Q. When did Niman get into the pork business?
A. Our founder, Bill Niman, started raising free-range hogs in 1978 about 25 miles northwest of San Francisco, where we still raise beef cattle. In 1996, he joined with pork producer, Paul Willis of Thornton, Iowa, to form the Niman Ranch Pork Company.

Q. What is the size of
Niman's pork operation?
A. Four years ago, we slaughtered 30 hogs a week. By late last year, we slaughtered more than 2,000 a week – for total of 75,000. We expect to slaughter 120,000 hogs this year.

In Iowa and adjacent states, 160 farmers now produce pork for us.

We are lining up farmers in North Carolina and should be processing pork by year's end in a family owned plant within the state. We'll ship pork to East Coast restaurants and retailers.

Q. What are the details of your production program?
A. A producer agrees to comply in these ways: (1) Keep all hogs on pasture and/or in straw-bedded buildings. (2) Use no crates, stalls, slatted floors or lagoons. (3) Feed no meat, meat byproducts or antibiotics. We encourage treatment of sick hogs, but those animals are then removed from our program. (4) Use a Niman-approved feed premix. (5) Use Niman-approved genetics. We advocate specific three-way crosses.

Q. Does Niman "enhance"or deep marinate its pork?
A. By focusing on quality at every stage of the process we eliminate the need to adulterate a truly natural product.
Quality control is extremely important. We cook samples, taste-test, evaluate and share results with the producer. Every producer has a number and every box of pork is identified and traced to the store or restaurant.

Q. What's your opinion about traditional pricing of market hogs?
A. Earlier in my career, I was a coffee buyer with NestlT. The price of coffee beans is based on taste tests of brewed coffee. It shocked me to learn that hog prices are based on the percentage of lean meat. I am afraid that breeding and feeding hogs for lean is going to make pork virtually tasteless.

Q. How do you pay your producers?
A. They receive a premium of $6 per hundredweight over that day's Iowa/Southern Minnesota base for hogs with approximately 1 inch of backfat. We like a 265-pound market weight, good marbling and color. We have a floor of $40 per hundredweight. Niman agrees to buy at least 80 percent of a program participant's hogs.

Participating producers can purchase stock through a $1.50-dollar-per-hundredweight deduction which the company matches and automatically purchases stock in the Niman Pork Company.

Q. Can you explain Niman's association with the WaterKeeper Alliance?
A. We have a "shared commitment" with it, as well as the National Resource Defense Council and Farm Aid. We have no direct connection with any of those groups, but Niman does believe in family farms, environmentally friendly agriculture and
humane animal treatment.

Q. Does the Animal Welfare Institute's endorsement of Niman pork reflect negatively on other producers?
A. Not as we see it. We believe most of the nation's pork producers treat their animals kindly and do not intentionally hurt them.

Q. What marketing trends to you see?
A . Consumers are asking good questions about the food they eat. In meat's case, people want to know: "What do your animals eat? How are they treated? What makes good pork?"

Marketing is all about creating a relationship with the consumer. To that end we do everything we can to invite their questions and provide honest answers. We want to bring our customers as close to the farm as possible.

Q. What are Niman's long-range goals?
A . To bring the best possible pork to more consumers while practicing the highest husbandry and environmental standards. Business wise, we are shooting for at least a 50 percent increase in our annual pork sales. But we do not aspire to be among the nation's biggest packers. We want to produce and market flavorful pork that appeals to discriminating consumers who are willing to pay a premium.