For Niman Ranch, two definitions of 'sustainable'

  • Photo 1 of 5

    Food industry professionals tour a Niman Ranch farm in Thornton, Iowa.

    - Courtesy of Niman Ranch

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    Bill Niman with some of the cows he's raising on a grass-only diet, at the new BN Ranch.

    - Eve Troeh / Marketplace

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    Niman Ranch pigs are raised outside, with simple hoop sheds for shelter.

    - Amelia Levin, www.chicagoculinarian.com

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    Sows feed piglets, and live in natural groups.

    - Amelia Levin, www.chicagoculinarian.com

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    The white farm house in the background serves as the office for coordinating deliveries from hundreds of pig farmers.

    - Amelia Levin, www.chicagoculinarian.com

Bob Moon: How do you define "sustainability"? It can have two very distinct meanings in business. The first, as you might expect, is how much good or harm a company is doing to everyday human life and the environment. The second is simply, how long can it keep doing that? In other words, is the business sustainable?

Sometimes, out in the real world, those two goals -- being green and making enough green -- don't exactly get along. Marketplace's Eve Troeh has a case in point, from our Sustainability Desk.

Eve Troeh: Niman Ranch started when Bill Niman raised a few cows on a chunk of northern California coast.

Bill Niman: I guess I'd like to say my business plan was whoever called on the telephone.

Who called? Chefs from around the country -- crazy for his marbled meat.

Niman: The focus was really about creating a brand and creating the best tasting, most wholesome and wonderful food, and felt that eventually it would become profitable.

Today, Niman Ranch works with about 700 farmers. It sells beef, pork, lamb, chicken, eggs and prepared foods like bacon and hotdogs. If you see a proper name in front of the word "pork chop" on a menu, it's likely Niman Ranch.

About four years ago, Bill Niman felt too much tension between sustainability and profitability. He quit, about a year after Jeff Swain became CEO.

Jeff Swain: And I came in with some other investors to help inject capital and give it a chance to become financially sustainable.

Niman Ranch had never turned a profit. Now sales are strong. In fact, the company could sell a lot more meat.

Swain: Demand has outstripped supply for the last three years.

But Swain says the brand's value comes from its efforts to do good.

Swain: The tenets of our brand: Family farms, sustainable agricultural practices, the highest animal welfare, traceability and never, ever hormones or antibiotics. And that restricts our growth.

Every year, Niman Ranch brings investors, meat distributors, restaurant owners and chefs to one of its Iowa farms. They see how the pigs live: outside, rolling in the dirt.

The vice president of pork, John Peterson, shows them a map with hundreds of pushpins -- one for each farm. He explains how Niman Ranch coordinates transportation and processing, and why there might be hiccups in supply.

John Peterson: So I know that it's very frustrating at times, especially in the summer when we get short on pork. But think about the complexity of that operation, to try and get them all to the right place at the right time, from 500 different farms.

Many of those farmers are only raising pigs at all because of Niman Ranch incentives: 11 cents a pound above the pork commodity market.

At dusk, the city slickers all go for a hay ride. The tractor gets stuck in deep mud.

Man: Send the bus!

I walk back through tall prairie grass with Isaac Mogannam. His family owns a California chain called Burger Meister. He says they've had trouble getting Niman Ranch bacon in the past. Supply is secure now, but the family is adding more locations.

Isaac Mogannam: As we grow as a business, not to mention as Niman grows as a model, if they are going to be able to keep up with the demand, are they going to adhere to their husbandry principles?

Some clients wonder if the company principles match their customers' ever-shifting concerns. A meat distributor asks hog director Mark Lane whether the pig feed comes from genetically modified plants. Lane says, well, 90 percent of corn and soy crops are GMO.

Mark Lane: If we were going to go to a non-GMO product, that would move that production cost quite a bit higher.

Special feed would cost too much. Environmental and financial sustainability collide over issues like these. Companies can't afford to pursue every best practice. Niman Ranch has had to prioritize.

But the ranch founder, Bill Niman, says his former company has lost distinction.

Niman: I think in terms of comparison to the other natural brands out there, it's as good. It's not worse, it's not better.

He left Niman Ranch because he couldn't sign off on certain practices, like outsourcing butchering and animal transport. He admits that doing everything in-house was something dear to him that didn't necessarily add value for most consumers.

Niman: If the consumer in the marketplace is not going to reward you with a premium for this more expensive or controlled production model, then you better be like the other guys.

Bill Niman doesn't want to be like any other guys.

Niman: This calf was born this morning, probably weighs 65 or 70 pounds, which is ideal.

He's started a new company called BN Ranch, raising cattle with a new goal.

Niman: To prove that grass-fed can be every bit as good as the best grain-finished beef.

The less corn and soy animals eat, the better it is for the topsoil, he says. I ask if he's nervous about building this new company.

Niman: Well it needs to grow, and we're approaching some of the same thoughtful people that funded the startup of Niman Ranch because they know me and they know what I stand for, and they know what we're doing.

He doesn't know if he'll ever get the size or market share or success that Niman Ranch has today. But that's not his goal. He's restarted to test the limits of profit and passion.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.
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I will soon inherit the family farm in NW Oklahoma on which I was raised. Though I pursued a career in marketing (outside of the usually expected career in farming), those 480 acres on the home place remain very dear to me. I am seriously considering turning at least part of the pasture into a grass fed, organic beef farm...both because I think it is the right thing to do, and frankly, it tastes better and is better for you if you are going to eat steak. My problem is that there is no clear business model for this. The long-standing farmer/ranchers in the family merely laugh at me when I suggest that this is a direction that I would like to pursue, and say with great certainty that no one could afford the beef at the prices I would have to charge. I would love to hear from others who have tried this, and how they can make it at least marginally profitable.

Linda, Bill is just one of many folks in the U.S. who have embraced the grassfed approach. Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Georgia, and Will Kubitschek of 7 Springs Farm in Missouri spring to mind. Look at the American Grassfed Association website for listings by state: http://www.americangrassfed.org/

What an incredibly heartening story. Although I am vegan and would never consume one of his products, I am thrilled to hear that there is a Bill Niman on our planet. I believe that as people become educated about factory farming, more and more people will support his efforts and be willing to pay more to know the food on their plates was not the end product of animal torture.
Bill- I will be spreading information about you and your ranch to everyone I know, and encourage them to spread the word to everyone they know. Profit cannot be measured only in dollars, passion has a tremendous amount of value, and must be added into the equation when deciding the direction one takes in life. Bless!

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