Ah, Summer. For many of us, in the food biz, it’s just the best time of year. The growing season is in full swing, local produce is in abundance, and outdoor grilling becomes the norm. For all these reasons, we really love Summer at Marczyk Fine Foods, but it’s safe to say that the thing we love best about it is our annual trip to Iowa. We choose a few lucky staff members each year and load them up on a plane to Des Moines where they get to work on the pig farm and participate in the Hog Farmer Appreciation Dinner put on by Niman Ranch in honor of all their hard-working farmers. It’s a weekend full of good feelings, good food, and good times to be sure.
The Iowa crew this year included Suzanne (she’s the boss lady), Jeff, Bryan, and Tony (some of our key players in the meat department), and the other Brian (that’s me… I’m the Meat & Seafood Manager). We took off for Des Moines on Thursday and spent most of that day screwing around in the city like a bunch of giddy teenagers. We had a remarkable meal at Django in Downtown Des Moines where we ate like kings and devoured the large Seafood platter fast enough for Suzanne to ask, in all seriousness, if we should get another one.
Friday we were up with the sun and off to Thornton, Iowa to “The Dream Farm” where Paul Willis, AKA Niman Ranch Hog farmer #1, holds a giant pig roast every year. The Marczyk crew goes out a day early to help set up the barn for the pig roast. We work (I use the term loosely) by setting the tables, picking wildflowers for the centerpieces (best part of the whole weekend), and generally tidying up and getting ready for the dinner. We spent a great hour shucking exactly 17 dozen ears of corn and then giving all the husks to the pigs, who were super excited and cheerfully grunted in what could only be interpreted as appreciation.
We, along with the rest of the folks who were there, shared a great selection of cheeses, salame, olives, cookies and chocolates that came from Marczyk’s. After that, we took off for Paul Brown’s pig farm, Alderland Farm. What a great place! There were lots of pigs running around outside, all without a care in the world. The thing that struck me the most was how incredibly peaceful it was. There were 150 people there wandering all over the farm and it was almost silent. I can only imagine what it is like when there are no guests. The fresh, sweet-smelling air and stress-free environment reminded me of why we sell Niman Ranch Pork in the first place. These animals are raised the right way, there’s just no doubt about it.
After that, it was back to the Dream Farm so we could help serve (and eat!) dinner. We cooked all of the corn we had shucked and sliced a bunch of Prairie Breeze Cheddar, which is locally made right in Iowa… in fact, the man who owns the creamery is also a Niman Ranch Hog Farmer! We also poured lots of wine and beer (because why not?) for all the weekend guests, who were a collection of retailers, chefs and distributers who all sell Niman Ranch products. The meal consisted of roasted pig, which was excellent, potato salad, heirloom tomato salad (Paul Willis grows 77 beautiful varieties of heirloom tomatoes!), corn on the cob, and homemade pies and chocolates. By the end of the meal, we were all very full and very tired. Bryan was the rookie of the group so we made him drive the 2 hours back to Des Moines (better luck next year, Bryan!).
Saturday morning we walked about 2 blocks from our hotel to one of the biggest farmers markets I have ever seen. Rows upon rows of fresh vegetables, frozen meats, tamales, jewelry, and so much more… it was massive! We were all quite impressed to see a farmers market of that caliber and size. The rest of the day was filled with seminars and meetings, which may not sound like a lot of fun but we actually found it to be incredibly interesting and informative and we learned a lot.
Finally, Saturday night arrived! That’s when we got all dressed up and went downstairs to the Hog Farmer Appreciation Dinner. The crew split up so we could sit and talk with different Farmers (I mean, we get to talk to each other almost every day!). We learned so much about the other side of the business that way. The meal was nothing short of amazing, with more pork than we ever thought we could eat in one sitting. The dinner included an awards ceremony where they announced the top 10 hog farmers being judged on flavor and consistency. It was such a great experience to see how much pride these famers take in their product and in the way they raise their animals.
This dinner is also when they announce the recipients of the Niman Ranch Next Generation Scholarship award. This unique scholarship program enables young farmers to further their education in environmental and sustainable practices so they can return to their family farm and apply their college education in a very meaningful way. It was so moving to see these kids get rewarded for all their hard work and know that they love their family business enough to dedicate their lives to making it better and more sustainable.
Overall, our trip to Iowa was pretty freakin’ incredible. We think it is really important, as a retailer of meat products, to get to know the other side of the business once in a while and that’s why we come back year after year… To be able to see these farms, these hogs and the people who raise them! When our customers wonder what the difference is between our pork and our competitors it is these pictures and stories we have to share.