MIFFS and Niman Ranch Partnership Produce
Profitable Results for Michigan Family Farms
When the hog market fell as low as eight cents per
pound in 1998, many farmers were forced to leave their farms. Those
who stayed struggled, losing money and hope, as their business situations
worsened. Many developed larger facilities, often for confinement,
following America’s growing trend of “bigger is better”
Not all farmers wanted to make this change and sacrifice
their small family farms with pasture-based hogs, for the big and
expensive confinement buildings and the production practices that
often went with them. However, many of these smaller farmers continued
to struggle to market their hogs and compete with large operations,
even as the market returned to some prosperity. A few farmers have
been able to find niche marketing opportunities. These opportunities
not only keep them in business but pay a premium as well.
Andy and Amy Pachay of Marcellus, Michigan, were ready to give up
when the market plummeted. They were farrowing 100 sows on pasture
but were seeing little return for their efforts. With the intent
to continue farming, they began looking for alternatives. Desperate
to keep working on the family farm, they found a solution when Andy
read a “Successful Farming” article in December of 2002
that ignited a new sense of hope in them.
The article featured Paul Willis’s hog operation
in Iowa and his work with Niman Ranch, a company founded by Bill
Niman of California, which sells natural pork, beef, and lamb products.
Niman Ranch is America’s leader in marketing
natural pork and emphasizes quality taste, humane treatment of animals,
and sustainable production on family farms. Emphasizing low-input
production and high touch marketing, Niman has been extremely successful
and is currently experiencing growth rates of 25 to 40%, especially
in the hog market. A strict production plan ensures the hogs are
never given antibiotics or any meat or meat by-products in their
feed and are raised outdoors on pasture or in deeply bedded pens
according to the Animal Welfare Institute’s (AWI) protocol.
“They’re healthier outside,” says
Neal Yoder of Centreville, Michigan who has had few problems raising
his hogs outside without the use of antibiotics. Even after market
prices rose, he was continually losing markets. Niman offered the
security of a stable market that valued the finish of free-range
hogs with additional backfat to protect them from the elements.
Free-range hogs on pasture tend to deposit more fat due to a lifestyle
and genetics different from the lean hogs dominant in the market.
More fat equals more flavor in the end and a more desirable product.
Natural behaviors like playing, rooting, and nesting can also be
freely expressed with this natural system.
More than just the hogs benefit from this free-range
lifestyle. Farmers, in exchange for their time, labor, and commitment
to Niman and its production systems, are guaranteed a market floor
price. For each hog they produce, they know that they will get at
least the market floor price, creating a more stable market and
a safety net. Producers can also receive an additional premium for
the quality of their product.
“We focus on quality of husbandry, not solely on production
numbers,” says Andy Pachay. Through all of the struggles in
past years, he and his wife Amy never wanted to abandon the traditional,
pasture system that his father used. Andy’s interest in Niman
grew after reading the article, and with a little work, he and Amy
became the first producers in Michigan to get on board with Niman.
Andy, now a Field Agent in Michigan for Niman Ranch,
put together a meeting with other farmers in his area to spread
the word about Niman. Many of these farmers were still producing
the free-range or deep-bedded way. The Pachays, along with six other
farmers in the area, began shipping to Niman in 2003. Andy now has
over 40 farmers involved with a bit of help from MSU Extension,
some very helpful truckers like Richard Cramer of Stanwood, Michigan,
and a lot of word of mouth.
The farming community of Stanwood, Michigan embraced the Niman Ranch
opportunity quickly. Eli Miller was one of the first in the community
to join in September 2004 with his herd of Yorkshire cross hogs.
He just removed antibiotics from his production system to be eligible
for Niman and has had very few problems with illness in his hogs
since. The extra income that Niman’s premium
brings in really helps and could help make Eli’s dream for
the future come true, seeing his children and grandchildren continue
the family farm. “I think that Niman could help make that
happen,” Eli says.
The great taste and high quality of Niman pork comes as a result
of the traditional system and good husbandry. Hogs are raised outside
on pasture and require more backfat to protect them from the elements,
both hot and cold. More fat simply means more marbling and more
flavor. Selective breeding from such breeds as Berkshire, Chester
White, Duroc, and Farmers Hybrid crosses also contributes to the
great product. Prior to farmer acceptance into the program, Niman
requires pork chop samples to taste test, ensuring that they only
put the highest quality pork on the market for their consumers.
Farmers also like Niman’s focus on small family
farms and maintaining that family atmosphere. To be eligible, the
farmer must own the animals and farm and must provide the majority
of labor as well. Stanwood’s Iddo Brenneman was initially
attracted to this concept, saying “We really like the family
farm aspect of Niman and the way that we take care of the hogs.”
With a smile, he added, “The premium is nice, too.”
Farmers are faced with more challenging circumstances
in Michigan, as compared to California. Weather, like wind, rain,
and hot sun, can be hard on the hogs, especially on little piglets.
Dan Schwartz, also of Stanwood, finishes feeder hogs and was initially
quite concerned about not being able to use antibiotics. However,
he has not had problems of significance and is experiencing high
yields. “I’m very satisfied at this point.” Dan
added, “The hogs more than pay for production and shipping.”
Having that extra money will really help out in a few years as he
hopes to expand and start his own farrowing operation to raise them
from birth to market.
Samuel Peachey has already taken that step. Last November,
he put in a new barn that works with the Niman system and allows
for farrowing sows, a group of lactating sows and their litters,
and pens for holding and breeding. AWI has specific guidelines for
barns that let in natural light and give animals adequate space
to live in and express natural behaviors. Samuel followed these
guidelines and looked at many different barns before developing
his plan with his father in-law and fellow Niman producer, Iddo
Some farmers with existing facilities have difficulties
making such changes. Investing money into a new building that satisfies
space requirements can be expensive, and risky. Changing feeds can
be difficult as well. Niman approves all feeds and inspects facilities
and production systems to ensure that they follow AWI requirements.
They also test pork chops for quality and palatability, starting
production and shipping to Niman can take some time as well. However,
farmers in the system expressed that the higher prices and satisfaction
of raising free-range hogs is worth it.
Niman Ranch offers an excellent opportunity for farmers of all types,
whether you are looking for premium pricing and more stable markets,
an alternative to confinement operations, or maintaining the family
farm. Niman is currently seeking more hog farmers to help meet its
high demand for natural pork.
For more information about Niman Ranch and how you
can get involved, you can contact Andy and Amy Pachay at 269/646-2045,
by e-mail at AJPachay@aol.com, or by US mail at 52350 Burlington
Rd, Marcellus, MI 49067-9732.
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Founded in 1998, MIFFS is a statewide membership organization (501c3)
whose purpose is to promote diverse efforts that foster and sustain
food and farming systems that improve economic, ecological and social
well-being. MIFFS has been effective at establishing successful
partnerships among producers, markets and institutions that have
created more profitable, environmentally friendly food systems in