The Wilson Family Are Growing Sustainable Farming Traditions At Their Seven W Farm
April Wilson is passionate about farming. Not just any type of farming, but farming that respects the earth, animals, and crops. Her family’s farm, Seven W Farm, has been described as “a perfect model for regenerative farming practices.”
Located in rural northwestern Iowa, the farm grows corn, soybeans, small grains, and hay as well as raising pigs, chickens, sheep, cattle, and an organic dairy herd. The Wilson’s farm also maintains wildlife refuge areas. The diversity of its farming is key to its sustainability mission. Seven W plants cover crops to promote soil health, exercise rotational grazing practices to benefit the farm’s livestock, and utilize tree buffer strips to help reduce water runoff. Through its organic practices, the farm winds up needing to use less synthetic chemicals and fertilizers than it normally would.
As a third-generation hog farmer, April grew up on her family’s farm. The Seven W was started in 1959 by her grandfather, Ernest, and now ran by her mother Lorna and father Dan, her two brothers, and their wives. April spent over a dozen years away from the farm after college, but she was drawn back to it. “Farming is a part of who I am and I missed it,” she explained in an interview to Foodtank.com, adding that “it means the world to me to know that I can carry on my family’s legacy working the land and taking care of the animals, something that my grandfather did his entire life.”
While respecting the past, the Wilsons also are concerned about the future. They want to help more farmers stay independent, support their local communities, and preserve the environment. April feels her role in the community is to encourage others to farm sustainably using traditional methods and help them follow their dreams, as she has been able to do.
Having been a farming family for over half a century, the Wilsons are well acquainted with the economic challenges farms face as well as the importance of preparing for the future. Regenerative, sustainable farming is not just a fashionable trend for them. They know it is not only vital for farms to maintain their resources but also to maintain the resources for the planet at large. One United Nations report asserted that, if today’s standard farming practices persist, there are just over 50 harvests left before the world’s topsoil is destroyed.
The Wilsons see the path to preserving the environment is to reverse the trend of small, independent farms being replaced by big, highly industrialized corporate-owned farms. This shift has several societal implications. Rural communities are affected when there are fewer farmers and, consequently, fewer people living in farming regions. Additionally, large farms are often less diversified, specializing in one particular area, which can lead to both negative economic and ecological ramifications.
Crop diversity is significant in several ways. Historically, this approach has been shown to generate good cash-flow for farms, which is obviously key tor financial survival. It also is healthier for the soil than monoculture farming, which in turn is healthier for the earth. April’s mother Lorna points out in a practicalfarmers.org article, crop diversity follows the old saying: “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.”
A major reason Seven W Farm has thrived over the years is due to its long affiliation with Niman Ranch. Well-known for its humanely and sustainably raised livestock, Niman Ranch works with over 740 small and mid-size independent American family farmers and ranchers, the nation’s largest such network. An early participant, Seven W was Niman’s fourth hog farm when it signed up back in 1998.
The arrangement has worked well for both sides. Over the years, Niman has built a reputation for its high-quality, naturally-raised pork by getting its meat from Seven W’s ethically raised hogs. The Wilsons, meanwhile, benefit from having a consistent buyer for its hogs. Since 1998, they have sold between 2000-3,000 hogs annually to Niman Ranch. Without the Niman deal, Lorna Wilson admits they would have gotten out of the pig business, while her husband Dan says April was only able to come home and work the farm because of the Niman deal.
Beyond the solid revenue stream, the Niman affiliation also made sense for the Wilsons philosophically. The two partners share a similar commitment to sustainability, animal treatment, and family farming. “Niman’s vision of raising pigs on pasture is what Dan’s dad had done for generations,” Lorna revealed in practicalfarmer.org. “Their whole concept meshed with our values of how we wanted to raise animals.”
April, meanwhile, appreciates how Niman Ranch has created a sense of community between its like-minded farmers along with offering support, guidance, and space to share farming knowledge. “Niman Ranch values what I do on the farm and understands that my efforts directly impact the quality of the meat that I provide,” she told Foodtank.com.
She views this community environment useful for people wanting to start a farm as well. It offers invaluable opportunities to find experienced farmers who can provide helpful advice. April’s own helpful advice is to “build relationships with farmers who are getting ready to pass on their farm and traditions.”
Additionally, April praises how Niman Ranch brings people to the farm and lets them see just how animals are raised. Supplying some transparency in the farming process serves to create more informed and invested consumers, thereby allowing them to make better-educated decisions when shopping and dining.
This effort to educate people about where their food corresponds with April’s own mission. As April told foodtank.com, she wants to “encourage people to put their money toward good, quality, healthy food sourced from farmers who take extra care in raising their livestock humanely and sustainably.”