Working the Front Lines From Farm to Hospital: A Profile of Kirsten Eckerman

Kirsten Eckerman is an emergency room nurse, Niman Ranch hog farmer, wife, mother and so much more. She’s also an advocate for connecting people who have limited resources to quality, local foods, especially those in rural areas. Rural America is now the largest population requiring food assistance and poverty levels in rural communities are at an all-time high. Knowing this was true for neighbors in her own rural county in Southern Wisconsin, Kirsten, along with her husband, Brad, took matters into their own hands. Five years ago, they started Farm Hands Feeds—a local, grassroots effort to supply foodbanks in their area with meat, eggs and produce for those in need. Kirsten and Brad’s own farm, Quit Yer Belly Achin’ Acres, provided two humanely raised, antibiotic-free hogs and helped fund the costs of processing the animals, while other farms donated eggs, honey and produce. Other individuals and organizations donated money to the fund, and now families who need assistance can send a message requesting food and then can pick it up at a designated time. The entire process is done anonymously, which means no one has to feel ashamed for needing assistance.

“I believe it’s the social responsibility of farmers to help feed people wherever they can, it’s just what we do, says Kirsten. If I have neighbors who are going hungry and don’t have access to good food, that’s just not right.”

Today, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic currently impacting every aspect of life in our country the need to provide food assistance is even greater. Even in more urban Madison, Wisconsin, where Kirsten commutes to and works as an ER nurse, she sees families trying to cope with the loss of a job, leaving them to survive on one income where there used to be two: “People here are donating daily. Local restaurants are feeding the ER staff, forty people or more per meal every day. I hope that when this is over, people see how important this is and that they just don’t go back to a ‘me-first kind of normal.’ It’s not about us. We really do have to care for one another.”

“This crisis really does help you find like-minded people, though. In our ER alone, we’ve raised close to ten-thousand dollars for the local food bank. At some point, the good will becomes contagious,” then she quickly adds, “but in a good way, not like the virus.”

When it comes to farming, Kirsten points out that while commodity farmers are giving away hogs because that industry is in free-fall and there is nowhere to harvest them, the ones she and Brad raise on their farm are booked out through 2021. She says that would not be the case if they didn’t raise hogs for Niman Ranch, which provides them a steady, constant source of income: “We feel fortunate to be Niman Ranch farmers. Working with Niman allows us to help others and to do what we do. Without them, we would not be in the position to help our neighbors have access to quality local food.”

In a recent Instagram post that included a selfie of Kirsten at the ER fully covered in PPE, she expressed the following: “I am your farmer, your nurse, your provider, healer and protector. Bio security is nothing new for me as a hog farmer, keep the pathogens low, the herd is protected and thrives. This is the same theory behind social distancing. I know many are feeling the strain both mentally and financially due to this invisible enemy, but please keep doing what you are doing and stay home, stay away from friends and family until this passes…for those of you who think this isn’t real, or is being blown out of proportion, you’re dead wrong….if you could see what I see, you would change your mind…please do your part to keep me, my family, and our animals safe. My greatest fear isn’t dying from this, it’s giving it to someone I love.”

Read more Beyond the Plate local food hero stories. Learn more about our partners, Niman Ranch at nimanranch.com.

Let’s all be sure to honor Kirsten’s wishes. Her life, and ours, depend on it.