These Turkeys CAN Fly!
On the BN Ranch in Bolinas, California, Bill Niman raises beef cattle and, more recently, Heritage turkeys. Originally the founder of the renowned Niman Ranch, which he sold in 2007, Niman’s humanely raised, grass-fed meat has been a favorite of top chefs from Alice Waters to Dan Barber. His new website, bnranchtotable.com, offers home cooks access to heritage turkeys for the first time. We spoke to Niman about sustainability, animal welfare and where we need to go with food production in the future.
How did you get started in the meat biz?
I was a farmer and I had a bunch of cattle. In 1984 there was a dairy buyout—the government wanted to reduce surplus of dairy products in the market. The consequences were devastating.
At that point, we decided to go into ranching. We had some early success with cattle, selling directly to consumers. San Francisco, at that time, was the epicenter of gourmet cooking. Chefs like Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower became customers, I delivered to them myself. They told me how to cut it the meat and I did it for them. I was fortunate to have them as mentors.
Why grass fed?
There are many advantages: it’s far better for the environment. Cattle are experts at eating cellulose products. Here’s a frightening statistic: 55 percent of the farmland in the US is planted in grain and seed protein to feed to livestock! Topsoil is being destroyed when it doesn’t need to be. If we could just return to the grass model, it keeps the topsoil, requires a lot less mechanical planting, the animals have a better life and their meat is more nutritious and wholesome for people who eat it.
Why is sustainability important to you?
We all have an obligation to contribute in a positive way to future generations. As a parent [two boys, ages 4.5 years, and 4.5 months, with wife Nicolette] I feel compelled to leave the part of the planet I’m stewarding in a better place than I found it. Having children—I’m a late bloomer!—certainly changed me.
Why is it so important for food production to be environmentally sustainable?
If we want to survive as a species, the current food production model is so energy dependent, it can’t last. Topsoil is being lost at an incredible rate per year. We’re not going to be able to feed ourselves so we’d better figure something out to change that. I want to show how it can be done. A couple of years ago, no one was talking about food production, now everyone is.
In 2007, when I left Neiman Ranch, Inc., my wife and I decided we wanted diversity on the farm. It made sense to have turkeys, which are the opposite season of the beef.
Heritage turkeys are what the ancestors of the modern turkey looks like: they can fly and they can breed naturally. They do all sorts of things turkeys do in nature—and they taste better. Modern white turkeys are selected for the amount of white meat they have and how quickly they can grow. They don’t have personality, they’re not curious.
It’s like managing a herd of depressed animals that are comatose. Heritage turkeys are much hardier, their mortality and morbidity is much lower. Vim, vigor and vitality is much more present. The real challenge and the most interesting part is the breeding. Controlling that from conception to plate is essential.
It can be confusing to find clean, unadulterated meat these days. Aside from standard factory-farmed meat, there is “natural,” “antibiotic-free,” “hormone-free,” “vegetarian-fed” and “organic,” to name a few. What are the most important things meat-eaters need to be aware of when trying to figure out what kind of meat to buy?
The food industry is doing its best to confuse consumers with every moniker. Everybody should try and put a face on who’s raising the food. One of the nice things about farmers’ markets is that you can look the guy in the eye and ask them questions. If you get to know your farmer and rancher, you can build trust with them and establish they are selling what they say they are selling.
Everyone should do a qualitative analysis on what they put in their mouths these days: where does it come from, how was it raised and is it safe to feed our children? Identify what is important to you: Is it food safety? Animal welfare? Are the animals raised outdoors? Very few animals are raised outdoors these days. It’s cheaper for the producers not to do it that way. The animals are being tortured so that we can eat them cheaper.
Is it true that your wife, Nicolette, is a vegetarian?
She’s not opposed to people eating meat, she just chooses not to. [Nicolette Hahn Niman, an environmental lawyer, is the author of two books: Righteous Pork Chop (Collins Living) and not-yet-published new book, Defending Beef.]
After all this time, why launch an online store?
All the fresh turkeys in US have been dead for 30 days and more. Ours are just processed yesterday. They are fresh, not frozen. They have more of a turkey flavor, no GMO in the feed—like animals used to be and should be.Tags: local, sustainable