About the Partner Spotlight: This is the first of a regular series highlighting the farmers we work with. We’re starting with Bill Niman in part because BN Ranch is in the news now, and we thought you would appreciate some insight into what is going on. We at Farmland LP have an up-close view, as BN Ranch is not just a Farmer Partner/tenant, but Bill is also an advisor, and I (Craig) serve on the board of BN Ranch and am an investor. We are biased, but in the very best of ways. Farmland LP and BN Ranch share a common vision for a healthy, humane, environmentally regenerative and high quality food system. Our separate-but-supportive, value-aligned relationship helps each of us scale-up as we transform the food system.
“Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”
-C.S. Lewis, 1898-1963
Few people were looking the past five years as Bill Niman and a hand-picked team of livestock veterans built a new kind of meat company, BN Ranch. Bill had founded his previous company, Niman Ranch, in the 1970s and made it the country’s premier natural meat company before leaving seven years ago. But rather than retire, Bill has a larger vision – he wants to change the way the world raises animals for food.
Bill has been named the “This country’s most provocative and persistent champion of sustainably and humanely raised livestock” by the Southern Foodways Alliance. He’s also been called “The Guru of Happy Cows” by the L.A. Times, “The Steve Jobs of Meat,” by Men’s Journal, and “The Godfather of Natural Beef,” by Business Insider. His unique vision forges BN Ranch’s mission, which is to create “the best-tasting, most wholesome humanely raised meat in the world.”
BN Ranch produces premium quality, entirely grass-fed beef, and heritage and white turkeys (with more coming…watch this space!). Bill, at 69 years old, knows a thing or two about producing premium quality beef. Decades of experience taught him that meat quality from animals raised exclusively on grass was highly seasonal, reaching its peak shortly after the grasses formed their seed. Although commodity cattle are harvested at 12-18 months, and sometimes as long as 24 months, through his experience Bill saw that the first two years a bovine’s body develops its frame and muscle, but that not until the third year did they develop intramuscular fat on a grass diet. In particular, the genetics of cattle from northern latitudes store intramuscular fat in preparation for winter. Each week from May through November, Bill or cattle manager Don McNab hand-pick animals, selecting only those that are in excellent health and in prime condition. Attention to detail, from genetics, age, pasture quality, animal care, and much more all lead to naturally well-marbled super-premium quality beef.
I asked Bill over dinner one evening why he still works. For the money? As a legacy? He said he wanted to change the food system, moving it in a direction that is more ecologically sustainable and humane. Then he said, “When people taste our meat, I want it to be the best meat they have ever tasted in their lives.” That is the kind of personal commitment that defines “mastery”. (And as an aside, my family had friends over this weekend and I prepared BN Ranch T-Bone steaks and they both said it was the best steak they’ve ever had. Congrats and thanks Bill.)
Bill’s practices differ quite dramatically from the dominant U.S. agricultural system at all levels. It is only when the national spotlight shines on the commodity meat system that most Americans get a glimpse of what really goes on, and it’s not a pretty picture. The only meat processing plant in the San Francisco Bay Area — Rancho Feeding Corp — was recently shut down, with the USDA recalling a year’s worth of production totaling nearly 9 million pounds of meat.
The facility itself was a clean, well-run plant, but rather than just recall the commodity meat where there was evidence of wrongdoing, the USDA recalled the meat from anyone who had used the facility, even custom processors such as BN Ranch. For BN Ranch, that means that 100,000 pounds of meat worth about $400,000 wholesale has been recalled. The Nimans are currently appealing USDA’s decision to include them in the recall.
From birth to slaughter, all BN Ranch cattle are cared for and fed in a way that will produce the most wholesome and delicious meat. How they are treated in their final hours is also extremely important to Bill and his team. In a recent interview with the Point Reyes Light, Bill and his wife Nicolette commiserate:
“With so much time, money and care put into each animal, we would be loath to leave anything to chance during the last few hours of their lives.”
While the loss of money is significant and potentially devastating for their small company, Bill is mostly concerned at the prospect of such a colossal waste. In an interview with the Press Democrat:
Niman said he is confident his meat is safe and the thought of dumping so much of it into a landfill is “abhorrent and immoral.” Should that day come, he said, “it would be one of the toughest moments of my life.”
Bill and his colleagues at BN Ranch are working with the USDA to get them to release his beef from the recall.
We’re working to help BN Ranch in a number of ways, and we’re glad to be on this journey with Bill and the team. Personally, I learn something amazing every time I spend time with Bill, and I can see no better way to ensure his legacy than to grow his company and train the next generation of humane, responsible, high quality livestock producers – the kind who will continue to do the right thing when no one is looking.