(Chad Case for The New York Times)
By Kim Severson
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
BOLINAS, California: Bill Niman is not the rancher he once was.
Last year Niman walked away from the meat company he started in the 1970s with not much more than a handful of cattle and a political philosophy built on self-sufficiency.
Niman Ranch, which takes in annual sales of $85 million, was founded on the notion that the better an animal is treated, the better the meat will be. His beef was so good that in the early 1980s Alice Waters made it the first proper-noun meat on the menu at her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse. His pigs, raised humanely by 600 family farms in Iowa, provide pork for the Chipotle chain's carnitas. Niman Ranch bacon, hot dogs and sausage fill grocery cases around the country.
But Niman is no longer a part of the company. Angry and discouraged after prolonged battles with a new management team over money and animal protocols, he left in August 2007 with a modest severance check and a small amount of stock.
He can't use his surname to sell meat, and he had to surrender the small herd of breeding cattle that lived on his ranch here, about an hour's drive north of San Francisco. The cattle were direct descendants of the ones he tended back in the days of counterculture, not profit margin.
But Niman, 63, is done licking his wounds. With a herd of goats and a young vegetarian wife he nicknamed Porkchop by his side, he is jumping back into the meat game.
"I think I am returning to my original roots," said Niman, who still lives in the little house he built on ranchland that kisses the Pacific Ocean.
Niman was raised in Minnesota, and moved to California to teach poor children. It was better than being drafted. In 1968, he headed north to Bolinas, a refuge for poets and intellectuals, to practice the counterculture movement's back-to-the-land philosophy.
He got his first cattle from local ranchers in barter for the tutoring his first wife, who has since died, gave their children. He has never left Bolinas, although now he watches over 1,000 acres instead of 11, and the land was turned over to the Point Reyes National Seashore.
He and Nicolette Hahn Niman, an environmental lawyer, were married five years ago, and now they are raising what they hope will be the best-tasting animals around. They have a handful of premier cattle that fatten only on pasture and a flock of traditional turkey breeds they personally chauffeured from Kansas to Bolinas last spring. Niman also has an organic pig project going in Iowa.
But he hopes goat will be the cornerstone of his comeback. That's in part because he has more of them around, and because he sees a wide-open market for pristine, pasture-raised goat meat. The guy is, after all, a businessman.
"I don't need to get 10 percent of the market anymore," he said. "I just want to be the best."
Chefs on both coasts are fast discovering his goat meat, although it is still available only in limited amounts, under the name BN Ranch.
In June, Niman stopped by Eccolo in Berkeley with a piece of shoulder, a loin, a leg and a rack of ribs. The chef and owner, Christopher Lee, now breaks down one or two of the 30-pound goat carcasses a week.
"It was succulent," Lee said. "It was mild. It was just perfect."
Like other chefs who have begun to cook with goat, Lee predicts a bright future for the meat.
"We've all cooked every part of the lamb a million times and we all know about grass-fed beef and aging beef," he said. "The goat is the next thing."
The meat Niman and a handful of other boutique farmers are producing is more delicate than the older, imported goat that is served at Pakistani curry houses, Jamaican jerk stands and taco trucks all over New York.
At a recent goat tasting in the Blue Hill at Stone Barns kitchen in Pocantico Hills, New York, Niman's young goat was compared to pan-seared and roasted loin and shoulder cuts from both a small Vermont grower and what the chef Dan Barber called "commodity goat."
The commodity goat was slightly musty and chewy. The Vermont goat was as tender and mild as lamb. The Niman goat was like lamb, too, but a lamb with a big personality. The meat was sweet and vegetal. The fat, what little of it there was, tasted rich but felt lighter than olive oil.
At Thyme for Goat, a recent collaboration between four goat farms within 25 miles of each other in Maine, goat is taking off, in a small way. People are attracted to the way it is raised and its healthful properties. Goat meat doesn't have the tallow of lamb, and contains about half the fat of chicken, according to a Department of Agriculture analysis.
"A lot of folks said nobody in Maine is going to buy goat meat," said Marge Kilkelly, who does marketing for the group. "We've found just the opposite."
The breed of goat is important. Like the Maine collective, Niman raises some stout, muscular Boer goats. But he is particularly fond of meat from lighter framed Spanish goats, which sometimes mix with the Boer.
"What Bill is so good at is the genetics," Barber said. "He's the master."
For about half the year, Niman lets the goats roam his California ranch. In the summer and fall, when the California grass is brown, they move to Oregon. He also works with ranchers raising two other herds to his specifications in California and Oregon.
Goats and cattle work particularly well together in a pasture. Goats don't like clover or rye grass, which the cattle love, but they make fast work of scotch broom, poison oak and other plants that can take over good grassland.
"Nature is so perfect," Niman said.
His longtime followers may be surprised that he is now raising his cattle entirely on pasture, without switching to a diet of grain a few months before slaughter.
He built Niman Ranch on the idea that raising a quality, year-round beef supply was like making dessert. You bake the cake with grass and frost it with grain. The method produces well-marbled meat with that traditional corn-fed flavor most Americans grew up eating. And it provides beef year-round. Animals that feed on pasture are fat enough to be slaughtered only at certain times of year.
But just as Niman Ranch was becoming a big, nationally recognized brand, Niman fell victim to a move toward meat purity that he and Orville Schell, his former partner, had started. Several chefs and food writers came to believe that a diet of corn was ruinous for cattle's health and the environment.
Although Niman's beef was quite different from conventional corn-fed beef, that he fed his animals with any grain at all was unacceptable to some chefs. Waters decided to drop it from the menu in 2002 and turn to more seasonal, all-grass options.
"It made me very sad but I just said we are at a moment in time and I just can't do this anymore," she said, adding that she "couldn't be more delighted that he's come back to his senses."
Still, Niman continued to build the company. He took on a parade of investors. A new management team took over in 2006, led by Jeff Swain, who had been at the company that produces Coleman Natural Beef, Niman's biggest competitor.
With the new team came changes, many of them made over Niman's protests. The company sold its custom butchering plant in Oakland and prepared to sell its high-end feedlot in Idaho. Niman Ranch began to purchase cattle ready for slaughter from feedlots over which the company had little control, a practice that Niman said was "against my religion."
Niman said feed standards dropped and animals were transported distances longer than 500 miles, which he said stresses them too much.
Swain said feed and care standards for the 400 head of cattle they process a week have not dropped. Contractors follow a list of protocols that are similar to those Niman developed.
And although some animals are being transported longer than 500 miles for slaughter, he said they are allowed to rest for 24 hours before they are dispatched.
The real issue, Swain said, is that Niman was a poor businessman. The cattle portion of the program was a money-loser, unlike the pork business, which processes about 3,200 animals a week. That remains unchanged, Swain said. "When we got involved, Niman would raise money and go through it and raise money and go through it," he said. "Any change to Bill's business model he didn't like. We needed to make the company financially sustainable."
The more Niman complained that the protocols he developed were being eased out, the more marginalized he became. Finally, Niman walked away, heading back to focus on the ranch where he has lived since the 1970s. Nicolette, 22 years his junior and a devout vegetarian, was there to comfort him. "It was such a dark time for Bill," she said.
While Niman fought his battles, his wife learned how to work the ranch. She also finished her book, "Righteous Porkchop" (Collins Living, March). It is part memoir and part exposé, focusing on her work fighting industrial meat companies as a lawyer for the Waterkeeper Alliance, Robert Kennedy Jr.'s environmental organization.
So how does that vegetarian thing work out? She accepts the role animals play in the human food chain, and he never pressures her to eat meat. She doesn't cook meat at home, but doesn't forbid Niman from throwing some chorizo on a slice of homemade pizza. He tends to go out for steaks, especially when he travels.
The one place they compromised was over a couple of her favorite cattle. She became emotionally attached, so he promised the cow and steer will not die for meat.
"You've got the rancher who came back home and the lovely, smart animal welfare girl who is 20 years younger and has really gone to work on him," said Betty Fussell, who writes about Niman in her new book, "Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef" (Harcourt, October). "It is the story of the cowboy and the lady, in a way."
Other people at his stage of life might be planning how to ride off into the beautiful Pacific sunset, satisfied with having made a real change in how people eat. But not Niman, who acts as if he's just getting started.
"It's the first time I've had a true partner at my side," he said of the last five years. "I feel like together, we are pioneering the next generation of animal husbandry."
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