For a Hog Farmer in Iowa, Staying Small Isn’t Easy

Farmers John and Bernie Kenyon keep their farm in business by preserving a way of life. They work alongside their daughter and son-in-law, Sandra and Jeff Joyce, to humanely and sustainably raise hogs on Kenyon Family Farm in northern Iowa. Soon, they hope, their grandchildren will be the fifth generation to farm the same land.

But over the years, making a living as a small, independent family farm hasn’t been easy.

When prices started to drop during the 1980s farm crisis, many families sold their land or transitioned to larger, factory farms. Sandra says that most of their neighbors moved away during that time, and confinement buildings were built on the old acreage. John and Bernie knew they had to rethink their way of raising hogs, or they might lose their farm.

“We had a couple of bad years, and our debt was just growing,” Bernie says. “Selling hogs for eight cents a pound was not going to put food on the table.”

The family toured a couple of confinement facilities, but they quickly decided it wasn’t the right choice for them. Raising hogs in confinement, according to Bernie, wouldn’t be healthy for themselves, their pigs, or their family.

“Working in those confinements just looked horrible,” Bernie says, adding that it could also prevent them from passing their business to future generations: “Who’s going to take over a confinement building?”

Then, John and Bernie were introduced to a different way of farming through Paul Willis, the founding hog farmer of Niman Ranch. Niman is a network of independent family farmers that uphold high standards of sustainable and humane farming in exchange for a guaranteed market for their pork products. This meant no longer worrying about volatile conventional market prices.

The Kenyons became the 113th farming family to join the Niman Ranch network in 2001. After transitioning to this new way of raising hogs, they found that their animals were notably healthier and happier. Importantly, they didn’t need to invest a lot of capital to get started.

“Niman is more labor-intensive than anything else, and we had labor,” says Bernie. “We were not afraid of work around here.”

Niman Ranch also provides the Kenyons with opportunities to keep farming in the family. Their oldest grandchild completed his college education with support from the Niman Ranch Next Generation Foundation Scholarship.

“Working with Niman is an opportunity that we can see far in the future. It’s not something we’re worried about, wondering if it’s going to go away next year,” Sandra says. “Niman is a good, stable company that we’re confident in.”

For Sandra, farming more sustainably is more family-friendly than conventional production because it creates a healthy environment where everyone can be involved—including her children, nieces, and nephews. John taught her and her siblings about conservation farming from a young age, and now, she’s teaching her children to protect the fertile soil of Iowa, which takes many years to build.

“We were taught to be good stewards of the land. It’s important to take care of God’s gift, to pass it on to the next generation,” Sandra says. For her, partnering with Niman Ranch has allowed them to maintain their faith and family values on the farm. She and Jeff are proud to be part of the community of 650 fellow hog farming families in the Niman network, and their six-year-old son is already talking about raising hogs, himself.

“Niman made this farm survive. It showed us a different way,” Bernie says.

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Photo courtesy of Sandra Joyce

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