Mindy and Drew Duff met when they were elementary school teachers in southern Iowa. Mindy taught music while Drew taught physical education and coached. After their marriage, Drew helped Mindy’s father on their century-old family farm in northern Iowa. In 2009, he started asking, “What if we moved here and did this full time?”
Today the Duffs, now with three young children, operate the family farm and together with Mindy’s lifelong friend Brent DeGroote raise over 1,000 pigs throughout the year.
“Farming is stressful and there are a lot of things you can’t control,” Drew told Food Tank. “But the lifestyle caught us. It’s a lot of fun to help feed a lot of people.
The first spring they lived on the farm, Drew and Mindy raised six pigs to feed the family. But they quickly learned to love the work.
“What I like the most is this way of raising pigs. They are in their own environment and can show their natural behaviors. It’s fun,” says Drew. “When you put on new bedding and they run around and play, it’s like Christmas.”
He and DeGroote teamed up to raise pigs and started DuDe Pork. The couple followed in DeGroote’s father’s footsteps by partnering with Niman Ranch, a network of more than 750 small, independent American family farmers and ranchers.
“Niman has always attracted me. There are so many like-minded people out there who want to do the right thing for the earth and keep the soil healthier for their children,” says Drew. “They’re doing it in a way that they feel is best to make things better for the future.”
Niman Ranch farmers uphold high standards of sustainable and humane agriculture in exchange for a guaranteed market for their pigs. The network’s robust support system helps guide farmers towards a different and more sustainable way of raising pigs. According to Drew, DuDe Pork would not be able to raise pigs to their capacity in the conventional market.
“It’s great to have this support system with the Niman Ranch family and then the values to align with it…it’s amazing that it even exists,” Mindy says.
Sustainable pig farming practices have supported the Duffs’ efforts to improve soil health throughout the farm: Drew raises pigs with fresh bedding, which is ultimately composted and returned to the soil to create organic matter in floor.
Over the past two years, Drew has also noticed that his bean crops are improving as he reduces tillage. Now he is investigating how minimal or vertical tillage can simultaneously benefit soil health and crop quality, while using less fuel.
“It was really fun to watch,” Mindy said. “With the apps you can see the different colors in the fields, the bands we’ve been working on [to improve soil health].”
Mindy became a certified health and nutrition coach after returning to the farm, and for her, this way of farming is all about nurturing gut health with nutritious food.
“We’re basically trying to give the soil probiotics…and it was really interesting to see the changes in yields, the changes in everything,” Mindy says.
But the Duffs point out that changing farming practices is a difficult and complex process, especially with northern Iowa’s unique climate and growing season. According to Mindy, new practices must be adapted to each farmer’s land, “because what works on one field is going to work differently on another field.”
Mindy says choosing to farm more sustainably isn’t just a matter of what’s best for the environment, farmers also need to maintain economic sustainability: “This new equipment costs money, and if you don’t can’t run it financially, you’re not going to farm at all.
For the Duffs, sustainability means being able to keep farming in the family. Their 12-year-old son has been interested in farming since he was two years old and wants to raise pigs for Niman Ranch when he is older, just like his father.
“I’m the fourth generation of farmers here,” says Mindy. “Someone in our family has been looking after this land for so many years. We do it because there’s that sense of pride and a sense of purpose… It’s not just about making money. If it was, we wouldn’t be doing this.
“It’s a labor of love,” says Drew.
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Photo courtesy of the Duff family