The Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner provides an opportunity for our featured chefs and special guests to gain a deeper understanding of what traditional, sustainable and humane family farming looks like by visiting us here at Willis Farms in Thornton, Iowa.
Every year we provide a farm tour and this year it was more special for me than ever before as I worked side-by-side with my daughter, Sophia, many good friends and family members including some extra help from a crew of friends from out-of -town. Pete Marczyk and his entourage from Marczyk Fine Foods who had traveled all the way from Denver, Colorado, to help us prepare the outdoor dinner.
It can get a bit frantic planning a farm tour and preparing an outdoor dinner and hayride for over 100 people, but with awesome friends and family pitching in to get the job done- whether it’s picking wild prairie flowers or sweeping out the shed – it’s less work and more fun when we do it together
Many of our guests had never been to Iowa and much less a farm. It’s an awesome site to see the large chartered bus arrive loaded full of eager visitors. We were proud to show everyone our family farm and explain what we do here, raising our pigs outdoors on pasture and in deeply bedded pens, utilizing select heritage breeds and how that ultimately plays out in the flavor and quality of the meat.
When we entered the pasture everyone was thrilled to see the pigs run away at first and then circle back in curiosity. For those who stood still long enough the pigs even chewed on their boots. It’s one thing to see a photograph of an animal, it’s completely different to see it in person and it’s much more impactful. Our guests were mesmerized to see the pigs running and behaving naturally.
After the tour, the sun was hanging low in the sky and it was time to go to the Dream Farm to join our local friends and family. An old three-sided shed that sits upon a hill overlooking 140 acres of restored native Iowa tall grass prairie and wetlands was gracefully set for supper with tables draped in white tablecloths. Inside the shed was a whole roasted hog beautifully presented along with an abundance of side –dishes orchestrated by our talented friend, Chef Donna Prizgintas.
Overlooking the prairie, a picnic table was set with a tomato tasting. Over 20 heirloom varieties homegrown and handpicked by my father were sliced for tasting, a favorite of the chefs. The Green Muldovan was a huge hit.
The hayride on the prairie was a beautiful, sensory experience. Our guests learned that Iowa is one of the most altered landscapes on earth, once dominated by tall grass prairie and wetlands that has since been plowed and replaced with corn and soybean crops. My family’s vision to restore a bit of this valuable natural resource is part of our commitment to preserve the integrity of the land, air and water.
After an enlightening farm tour and magical evening outdoors our guests filled the bus and headed back to Des Moines in preparation for the main event, the Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner to be held the next evening. The chefs were excited to get to work in the kitchen in appreciation of all of the work that goes into farming the Niman Ranch way.