Iowans often admit, either with pride or shame, that they are outnumbered in the state by hogs. We play host to the annual World Pork Expo and savor pork chops on a stick at the Iowa State Fair.

And from a decades-old family farm near Thornton, Niman Ranch Pork Co. oversees the purchase of thousands of hogs, as well as the distribution of the meat to retailers, consumers and some of the finest restaurants across the country.

“It’s not about having the most pork but the best pork,” said Paul Willis, manager of Niman Pork.

To accomplish that ultimate goal, the pork company has followed the lead of its parent company, Oakland, Calif.-based Niman Ranch Inc., and adopted standards that require its farmers to raise hogs the old-fashioned way, which the company believes produces the best pork on the market and provide opportunities for small family farmers.

“We’ve created a market for people to stay on their farms and enjoy raising pigs in this way,” Willis said. “It’s not just about making pork. It’s really about raising pigs.”

Niman Ranch was founded by Bill Niman nearly 30 years ago in Marin County, Calif. The company still raises cattle on its original ranch, and has expanded its offerings to include pork and lamb. Throughout its history, it has maintained a commitment to strict husbandry standards, which all Niman farmers and ranchers must abide by. Niman-raised animals are treated humanely and fed all-natural feeds.

More than 10 years ago, Willis was looking for a market in which to sell his non-confinement animals and was introduced to Bill Niman through a mutual acquaintance. At Niman’s request, Willis sent him some samples of his pork, which received rave reviews among restaurant customers in the San Francisco Bay area. In February 1995, Willis had 30 pigs custom-slaughtered and again sent them to Oakland.

Last week, Niman Pork sent nearly 2,300 hogs to be processed.

“When we first started, there was somebody who said, ‘You have 35 pigs. How are you going to do this when you get 3,500?’ And I said, ‘That’s never going to happen,’” Willis said. “But we have shipped that many in a week. We sort of marvel at it, but we’ve been at this 10 years and probably worked at this 80 hours a week every week in one way or another.”

Niman Ranch launched its efforts to create a national brand for its various lines of meat, starting with Niman Ranch Pork Co. out of Willis’ farm near Thornton. The company was officially formed in 1998, financed through a forgivable loan from the Iowa Department of Economic Development, and now works with nearly 500 farmers in 12 states. Iowa has the largest operation as the home of nearly 60 percent of Niman’s hog farmers. The company employs a 12-person staff in Thornton, as well as field agents throughout Iowa and in several other states who visit each Niman hog farm regularly.

The pork company has achieved annual growth rates of 15 to 20 percent since its inception, and Willis expects to continue forward with a 10 to 20 percent growth rate. Even so, Niman Pork put a great deal of time and energy into supporting its farmers and promoting its husbandry practices, which were developed by the Animal Welfare Institute.

The hogs are raised outdoors in fallow fields, fed corn and soybean meal and are not given growth hormones or antibiotics. Niman’s farmers frown upon the widely prominent hog confinements, which they say are bad for hogs and produce inferior-tasting pork. Willis’ farm was the first to be certified under the standards

Rex Thompson, who raises hogs near Boone, joined with Niman Ranch in the mid-1990s, but said the affiliation required no additional work on his part because he and his father had made a commitment to natural farming years ago. He said he would not market to Niman Ranch if the copmany did not uphold the standards he and his father committed to years ago.

Additionally, the Niman Ranch affiliation has helped him to compete with large hog confinements.

“They’re helping the small farmer be able to compete and stay in business,” Thompson said. “That has a trickle-down effect that keeps kids in a community, and then it helps the community with schools and businesses.”

Willis said the access to markets that Niman Ranch provides is valuable to farmers with small operations. Many buyers want more than five or 10 hogs at a time, or are only willing to pay a reduced price for that number of hogs.

“We were raising the best pork and getting the worst price,” he said.

Larry Cleverley, who grows organic produce near Mingo, is doing his part to see that some Niman Ranch pork products stay in Iowa, rather than all being piled on airplanes headed for the coasts. Having sold his produce to restaurateurs throughout Iowa, he used his contacts to bring Niman Ranch pork into several Iowa restaurants, many of whom were new to the area.

“The whole culinary scene in Des Moines has changed dramatically in the last 10 years to where there’s a lot more fine dining,” Cleverley said. “They seem a lot more interested in putting a great meal on the table, and that’s what our niche is. It’s a little higher price-wise, but it costs more to raise the meat this way.”

When Andrew Meek took over ownership of Sage in Windsor Heights five years ago, he simply wanted to find a way to make his menu look different from those of his competitors. He picked Niman Ranch pork in a taste test, and hasn’t wavered since, both in the restaurant and at home.

Sage’s menu changes seasonally, but Meek said there is always a Niman Ranch pork product available to customers, usually a rib rack or tenderloin. But he has found ways to incorporate Niman products into other dishes, such as pork cheeks as an appetizer.

He also realizes that by supporting Niman Ranch Pork Co., he is fulfilling a duty to support other local businesses.

“As I’ve developed more knowledge about owning my own business, and being independent, I found it very important to support local farmers and the whole integrity behind Niman Ranch,” Meek said. “It’s all about supporting the local economy.”

Cleverley has struggled in marketing Niman Ranch pork to Iowa supermarkets. Despite the higher cost, he said there is a demand among consumers for natural pork products, such as those produced by Niman. Both he and Willis hope to continue to educate consumers on the value of natural foods.

“My theory is this: The only reason the food chain is successful in its existing form is that most people don’t know what real food tastes like,” Cleverley said. “They don’t remember what good pork tasted like in the 1950s because we’ve gotten further and further removed from our food. (Niman Ranch pork) tastes the way pork used to taste because it’s raised the way pork used to be raised. There’s nothing new or revolutionary about that. It’s letting pigs be pigs.”