At home on the range

by Bruce Aidells
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Bill Niman, founder of BN Ranch, envisioned a beef business based on raising wholesome meat in a sustainable manner.
(Photo courtesy of John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

I first met Bill Niman sometime back in the mid-’90s. We were both a couple of over-educated guys who came to be in the meat business by very indirect paths – he as a school teacher in West Marin, in a small town north of San Francisco, and me as an endocrinologist doing cancer research on the UC Berkeley campus. When I met Bill, his company was still called Niman-Schell (later changed to Niman Ranch). He was selling beef to my wife for her restaurant, Boulevard. We’ve been friends ever since.

Bill Niman’s vision from the get-go was to “raise wholesome meat” and to do so in a sustainable manner, including treating livestock with respect and committing to humane animal-welfare practices. When his business began in the early 1970s, these ideas were not being talked about much in the meat industry. Few cattle were raised “all-natural,” meaning they were not given sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics, added growth stimulants or hormones and were fed an all-vegetable diet.

Niman-Schell was one of the first companies to follow these practices and continued to follow them even after Niman Ranch had grown to a network of 700 ranches and farms. These ideas made Niman an innovator in “naturally raised” meat and sustainable practices. And to say he was a visionary in this respect is a fair statement since today meat raised sustainably without antibiotics, added hormones and fed all-vegetable diets are not just catch-words but a rapidly growing segment of the meat business, appealing to increasingly more consumers who care about these issues.

For Niman, sustainability was always based on three pillars: economic viability, environmental stewardship and social justice (including humane animal treatment and fair treatment of workers and customers). The difficulty for Niman Ranch Inc. was that to adhere to the last two pillars of sustainability put a lot of pressure on the first pillar – economic viability. By 2006, the company was financially stressed, (although auditors later discovered this to be largely due to an employee who had, in a single year, embezzled more than $1 million). To keep the company going, Niman had to sell majority ownership and hand over management authority to others. Ultimately, he left his namesake company in 2007.

Bouncing back

Niman was down but not out and instead of tossing in the cowhide, he and his environmental activist wife, Nicolette Hahn Niman (whom he married in 2003), started anew in West Marin, Calif., and began raising grass-fed beef on their ranch overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Now called BN Ranch, sustainability, animal welfare and producing great-tasting, wholesome meat is still the Holy Grail.

On a typical West Marin foggy summer day, I joined the Nimans at their Bolinas farmhouse kitchen to talk meat, eat hot dogs and chat about BN’s recent past, present and future and hear a few words of wisdom on where the meat business might be going from the Nimans’ perspective.

Rancho feeding debacle

BN Ranch took a considerable hit because of the Rancho Feeding Corp. recall. (Photo courtesy of Bill Niman)


BN Ranch took a considerable hit as a result of the criminal activity at Petaluma, Calif.-based Rancho Feeding Corp. earlier this year. Although more than 8 million lbs. of meat were recalled by the US Dept. of Agriculture, most of the smaller producers who used Rancho as a custom slaughterer were not severely financially affected since the meat in question (an entire year of Rancho’s production) had long ago been consumed. While some of these producers may have had some inventory frozen, and consequently unsalable, BN Ranch had a considerable amount of their inventory frozen (about 90,000 lbs.). The fact that Niman kept such a large frozen inventory is a reflection of his core values, a commitment to service his customers in the best way. Niman believes that the best grass-fed beef is seasonal and, therefore, harvests his animals only when the animals are at their peak and well fed from rich grass (some of his meat would even grade at Prime). But some customers need supplies year around so he keeps a considerable frozen inventory to supply them.

The question is why did the USDA impound Niman’s meat or the meat of any of Rancho’s custom processing clients in the first place? Niman’s view is that USDA unreasonably feared that the operators of Rancho may have done an after-hours bait-and-switch with his carcasses. Yet, as he points out, this makes zero sense. All of Niman’s cattle were processed under proper USDA inspection with either Niman or his cattle manager, Don McNab, present, so no shenanigans would have taken place then. If there was a supposed bait-and-switch, it could only have occurred when the carcasses hung in the Rancho cooler. But Niman notes that his cattle carcasses are considerably different than the spent dairy cows that Rancho may have illegally processed and are easily distinguished. The grass-fed beef carcasses are smaller, have a different confirmation, different color and distinct fat cover. Niman says no competent meat person could have confused spent dairy carcasses for those from grass-fed beef cattle in peak condition. Furthermore, Rancho would have no incentive to bait-and-switch since they sold their meat only into the commodity market by carcass weight at so many cents per pound. Making a substitution would actually result in them getting less money per carcass since spent dairy cows are quite a bit heavier than the grass fed beef carcasses owned by Niman.

The quartered carcasses were transferred from Rancho to a USDA processing plant where fabrication took place also under combined USDA and BN Ranch supervision. Each carcass was carefully examined when it arrived for processing, making a bait-and-switch even less likely. Niman does not understand why the USDA behaved so irresponsibly toward BN Ranch and persisted in refusing to accept the argument that no bait-and-switch could have or would have occurred defies logic. The USDA choice to punish Rancho at BN Ranch’s expense raises doubts that the mission of the USDA is to help and protect meat businesses.

Moving forward

Even with this severe financial setback, Niman is a survivor and BN Ranch continues without compromising its core values of sustainability and the ability to produce high-quality wholesome meats. Beside the grass-fed beef, BN produces heritage turkeys, which have proven to be a very good cash crop. For the last few years, two of these turkeys have adorned my Thanksgiving table and I must say once you’ve tasted these heritage beauties there is no going back. With the success of the turkeys, BN has plans for expanding turkey production from just being seasonal to offering them year round. By next year BN turkeys will be offered not only as whole birds but as value added oven-ready breasts, as well as ever-popular and versatile ground turkey. There should be plenty of customers for these since these superb tasting birds have garnered quite a loyal following.

Going back to the Niman Ranch days, Niman had good relations with excellent lamb producers and going forward BN Ranch has formed a joint venture with some of these producers to offer grass-fed lamb with the plan for lamb to eventually account for 20 percent of the BN business. If this lamb is anything as comparable to the quality of the grain-finished lamb sold back in his Niman Ranch days, this product is bound to thrive.

Nicolette, Bill and Miles Niman. (Photo courtesy of Bill Niman)


BN Ranch realizes that to offer superior grass-fed beef it will always be seasonal. So, to have great fresh beef available in the off season, Bill has looked to partner with cattlemen raising animals with similar genetics and protocols in New Zealand. Since New Zealand, with opposite seasons to North America, has a long tradition of fine grass-fed beef, this makes sense and he is able to raise his animals to his required age of 30 months, ship the meat to the US and still make it work economically.

Observations

When asked what his views are on the future of grass-fed beef and what he might wish for in his perfect world, Niman agreed that for many hopeful consumers eating grass-fed beef it has not been a favorable eating experience. Some of this is attributable to the lack of knowing how to cook it properly but a lot, too, has to do with many producers selling beef out of season in times of the year when the grasses are not nutrient rich and the meat not at its best. The other very important issue for Niman is selling animals too young, before the meat has developed great flavoring and even marbling. Unlike most grass-fed beef producers, Niman insists on harvesting his cattle at the current maximum allowable age of 30 months, but if he had it his way would prefer to harvest his animals even a bit older.

The Nimans have some ideas about how to increase the percentage of pasture and rangeland available to raise grass-fed beef to compete more favorably with grain-finished beef. As an environmental lawyer and sustainability advocate for most of her professional life and now a rancher, Nicolette has thought a lot about these issues, which have culminated in a just-published book, “Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production.”

In our conversation, as well as in her book, she makes very convincing arguments debunking common myths about beef, showing that when properly managed, grazing cattle do not lead to global warming, they benefit grassland ecosystems and can reverse desertification and increase plant and animal biodiversity. She makes a compelling case that, contrary to popular belief, cattle are actually essential to an environmentally sustainable global food system. As for replacing grain-finishing with grass finishing, she said the world’s ecosystems and food system would be best served by denser, better-managed cattle herds on the world’s grasslands. This, she argues, will result in cleaner and more abundant water, healthier soils and more resilient wild life populations. Chemical-intensive, water-thirsty crops like corn should be converted to pasture. This will result in better beef, a favorable impact on our climate, preserve and enhance soils and a host of other environmental improvements.

Whether or not this could become reality in our current corn-based agricultural system is subject to discussion. Fueled by optimism, the Nimans have proven they are resilient and not afraid of chasing dreams that might be inching a little closer to reality each day.

Bruce Aidells founded Aidells Sausage Co. in 1983. He left the company in 2002 and is now a food writer for consumer publications and the author of 12 cookbooks. He also works as a consultant to the food industry.

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