A good customer keeps pig farmers in business

Tom Nuessmeier with Berkshire hog.jpgTom Nuessmeier tends his Berkshire cross pigs on his small farm near LeSueur, Minn.

Tim and Tom Nuessmeier are able to do more than farm as a hobby on 200 acres near LeSueur, Minn., thanks to their Berkshire cross pigs and a long time customer who places a premium on sustainably raised hogs.

San Francisco-based Niman Ranch Inc. has been buying the Nuessmeier’s pigs since 2000. The meat is processed in Iowa and then distributed throughout the country, to 7,000 restaurants, according to the company’s website.

As a result, it’s difficult to label what the Nuessmeiers do as part of the growing “local food” movement, but they are an example of how the nation’s small food producers are looking for ways to sustain their operations amid big agriculture.

Beyond the marketing of premium meat, Niman Ranch wants to help farmers who operate on a smaller scale stay in business, especially those who operate “heritage farms.” Tom and Tim Nuessmeier are the fifth generation to farm their land.

Beyond the philosophy, there are specific requirements all Niman farmers have to meet. They must raise pigs without antibiotics, in deep-bedded pens and as vegetarians. Fewer hogs are raised on the same amount of land than some of the Nuessmeier’s neighbors might use.

Certified organic is not a requirement, however. Niman Ranch says the reason is cost:

This would raise the cost of production of our meat by as much as 50%, depending on the grain market. There is currently a shortage of organic grain in this country, making feeding only organic feeds particularly difficult. We believe a better use of those limited organic grains would be direct human consumption.

The Nuessmeiers also grow organic oats, alfalfa and barley, most of which they sell. Tom Nuessmeier says being organic doesn’t seem to be a huge selling point to their mail order customers as well as Niman Ranch. The Nuessmeier brothers philosophically believe organic is best and find that choice fits their business plan. Tom Nuessmeier said:

From that point of what sustainable means some of it is economic choices. The margins are so tight and the inputs are so expensive.. Unless you have a sizable amount of acreage, it’s difficult to make a living in the commodities market. We’re philosophically attuned to the sustainable practice..but it’s economic as well.

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