A conversation about local food.

I had the unbelievable good fortune of interviewing Paul Willis over the weekend, live onstage (or rather, on a picnic table).

Paul, the founder of Niman Ranch Pork Co., was the featured speaker at the community pig roast that kicked off this weekend’s Ohio Valley Greenmarket. This wonderful first-time event celebrated local food and sustainable living, and was sponsored by Edible Ohio Valley magazine, the Hamilton County Park District and Hamilton County Master Gardeners. With about 125 people in attendance, Paul and I had a conversation about the present and future of sustainable food.

Paul is an inspiration to anyone who’s interested in eating whole, healthful, high-quality food that’s produced in an ethical and sustainable way. A third-generation Iowa hog farmer, Paul raises animals the way his family’s always done it: outdoors, in a way that lets the pigs be, well, pigs. No less an authority than Temple Grandin has approved of Paul’s practices. Niman Ranch Pork Co., a network of more than 650 family farms, supplies Chipotle locations around the country and many fine restaurants; you’ll also find their products at stores like Whole Foods.

I wanted to share a few highlights of our conversation:

  • People often talk about local food in absolutes—as in, setting a geographical boundary (like, 50 miles) for local. In fact, Paul says, every farmer is local somewhere.
  • Scale is important in farming. Just as there’s too big—as in, big agribusiness—there’s also too small. Paul talked about the efficiencies that mid-sized food producers can realize: It’s more environmentally friendly (and economical) to ship a whole truckload of pork from Iowa to California than it is for him to transport a single pig from his farm to his processor.
  • We as consumers need to be informed and take responsibility for our purchases. “Get to know where your food comes from.”
  • Want to make a difference in our food system? “Be a farmer. Plant a tomato. Every little bit counts,” Paul said.

Dinner that night was fantastic: Napoleon Ridge Farm provided the pig; the folks at Savor (part of the Relish Group) did all the cooking using produce from Carriage House Farm and other growers. OYO served up a delicious grown-up stone fruit-vodka lemonade. Great Crescent beers were on ice.

Under a picnic shelter at Winton Woods, over a meal of local food, in the company of new friends, under a nearly full moon, it was a remarkable evening. I’m so glad I was part of it.

photos (c) Bill Magness