Paul Willis Talks Scaling up Humanely Raised Pork

Tera talks to Paul Willis, Niman Ranch’s founding hog farmer, about expanding sustainable, humane production and building a successful values-based national brand.

For Tera’s final Edible-Alpha® Live! famous founder interview, she spoke with Paul Willis, director and founding hog farmer of Niman Ranch. An ardent animal welfare advocate, he helped transform the pork industry by scaling up the humanely raised, free-range model.

A longtime Iowa hog farmer, Paul proudly raised pigs on pasture, but by the 1990s, CAFOs were threatening to put little guys like him out of business. The message, he told Tera, was to “get bigger or get out.” Paul refused to do either and began exploring his options. Knowing most Iowans at the time wouldn’t pay a premium for his pork—or purchase more than just the chops—he spent years looking for a viable market.

Eventually, he met Bill Niman, who was successfully marketing humanely raised beef in and around San Francisco, a much more progressive food scene. Paul sent Bill a pork chop, Bill loved the taste and Paul’s values, and a partnership was born. Paul formed Niman Ranch Pork Company and began sending hogs to the West Coast for processing and sale. Under a hybrid LLC–co-op model, the company grew its network of farmers to meet increasing demand, guaranteeing them a premium for their animals plus stock in the company.

Also, from the get-go, Paul wanted a way to distinguish his humane methods from those of CAFOs. There wasn’t an official recognized standard back then, so he helped create the Certified Humane standard, now a trusted, widely known seal.

The money held as farmers’ stock provided working capital for the company to continue scaling. That, plus a forgivable loan from the Iowa Department of Economic Development, furthered its growth, and landing Whole Foods Market and later Chipotle as customers helped turn Niman Ranch into a sought-after national brand. As more consumers nationwide have woken up the value of humanely raised, free-range pork, demand has only intensified.

A few years back, family-owned Perdue Farms bought out Niman Ranch along with its specialty processor. Because Perdue was rich in resources, the co-op was disbanded and farmers paid back every penny. Paul stayed on as director to ensure Niman Ranch’s values and commitments to farmers were upheld under new corporate ownership. “The integrity of everything we do is 100% intact,” Paul said. “It’s even better today because we have some money.” In fact, his influence has even prompted Perdue to improve its animal welfare practices.

Paul is proud that today Niman Ranch has 700 farmers and ranchers in its network. Although he could certainly call it quits after all he’s accomplished, he’s not ready just yet—which, Tera noted, is our gain, because the food world needs Paul Willis. His passion and innovation have helped hundreds of small farmers and ranchers stay in business while offering consumers nationwide more sustainable—and better tasting—protein choices.

Tune in to Tera’s full interview with Paul, as well her chats with other famous founders from Edible-Alpha® Live!