Phyllis Willis

Phyllis Willis speaks in opposition to the Prestage pork plant proposal at a City Council meeting in Mason City last year.

FERTILE | Niman Ranch, a national leader in sustainable agriculture and humane livestock practices, has named its top scholarship this year in honor of the late Phyllis Willis, well-known North Iowa farmer and environmentalist.

The Phyllis Willis Pioneer Scholarship Award has a $10,000 value this year and will be part of the annual Niman Ranch Next Generation Scholarship awards.

This year's winner is Elle Gadient of Cascade, recognizing her interest in sustainability and in a safe environment. 

Willis, 74, who died in April, was co-founder of the Niman Ranch Pork Co. and enjoyed hosting farm tours for guests from all over the country and was a champion of clean air and water as well as animal rights.

Even as her health was failing, she appeared at many public meetings throughout North Iowa promoting environmental causes, including the fight against the proposed Prestage pork processing plant in Mason City in 2016.

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"She had the Mother Jones philosophy — pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living," said environmental activist Tom Willett at the time of her death. "Only she would have said it in a softer tone."

Niman Ranch awarded 32 scholarships this year, totaling $106,000 through its National Generation Scholarship Fund.

Paul Willis, a Niman Ranch founder, said the scholarships are to help winners with student loan debts, "crucial to helping new farmers stay on the land," he said.

This year's scholarship winners were from Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and California.

"All will have a greater chance of returning to the farm after college with the funds awarded to help pay for their education," said Willis. 

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