Bill Niman spent more than three decades building Niman Ranch into one of the most beloved natural meat suppliers in the nation from just 200 acres of land and six calves.
Dozens of high-end chefs, including Jean-Georges and Alfred Portale, as well as the popular burrito chain Chipotle, post the Niman Ranch name on their menus like a badge of honour.
But today, Niman has nothing to do with his namesake company. He severed ties in 2007 and began raising cattle and heritage turkeys on a new farm, called BN Ranch. Niman Ranch now makes no mention of its founder on its website.
In an interview with Business Insider, Niman said he left the company after its now-owner, Natural Food Holdings — which took a controlling stake in 2006 — began changing parts of the cattle-raising process.
“I left Niman Ranch because it fell into the hands of conventional meat and marketing guys as opposed to ranching guys,” Niman said. “You can’t really ferret out how [the cattle] is being raised [now].”
When Bill Niman started raising cattle more than 40 years ago, he let his animals graze on grass in open pastures, before fattening them up for several months ahead of slaughter on a vegetarian grain diet. Most commercial farmers, by comparison, take calves from their mothers early and send them to be raised and fattened on grain in feedlots, where the animals are typically confined. Niman also banned the use of antibiotics and growth hormones — a ban that Niman Ranch continues today.
His practices helped Niman Ranch become the darling of gourmet chefs who swore by the taste of his beef.
But the company was losing money. In the year that Natural Food Holdings took over, Niman Ranch had a net loss of $US4 million, according to Inc. Magazine. In order to save the company from bankruptcy, Natural Food Holdings made some decisions that would streamline cattle operations.
Niman claims the changes made it difficult to verify whether ranchers were raising cattle according to Niman Ranch protocol.
When he was in charge, “There was no separation between us and the animal from womb to tomb. That’s why the brand was so trusted,” he said. “And I think people probably think they still operate that way.”
He claims Niman Ranch purchases some of its cattle from feedlots now and that the animals travel long distances to be slaughtered.
Niman Ranch spokeswoman Drew Calvert denied those claims.
“Niman Ranch does not use conventional feedlots,” she told Business Insider. “The vast majority of our ranchers raise their own corn, cut their own hay and have a lot or area on their land where they finish the cattle after they have spent a majority of their lives grazing.”
She said the ranchers who raise Niman Ranch cattle are within 350 miles of the processing plant and that the animals spend roughly 75% of their lives grazing, depending on the geography and productivity of the grasses where they are being raised.
“We are proud to continue building on the foundation Bill Niman started over 40 years ago — growing our community of family farmers and ranchers from around 400 in 2008, to more than 700 today,” Calvert said.
Despite Niman’s reservations over the company’s cattle-raising practices, he said he would not be deterred from eating its beef. Niman Ranch “is doing as good of a job as any of the natural beef companies” in meeting demand for volume while driving a profit, he said.
Niman also noted that the hog side of the business, which famously supplies pork to Chipotle, has always operated under standards that win his seal of approval.
Niman says he’s not angry or bitter about his departure from the company, because it led him to his next enterprise: BN Ranch.
Niman started BN Ranch in Marin County, Calif., with his wife, Nicolette, to return to his passion of ranching and to prove that raising grass-fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free beef can be a sustainable business model.
The ranch is set next to the ocean overlooking San Francisco:
“We’re at a point with the cattle business where we were in the early ’80s where we raised the animals without antibiotics and hormones and at that time, the industry laughed at the stuff we were talking about and doing,” he said.”Those things, fortunately, have now become mainstream.”
“We celebrate that and feel like we were part of a small group of founding charter members in that movement,” Niman added. “And now we want to take it to the next and most sensible level.”
BN Ranch cattle are grass-fed in open pastures until several months before slaughter, when they are fattened on a mixture of corn, barley, wheat and oats.
Here they are grazing in the summer months:
To complement the cattle operation, the Nimans also raise heritage turkeys.”Our breeding flock can fly, make love naturally and do basic things that modern chickens and turkeys are not capable of doing, and we feel good about that,” he said.
One of their biggest clients is FreshDirect, one of the largest grocery delivery services in New York City. But Niman said he doesn’t see the company as ever being a competitor to Niman Ranch, because he wants to keep the operation small and manageable.
“We are trying to restore a much more sensible way of producing food in the world.” Hopefully, he added, other farmers will follow their lead.
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