Up close and personal with Bill Niman
I spent most of Sunday morning (5/15/11) tagging along with Bill Niman on his morning chores and bumping around his ranch in a red Toyota Tacoma with his great Dane Claire, along for the ride in the back. Our conversation covered a lot of ground.
Niman (correctly pronounced nigh-man) has done more for humane, ecologically minded meat production in the United States than anyone else I know of. He was part of that of a cadre of Bay Area food reformers from the 1970’s who, while they didn’t know it at the time, were revolutionizing the way America eats and drinks. Alice Waters, Kermit Lynch, Alfred Peet, Paul Johnson, and Niman all came of age during the 1970’s and blended the counter-culture’s sense of idealism and politics with a downright old fashioned, pre-industrial view of food production.
Niman moved to California from New York in the 1960’s to teach in an underserved school district near Los Banos, Calif. The gig kept him out of the Vietnam War. He was part of a small community of like-minded social reformers (or agitators depending on your politics) in the small Central Valley town who sought to shake things up. That didn’t go over too well with the locals and soon he and his fellow draft dodgers found themselves unwelcome and out of work.
Niman later heard about a teaching job in Bolinas, a tiny town in west Marin County that locals have long tried to hide from the rest of the world by studiously removing road signs. Bolinas was also filled with 1960s idealism, only this time the newcomers stayed put and displaced the old guard. As part of the new order, Niman and his townsmen aspired to feed themselves with wholesome, locally grown food. Niman, who found himself living on the vast mesa that rises above Bolinas’ rocky coastline, gravitated toward meat production; first goats, then pigs and chickens, and eventually cattle. The first six cattle came from an established family’s ranch in exchange for his first wife’s tutoring services. The descendants of those black and white cattle still live on Niman’s ranch today.
In 1978 journalist Orville Schell joined Niman, creating Niman-Schell Meats, which then became just Niman Ranch. Shortly thereafter the feds condemned the struggling farm by eminent domain in 1984 to make it part of the Point Reyes National Seashore. Niman and Schell got $1.3 million in compensation and continued grazing cattle on the property for nominal rent.
Niman didn’t know it when he started out, but he had created a new model of meat production that continues to roil the industry. Niman Ranch became America’s first brand of humanely raised beef and pork, but in Niman’s estimation it grew too fast and took on too many investors. Soon, Niman felt dissatisfied with the company’s management and in 2007 he quit.
Today he lives in Bolinas with his wife, Nicolette Hahn Niman who is a force to be reckoned with as well. She was the senior attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance where she was in charge of the organization’s campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry, and, before that, an attorney for National Wildlife Federation. She is also the author of “Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms” and is at work on two other books. She’s a vegetarian but also a strong advocate of the benefits of well managed pasture and the cattle’s role in a healthy grassland ecosystem.
Niman is still very active in the beef industry, raising cattle he’s helped breed over the years on 1,000 acres in Bolinas on some of the most beautiful land in the world. He’s building a new brand of beef, BN Ranch, featuring a line of grassfed beef that carries more fat than a lot of lean pasture-raised beef in America, much of which Niman says doesn’t taste very good. BN Ranch’s slogan is “Eat Like It Matters.”
With the price of oil and alfalfa rising, many ranchers are turning to grassfed beef not because it restores grasslands and is kinder on animals meant to eat grass not corn, but because it makes more economic sense: why buy costly hay when you can just let cattle eat grass watered by the rain and fueled by the sun? In his more than 30 years of creating an alternative vision of meat production, Niman has helped create a robust body of knowledge that points to a better way forward–and not a minute too soon.
Why did you devote your life to producing good meat?
What really hooked me on all this was after killing our first animal, actually after the first slaughter on the farm, I stayed up all night trying to figure out how to put the animals back together and bring it to life again, but after getting over that and tasting the meat and sharing it with this community it was incredibly gratifying and really for the first time I understood this whole chain, this whole miraculous ability of animals to convert national occurring cellulose in the form of grass and other forage into wonderful, wholesome food for human consumption. As they were intermediaries between the sun, soil, rain, and photosynthesis and human consumption, I was the intermediary between that gift, that miraculous occurrence and the people who were consuming it. I became the clearinghouse for that. It instantly helped me overcome the pain of raising the animals and later killing them… For me that was the genesis of everything that followed.
What impact do you think you’ve had on the meat industry?
The easiest one to recognize is the amount of meat that is being raised antibiotic free. When we first started talking about antibiotic and hormone-free beef and describing the methods, the industry just laughed and thought we were radicals and lunatic fringe and didn’t pay any attention to us. Fast forward to today and everybody wants to get into that… It’s only a matter of time before there will be legislation that will outlaw the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics, hormones and other man-made compounds. I feel I have been instrumental in pioneering that thinking.
What’s it like to see Niman Ranch on restaurant menus and not be associated with the company anymore?
It’s much easier than people expect. I’m proud of that creation. Of course I learned lot and hopefully will be able to learn from my mistakes of not maintaining complete control. I’m a start-up guy and a serial entrepreneur. It was getting too big… I walked away from the company and never looked back.
What grass-fed beef taste like?
To me great grass-fed beef should taste just like grain finished beef, but when you eat it it’s clean and you don’ t feel your mouth coated with grease and you don’t have to go to sleep after eating too much. It’s just clean. So much of the grass-fed beef has an acidic taint and flavor that it really doesn’t have to have. I like the beefiness not the gaminess.
What’s your favorite way to cook beef?
It’s somewhat of a moveable feast for me. Most of the time it’s a great burger with at least 20 percent fat or braised brisket or short ribs. And I’m absolutely, insanely in love with great hot dogs.