacted by researching alternatives, attending diversification workshops offered by the Iowa Department of Agriculture, connecting with groups like the Practical Farmers of Iowa and reading various farming journals and newspapers. “We saw these mega farm’s hog confinement operations going up all around our area with people urging us to get big or get out,” Judy comments. “At the time we were taking on off-farm jobs and trying to do it all and burning out. We were tired of fighting debt and the pressure to keep growing bigger. Our wake-up call came in the mid-1990s when I fought breast cancer. Why were killing ourselves to make a living when we knew we were happiest working on the farm? We just needed to find a way to make it work.”
This passion for farming and an openness to trying new things led Marlin and Judy to connect with Niman Ranch at one of the diversification meetings. California-based Niman Ranch markets and sells natural and humanely-raised beef, lamb and pork, buying from over 300 independent producers including over 50 Iowa pork farmers that form the Niman Ranch Pork Company in Thornton, Iowa, a company that is half owned by the farmers. These Iowa pork farmers, including the Mowrys, adhere to strict animal husbandry guidelines that include treating the animals humanely, raising the pigs in open pasture, feeding them all-natural feed with no steroids or antibiotics and operating in accordance with the strict protocols developed by the Animal Welfare Institute. While not certified organic, the consistent quality and flavor of Niman Ranch products foster devotees in both chefs and households. Niman Ranch’s meats grace the tables of fine-dining restaurants with chefs often identifying “Niman Ranch” meats on the menu, as well as various national consumer grocery outlets such as Trader Joe’s, Chipotle and Whole Foods.
“Working in partnership with Niman Ranch enables us to keep full control of our pigs, provides us with a growing market for our meat and pays us a consistent income,” explains Marlin. “Niman Ranch guarantees us a price above market and, with the growing market demand for naturally-raised meats, Niman Ranch can’t keep up with demand. So we always have an outlet for our pigs.” Marlin and Judy currently manage 35 sows (female pigs) and raise and sell over a 400 hogs annually. The Mowry Farm raises 150 acres corn and 150 acres soybeans used for pig feed. Never caged or in confinement, their pigs have outdoor pasture access or open pen with debeded straw.
Prior to using these methods and selling to Niman Ranch, Marlin and Judy utilized a more conventional, confining method of crates and decks to manage a 1,000 head, which took more time, space and brought in less income. “Niman Ranch opened our eyes to ways to do things differently,” says Judy. For example, we always hated giving our herd routine antibiotics and didn’t know there were other options like vaccinations and natural ways to build the animals’ immune system.”
The social aspects of being connected to an umbrella entity like Niman Ranch proves to be very important for Marlin and Judy. “Many other Niman Ranch farmers come from conventional backgrounds like us,” Marlin explains. “It’s great to have support and share ideas with each other. We’re similar people with common experiences. No one’s competing, we’re in this together.”
Niman Ranch brings their producers like the Mowry Farm into store settings to do product sampling and meet customers. “In-store demos give us the opportunity to connect directly with the people who eat our meat,” says Judy. It’s inspiring for us to have these folks ask us questions about the farm and our lives. We’ve learned to bring with photos of the pigs.”
The biggest challenge the Mowrys faced with moving to a naturally-raised hog operation has been learning how to manage herd health, understanding schedules for on-time vaccinations and finding out which breeds proved best for their area of central Iowa. “Our winters run cold so we need animals that can keep on more animal fat and withstand the elements and outdoor temperatures. The Duroc-Cross breed has worked best for us so far,” comments Marlin.
This switch to a sustainable agriculture mindset led Judy and Marlin to improve and diversify personal aspects of their health as well. “Since this transition, we eat better, exercise regularly and neither one of us needs any medication,” Judy proudly adds. Always enthusiastic gardeners, these new approaches to a healthy lifestyle affected garden planning as well. “We used to keep about half our garden in corn, just because that is all we ate,” explains Judy. “Today, we replaced the corn with okra, Brussels sprouts and a whole range of vegetables we thought we’d never like. We like to think we’re just starting on a new adventure and that life is all about learning new things.”