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The Guru of Happy Cows

Bill Niman Believes in Giving His Cattle a Special Kind of Attention. The Result, Say His Customers, Is Beef That's Tastier.

November 17, 2002|MARTIN BOOE | Martin Booe last wrote for the magazine about petits fours.

"See that? happy cows with an ocean view!"

I am hardly qualified to speculate about the inner life of cows, but I'll take Bill Niman at his word. We're standing in a jade green paddock on the original Marin County ranch where Niman began raising cattle in the early 1970s, and we are pretty much surrounded by cows, about 300 of them, blinking at us with gentle curiosity. Tufts of mist curl along the hillsides, and in the distance, shrouded in haze, lies San Francisco Bay. If nothing else, these cows act as if they have nothing to fear from humans. Niman says it's because the ranch hands visit them frequently--on foot, not horseback--and spend a fair amount of time talking to them.

Niman firmly believes that a happy cow is a tasty cow, and while this may sound like a New Age flight of fancy, it is solidly rooted in science. Nervous, stressed cows secrete cortosteriods and other stress hormones that affect the texture, flavor and color of their meat. To Niman, the humane treatment of cattle isn't just a matter of taking the moral high road; it's good business, and that's why he insists the constellation of 40 ranchers who raise Niman beef, on spreads largely clustered near Boise, Idaho, adhere to a strict code, including the stipulation that they walk cattle individually to the slaughterhouse, to calm them.

If you think that's bunk, you might want to consider that Niman Ranch has gross sales of $40 million a year--and growing--in beef, pork and lamb. It's a far cry from the cottage industry Niman started in the mid-'70s, when he began supplementing his meager teacher's salary by delivering choice cuts of his own home-grown beef to Bay Area restaurants.

When Niman started farming in Marin County near Bolinas with eight pigs and a half-built barn, he had an inkling that animal husbandry practices were taking a turn for the worse. He did not, however, foresee the advent of the Frankencow, or the ever-widening market niche that industrial meat's declining reputation would eventually make for more naturally raised beef like his.

"I wish I could say I had a vision for all of this, but I really didn't," he says. "We really just crawled along an inch at a time. We never set out to convert anyone. Our attitude was, 'If you agree with us, come along for the ride.' " As it happened, his timing was fortuitous. In the late '60s and early '70s, Berkeley was all about flower power. But by the late '70s, it was all about food. There was Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, Jeremiah Tower at Stars in San Francisco and Margaret Fox at Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino--his first restaurant account. Admiring Niman's refusal to feed cattle growth hormones and antibiotics to hasten their fattening, all became customers. Also strictly barred are animal byproducts, such as chicken-feather meal.

Niman says today that he didn't appreciate the growing stature of those first chefs at the time. "I just dealt with them as regular folk and they dealt with me as regular folk. They were the culinary giants of the industry. I'm glad I didn't know that at the time. It would have been intimidating."

The fact is that most cows (and pigs and sheep) these days are anything but happy, and it didn't take Stephen King to conjure the image of the common beef steer as a hidebound cargo container of chemicals and byproducts standing on four hoofs. The past year has seen at least two high-impact salvos that have inspired a lot of inveterate carnivores to start reaching for the tofu burgers. First came the bestseller "Fast Food Nation," and next was the recent New York Times Magazine article by Michael Pollan, documenting in visceral detail the lurid banquet of hormones, antibiotics and animal products force-fed to cattle in the beef industry's quest to fatten them at an unnatural pace. Suddenly, concern about meat quality was no longer limited to health food nuts, and worries about the treatment of feedstock gained interest beyond circles of animal-rights activists.

With his droopy mustache, rangy frame and salt-and-pepper hair, Niman can, in a certain light, resemble Marin County's answer to Marshal Dillon--or better yet, the cattle industry's. Donning horn-rimmed glasses, though, he takes on the aspect of a history professor. He is soft-spoken, congenial and deferential, but belying this is an indisputable streak of ambition, one that's aimed more toward influencing agricultural practices than financial success.

Niman is emerging as one of the country's leading voices in animal husbandry, and it's a position he relishes. He was the first rancher to adopt the Animal Welfare Institute's stringent but admirable standards for raising pigs, which he extends to all 210 pig farmers who supply Niman Ranch pork. "Without Niman Ranch, our standards would only be theoretical," says Diane Halverson of the institute. "Bill brought them to the real world, consumers responded, and others are following suit."

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