In the 1990s, pig farmer Paul Willis realized that the future of his farm was no longer secure. Pressure was at an all-time high to join the factory system or get out of the hog business altogether.
When factory farming first began taking over the hog industry, many farmers thought it would be a boon and invested in the new industrial methods enthusiastically. Other farmers were horrified by the changes. Whether farmers were for or against the factory system, the overwhelming majority were put out of business entirely. Willis, who would sooner stop pig farming than confine his animals like the industry, was one of the very few fortunate enough to save his farm without sacrificing his commitment to good animal husbandry.
He saved himself with a simple idea—a new name for something that he and his family had been doing for generations: “free range pigs.” Inspired by the humane farming message articulated by Farm Forward Senior Animal Welfare Advisor Diane Halverson, Willis reached out to consumers—those of us who, as he likes to say, vote “by proxy” on the nation’s farming practices through the foods we buy. He gambled that consumers would appreciate the more sustainable, humane, and community-friendly methods he used to raise his animals and be willing to pay a fair price for it. He was right.
Ultimately, Willis became head of a new pork division for Niman Ranch, which at the time was known for producing beef according to strong animal welfare guidelines. He worked to bring the nation’s few remaining small family hog farmers into the Niman Ranch cooperative system, which allowed its members to get a slightly higher price for animals they raised according to the company’s animal welfare standards. Since Willis joined Niman Ranch, he has grown their network to include some 500 pig farmers. Today, demand for their meats is so high that it far exceeds what they are able to produce, and Niman Ranch pork is distributed nationally at Chipotle restaurants, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods Market, and is touted by some of the most famous and influential chefs in the world, including Mario Batali, David Chang, and Martha Stewart.
If you choose to eat pork, pork produced by Niman Ranch or that bears the Animal Welfare Approved or Global Animal Partnership (tier 4, 5, and 5+) labels are your best choices. Even these markers aren’t perfect and allow certain practices like castration without pain relief that compromise welfare. Presently only pork products marked as tier 5 or 5+ by Global Animal Partnership truly eliminate unnecessary animal suffering.