In a hotbed of large, integrated pork operations, a niche marketer is recruiting individuals to raise hogs on pasture. Niman Ranch Pork Company is building a network in eastern North Carolina to produce “natural” pork.

Niman has about 250 active producers in nine Midwest states, and the company is talking with producers in two more. Paul Willis, head of Niman Ranch Pork Company, notes that producer turnover has been small.

So far, most of the North Carolina participants are small tobacco farmers who need alternate income. They are receiving aid from the GoldenLEAF Foundation, funded by tobacco company settlements. Charles Talbott, animal scientist at North Carolina A&T State University, oversees the project. Farmers receive seedstock from the Heifer Project’s pass-on program. Gilts are a composite breed (Chester White, Hampshire, Duroc, Spot and Large White), sold by Farmers Hybrid. Boars are Duroc and Berkshire. Recipients pay back by contributing a gilt from each of their first litters.

As of Aug. 1, 28 North Carolina producers had signed up. About 240 sows are in place, and more than 1,800 hogs from North Carolina’s Niman producers have been slaughtered and processed.

Producers receive at least $15 more per market hog than the Iowa/Minnesota market offers. A price floor is set at $40 per hundredweight, live – $43 for hogs delivered from mid-May to mid-August. Niman also has a backfat grid that pays up to a 4 percent premium.

Why does Niman pay more?

“We know our program is labor intensive,” explains Willis. The Thornton, Iowa, farmer joined California-based Niman Ranch in 1995. He and partner Jon Carlson now have 300 sows.

One North Carolina father-and-son team is John and Wally Hobbs. They were already raising hogs on pasture and in dry lots, and their established herd met Niman’s standards for marbling, color, tenderness and flavor. They did switch to a feed supplement with no animal products, stopped using crates and docking pigs’ tails.

“No problems with any of these changes,” says Wally. “Most of all, we like the added income and price protection. But we don’t like not being able to use medications for small animals. Also, we’ll be glad when there are more (Niman) producers in the area to increase the volume of the custom-made supplement.”

They have 200 crossbred sows on three farms, and use Duroc and Hampshire boars. They deliver finished hogs every two weeks to a Warsaw, N.C., packing plant.

Hobbs and son farrow every four weeks in movable farrowing huts with wheat-straw bedding. They mix their own feed, using corn and a 40 percent protein-mineral-vitamin supplement containing vegetable fat.

“Outdoor-and-deep-bedding production requires a different mindset than total confinement,” says farmer Marlin Mowry of Clinton County, Iowa. He has been a Niman producer for three years.

“To be on the Niman program, you have to meet the criteria and be willing to follow the system. The rules are strict, but they fit together. You have to learn about alternatives to antibiotics to cope with diseases.”

Another eastern North Carolina farm family with swine experience that has joined the Niman program is Tim and Mike Holmes. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, they farrowed in straw-bedded structures and finished pigs in leased confinement facilities. “For about 15 years, we had 400 sows. After receiving only 8 cents a pound in 1998, we got out,” explains Tim. “But we like raising hogs and the Niman program offered higher returns and price protection.” They got back into production early last year.

“We prefer outdoor production to confinement, even though we have to deal with the weather. We don’t miss having to contend with lagoons and spraying wastewater,” he adds. “We also like the used bedding to fertilize crops.”

When the Holmes brothers decided to sign up for the Niman program, they bought crossbred gilts – half Hampshire, one-quarter Landrace and Yorkshire – and Duroc boars. They now have 100 sows.

The Holmes are concentrating on breeding from August to early October to capitalize on the summer-market-hog bonus. “With our mild winters, we can help offset reduced farrowings by Upper Midwest Niman producers.”

They market hogs at 250 to 270 pounds, which brings the highest bonus on Niman’s grid.

Tim got a dose of consumer acceptance when he and another producer handed out 300 spare-rib samples at a Whole Foods’ Market in Raleigh. “Their upscale, environmentally minded customers said they don’t mind paying more for pork produced on our program,” he notes.

Is the economic climate affecting Niman’s sales at higher prices than regular pork? “The restaurant market is a little slow but we are picking up new customers that more than offset it,” says Willis.

Niman sells labeled primal cuts – loins, hams, shoulders and bellies – to natural-food retailers such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Albertson’s supermarkets also is a customer. In metropolitan areas, there’s a market for cured and aged fat that is spread on crisp toast.

Niman sells raw bellies and shanks to restaurants. Also the huge food distribution company Sysco is selling Niman pork products on a limited basis.

Because Niman sells only fresh pork, the company requires each producer to plan marketings six months out. Each month they must report the number of market hogs he/she expects to deliver weekly.

Niman would like to produce enough pork in North Carolina to supply its East Coast customers.

It remains to be seen just what share of total consumer purchases will go to “free-range” pork. No one expects it to cut sharply into the conventional pork business.

“In my opinion, the long-range future is good for Niman pork products,” says Mowry. “People who want and appreciate this product do not mind paying more for it.”

Niman’s future success depends not only on its current upscale customer base but also possible growth with consumers concerned about the environment, antibiotics and animal welfare. 

Producing Pork to Niman’s Requirements
In a nutshell, any producer who raises pork for the Niman label must agree to:

1. Grow hogs on pasture and use deep bedding in buildings.

2. Use no antibiotics, growth-promoting hormones or steroids. (It’s worth noting that confinement-reared pork does not involve the use of hormones or steroids either.)

3. Feed no meat byproducts – animal fat, meat scraps, fish meal, meat-and-bone meal, blood plasma or other animal-based products.

4. Cannot use gestation or
farrowing crates.

5. There will be no docking of piglets’ tails.

6. Use swine breeds as designated by the company.

7. Each month, project and report the number of hogs to be marketed on a weekly basis during the next six months.

To contact Niman Ranch Pork Company, call (641) 998-2683, or e-mail sybils@nimanranch.com.