At the Fancy Food Show, Niman Ranch’s Founding Hog Farmer Paul Willis (Nigeria 1973-75) received the Specialty Food Association Leadership Award for Sustainability. Willis grew Niman Ranch from his one-family farm to a network of over 600 Certified Humane independent family farmers and ranchers raising pork, beef and lamb sustainably and with no antibiotics, hormones or crates. Niman Ranch meats are served at many of the country’s fine restaurants, at values-driven fast-casual chains and in specialty grocers nationwide.

“Paul Willis shows how the specialty food industry can drive change and build a better, more sustainable food system,” said Phil Robinson, SVP, member development at the Specialty Food Association. “Thanks to Paul’s vision and tenacity — and the support of Niman Ranch customers looking for the best-tasting pork —hundreds of family farmers can make a living raising pigs humanely and sustainably. These qualities are what earned Paul SFA’s 2024 Leadership Award for Sustainability.”


Willis’ involvement in sustainable agriculture began after he graduated from the University of Iowa and joined the Peace Corps, where he served in the Northern Region of Nigeria as the Young Farmers Club organizer. He returned to the United States in 1975 to start his own farm in Thornton, Iowa, continuing his family’s legacy as a fifth-generation farmer. As demand for his pork grew — starting in the California Bay Area at restaurants like Chez Panisse and quickly expanding nationwide — Willis added like-minded farmers to the network to help grow supply.

Over the past 30 years, Willis has been and continues to be active in dozens of organizations supporting animal welfare and small farmers. He is a co-founder of Food Democracy Now and was co-author of the country’s first pork animal-welfare certification standards. He has worked with organizations ranging from the United Nations to Drake University in Des Moines to improve the lives of animals and the viability of independent family farmers, both in the U.S. and abroad.

It is not uncommon for farmers to tell Willis that were it not for him and Niman Ranch, they would have lost the family farm. Willis is particularly proud to today see second- and even third-generation Niman Ranch family farms.

Today, Willis continues to be a key voice for Niman Ranch and the initiatives it pursues. He spends his spare time bird watching on his 160-acre native tall-grass prairie, tending to his garden and heirloom tomatoes and advising others hoping to build a better food system.

As Niman Ranch’s Farmer #1, he has no plans to stop. “I want to continue to be a spokesperson and an advocate for this type of production, for the farmers and the animals,” said Willis.