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Retired Iowa pork producer reacts to Supreme Court Proposition 12 ruling

When Paul Willis started Niman Farms in the 1980s, he wanted to take a different approach than the rest of the industry.

THORNTON, Iowa — A U.S. Supreme Court ruling on pork sales in California has impacts way beyond The Golden State. 

The ruling upheld a California law, Proposition 12, that says all pork sold in the state must be born from sows given a certain amount of space, basically eliminating the use of gestation crates. 

For many producers, that's a huge change. But for Paul Willis, a retired Iowa pork producer, making extra space isn't a problem.

Willis is a founding hog farmer for Niman Ranch, a nationwide network of family farmers, and became a successful pork producer in the 80s.

Back then, Willis took a different approach compared to industry standard when raising his pigs.

"We didn't want to be like the industrial model," Willis said. "And I wanted to distance myself in every way. So I started working with the Animal Welfare Institute. We wrote the standards for how animals were raised." 

With his devotion to the treatment of his animals, Willis began following practices to ensure their wellbeing – standards that are now mandated by California's Proposition 12 laws. 

"No gestation stalls, no farrowing crates and that's been our standards," Willis said. "And then, you know, we're using bedding and outdoors and so on. So those have been our standards since 1995." 


Not all farmers see Prop 12 as the right way to ensure a pig's wellbeing. 

Trish Cook, president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association, says her initial reaction to the Supreme Court's ruling was a disappointment. 

"My husband and I do raise pigs here in eastern Iowa on our farm," Cook said. "And what's frustrating is... the Proposition 12 guidelines and rules were set out in a way that were based upon science. They're using arbitrary guidleines." 

Cook says the ruling will hurt pork producers' bottom line in an already challenging economy. 

"Inflationary times, things are expensive," Cook said. "And the market has not given us enough increase in price to offset our expenses. So all the hogs that we're delivering... to the packers right now are losing money." 

Willis believes Prop 12 guidelines are the way of the future, but also says farmers worried about the additional cost have options. 

"They don't have to do this," Willis said. "They just can't sell pork to California. They've got 49 other states." 

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