It’s February and we are emerging from the dark days of winter.These are the days when a winter storm warning or dreaded “wintery mix” can leave us stuck on the farm for days.During these times I confess I sometimes yearn for the conveniences of city life.
Years ago, I took a job where I transferred to Los Angeles. Of course, it was beautiful in California.I remember stopping in at a local coffee shop and commenting to the barista what a nice day it was, a sentiment which seemed redundant after the first few days.People in Los Angeles were spoiled by the sunny days and mild weather, so they didn’t comment on it that much.
It must have been my Midwestern roots that inspired my fascination with the weather.Everyone in our little town of Thornton, where I come from, commented on it.The weather has a defining effect on daily life in Iowa. But even with the beautiful weather in California, I couldn’t wait to return to the Midwest.There is something about the connection with nature that creates a sense of autonomy and peace that can only be found on the farm.I missed my family too.My drive to return to the farm grew even stronger when my daughter was born.
The holidays are my favorite time of year. It’s a time for family, fun, and a respite from crazy schedules. For me it means spending less time in the kitchen and more time in the living room watching football with my boys. Glazing a Niman Ranch ham fits perfectly into this holiday plan because it’s short on preparation and long on leftovers.
The honey glaze will seep into the nooks and crannies as the ham bakes. Plan ahead though and put the ham in early so you can let it bake at a low and slow temperature until it’s steamy hot in the center.
Niman Ranch Holiday Ham with Honey–Brown Sugar Glaze
Enjoying a Niman Ranch ham
1 Niman Ranch Half Bone-in Ham (approximately 7-10 pounds)
½ cup honey
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup orange juice
2 tablespoons brandy
1 tablespoon orange zest
1 teaspoon ground cloves
Pinch of kosher salt
Remove the plastic wrapping from the ham, place the ham on a rack in a roasting pan, and allow it to temper at room temperature for about 90 minutes. Tempering will allow the ham to bake more evenly. Score the ham, making about ¼” deep cuts in a criss-cross pattern. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
As we prepare to gather with our families around the dinner table, consider adding to your dinner menu a new cornbread dressing recipe made with sausage from hogs raised with care by family farmers across the Midwest. Without dressing, even the best Thanksgiving dinner would be somewhat bare.
This version uses a bold combination of Italian sausage and a cured ham balanced by the sweetness of the cornbread and slight sourness of the sourdough bread. Bake the dressing separately because the turkey and dressing cook at different rates, making it difficult to gauge doneness and safe temperatures. If you’re looking for a little added turkey flavor, baste the dressing with some of the pan juices.
Niman Ranch Cornbread Dressing
Niman Ranch Cornbread Stuffing
Makes about 8 servings
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 2 hours
1 box cornbread mix
1 16-ounce loaf sourdough bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 ounces butter
1 cup Niman Ranch Italian Sausage, casing removed and crumbled
2 cups diced Niman Ranch Jambon Royale
1 cup diced onion
1 cup diced celery
2 tablespoons minced fresh sage, or 1 teaspoon ground sage
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup half-and-half
1 cup chicken stock
We’ve recently discovered a picturesque town east of LA in the San Bernardino foothills called Oak Glen where apple orchards and red barns line the curving mountain roads. Nestled next to cider presses and piles of fallen autumn leaves are patches with pumpkins still attached to their vines. Some gourds are striped green while others are white and the rest are Halloween orange. Allowing my two young boys to actually pick their favorite pumpkin from the vine is a good lesson in respecting crops and being certain about their choices.
I picked a few extra pumpkins for the soup I’ve been craving since the heat of this summer got the best of me. And since Halloween is the gateway to winter, I’m taking my first chance to make a velvety soup with Niman’s delicious smoky bacon. If roasting and pureeing your own pumpkins seems too daunting, don’t skip a beat, and substitute the canned version.
Niman Ranch Smoky Bacon Pumpkin Soup
2 pounds roasted pumpkin or 2 15-ounce cans pumpkin purée
Garlic cloves, as many as you want
1 thick sliced yellow onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, as desired
This year’s 14th annual Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner was a unique farm-to-table event which celebrated the hard work and independent spirit of the farmers who supply humanely and sustainably raised pork for Niman Ranch.
Chefs: Jeffery Surprise, Frederic Morineau, Scott Pampuch, Jordon Barnett, Niman Ranch Executive Chef Andrew Hunter, John Villa, Tyson Grant and Charles Kassels
Six chefs, who are committed to honoring these farmers in their kitchens and restaurants around the country, and abroad, cooked a six-course meal to celebrate the farmers. The attendance at the Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner has grown tremendously the first year we had fewer than100 guests and this year’s event sold out at 400 guests.
The featured chefs were selected because they have shown true leadership in their communities by raising awareness that great food starts at the farm. Each chef has shown their commitment to excellent food and their support of traditional, humane and sustainable farming practices employed by Niman Ranch farmers and others in their community. The 2012 Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner featured chefs were:
Paul Willis, Niman Ranch Pork Company founder and manager, was honored at the 2012 Chefs Collaborate Summit with the Pathfinder Sustainability Award. The award recognizes a visionary working in the greater food community who has been a catalyst for positive change within the food system through efforts that go beyond the kitchen.
Julia Stambules, Analon Corporation, Paul Willis and Michael Leviton, Board Chariman Chefs Collaborative
Willis, fourth generation hog farmer, was raising free-range hogs the way his family had for generations. He knew raising pigs traditionally resulted in higher quality and tastier pork but did not know how to get the pigs to market. In 1995, he was introduced to Niman Ranch and shipped 30 pigs to the Bay Area. A number of chefs in San Francisco tasted the pork and were impressed with the quality. With this chef interest, Willis realized there was a market for hogs raised using traditional farming methods and hoped this need would help revitalize sustainable hog farming methods in the Midwest.
In 1996, Willis started building a community of family hog farmers to raise hogs traditionally and humanely for Niman Ranch. Today, the network has grown to over 500 farmers raising hogs to the strictest protocols in the industry:
• Raised outdoors or in deeply bedded pens
• Never given antibiotics or hormones-ever
• No gestation crates or farrowing crates- ever
Niman Ranch celebrated its more than 550 U.S. family hog farmers and awarded 18 Next Generation Scholarships last weekend in Des Moines, Iowa, at its 14th Annual Hog Farmer Appreciation Dinner. Niman Ranch established the Next Generation Scholarship Fund in 2006 to preserve the integrity of U.S. family farms by supporting the children of rural communities who wish to attend college and pursue an education focusing on sustainable or environmental practices and who intend to return to the family farm upon graduation.
Niman Ranch Next Generation Scholarship Winners at the Hog Farmer Appreciation Dinner
The Next Generation Scholarship Fund receives a substantial contribution from Chipotle Mexican Grill and additional contributions from Whole Foods Market and many members of Niman Ranch’s distributor network including: Boggeri Sales, Buedel Food Products, DeBragga & Spitler, E & B Natural Way, Old Town Foods, Premier Meat Co., Tri-City Meats and Wasatch Meats. Since 2006 more than $140,000 in scholarships has been awarded to 74 students. This year, Niman Ranch provided 18 deserving students scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 each.
As the U.S. family farm disappears, we are proud of our young Niman Ranch farmers. They are committed to raising hogs sustainably and humanely while continuing the traditional farming practices handed down by their parents and grandparents. Meet Mitchell Meinke, a young farmer following the family tradition. He is from Iowa and past recipient of the Next Generation Scholarship.
Three generations, including Carolyn and Marty’s children Katie, Brett and Mollie.
At a recent event in New York, someone told me they had never met anyone with a stronger sense of place than my father, Paul Willis. I have been thinking about that comment for awhile and believe it is an attribute so many family farmers in the Midwest have in common. I began thinking about my own sense of place and feelings about being raised on a farm in Iowa. Having lived in other parts of the country – Iowa will always be home to me.
This brings me to my latest visit to a hog farming family who supply sustainably raised hogs to Niman Ranch. Richard and Delores Blackford have been selling pigs to Niman Ranch for well over 10 years. Now their daughter and son-in- law, Carolyn and Marty Osterman, are running the hog farming operations. Arriving on a bright summer
morning, Carolyn and Marty were busy doing chores. Their teenage daughters, Mollie and Katie, invited me inside. After visiting a bit, I was struck by how much these girls reminded me of myself when I was their age. Soon Carolyn arrived fresh from working outside, it was great to catch up with another farmer’s daughter and compare our experiences working with our fathers.
As we start summer, I am sitting here listening to the thunder roll through… a rare sound these days, and reflecting on the farm activity over the spring. It has been pretty dry and we were hoping for rain, it’s a welcome sound for sure. Here in Iowa we are ruled by the ever-changing weather. During spring we expect to get rain but we also hope that it stays dry long enough to get the crops planted and the pig field rotated.
Sow exploring the pasture at the Willis Family Farm
On our sustainable hog farm we annually rotate the pigs from one field to the next and plant corn where the pigs were the year before. This is a traditional farming practice that has been used for centuries, it harnesses natural fertilizer produced by the pigs to improve corn production, as well as decreases our reliance on chemical fertilizers. Moving all of the Porta-Huts- the pig houses- fencing, waterers, and feeders takes a lot of time and energy but it’s wonderful to work outside on a beautiful cool and sunny spring mornings.
Sarah Willis is the daughter of Niman Ranch’s founding hog farmer Paul Willis. Sarah works for Niman Ranch as a Sustainable Agriculture and Family Farming Advocate. Having grown up on the original Niman Ranch free-range pig farm in Thornton, Iowa, she has been passionately devoted to raising awareness about the dramatic changes that have impacted agriculture over the past 25 years.
Today, she continues the tradition of farming with her father and her daughter, Sophia. Through daily hands on experiences Sarah is instilling in her daughter, the fourth generation of Willis’ to maintain these farming traditions, that the land and their livestock deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.