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Jul 2, 2009 09:53 AM

Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman: Experts in Residence!

Nicolette Hahn Niman and Bill Niman are going to be in residence on Chowhound starting Monday, July 6, responding to questions and comments right here on this thread about sustainable agriculture and Nicolette's new book "Righteous Porkchop," and perhaps sharing a few cooking tips for goat! (Goat is what they're raising now, under the name BN Ranch.)

Nicolette Hahn Niman is a rancher, attorney, and writer. Much of her time is spent speaking and writing about the problems of industrialized livestock production, including the book "Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms" (HarperCollins, 2009). Previously, she was the senior attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance, where she was in charge of the organization's campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry; before that, she was an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation.

Bill Niman is a cattle rancher in Northern California, the proprietor of BN Ranch, and founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. He was a member of the Pew Foundation's National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released recommendations for reform of the nation's livestock industry in April 2008. In 2007, "Vanity Fair" featured him in its Green Issue and "Plenty" magazine selected him as among the nation's five leading "green entrepreneurs." Niman co-authored "The Niman Ranch Cookbook" (Ten Speed Press, 2005), which was selected as one of the year's best cookbooks by the "New York Times," "Newsweek," and the "San Jose Mercury News."

Start asking your questions: The Nimans will be checking in at least once a day from July 6 through July 10 to respond. Bill and Nicolette have lots of experience in food policy, sustainable agriculture, and ranching. Some ideas for what they might discuss:
-Is it possible to eat well and sustainably in a bad economy? How?
-How do I locate sustainably farmed meat, and how can I afford it?
-How do a vegetarian activist and a meat rancher eat together?

EDITED: adding a link to the Nimans' blog over on

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  1. Great opportunity- thanks to CH and the Nimans! Suggest you also post this on the Home Cooking board.

    1. Let's start by posting the following...

      The first link is to the first chapter of Righteous Porkchop. (aka The Divine Swine)

      1. I'm interested in knowing what is fed to the beef cattle? Also, which breeds of beef cattle are bred and fed, and how many head are annually raised to market weight? What weight do the cattle reach before they are ready to go to market?

        Thank you for your consideration of my questions.

        1 Reply
        1. re: ChiliDude

          Regarding feed. Generally, when cattle are on pasture, they are eating naturally occuring vegetation. From an environmental and human health perspective, well managed grazing is one of the most beneficial ways to produce food.

          However, when cattle are put in a feedlot or drylot, they will be fed a wide variety of things, depending on who is raising them and where they are located. (For example, in Nebraska, a lot of corn is fed whereas in Alberta, barley is used). Unfortunately, for conventionally raised cattle, not all of what's fed to cattle is stuff that most people would want in their food chain. In Nicolette's book Righteous Porkchop she gives lots of examples of some of the unsavory stuff used in cattle feed. It includes antibiotics, meat by-products, chicken feathers and urea. The main ingredients of cattle feed include grains, hay, and silage (usually that is fermented, chopped corn). By seeking out beef that is "naturally raised" consumers can avoid buying meat from cattle fed antibiotics and meat by products. By seeking out "grass fed beef" consumers can also avoid cattle fed grain. We do not believe that it's bad to feed some grain to cattle, but this must be done carefully to avoid various health problems in the animals.

          Regarding weights. The weights at slaughter vary greatly depending on who's raising them. Typical grain finished cattle go to slaughter at between 1050 LBS and 1400 LBS. The variation depends largely on the breeds in question as well as the gender and age of the animal. Most grass-fed beef goes to slaughter at a lighter weight.

        2. Is there enough difference between Angus and other typical beef cattle breeds to merit paying the exptra premium charged by supermarkets and restaurants, or is this a meaningless branding (no pun intended) ploy? If so, how does Angus differ?

          2 Replies
          1. re: greygarious

            The premium beef breed in France is Charolais. I know that these cattle are raised in the U.S., but have never seen them promoted.

            1. re: greygarious

              Bill and Nicolette Niman here again.

              The most important thing to know when purchasing beef is the way the animal was raised. How old it was at slaughter, what it was fed, and the enivronment it lived in are some of the important points to understand. Additionally, how it was handled when it "went to town" (at the slaughterhouse).

              There are breeds that have been selected over generations for one quality trait or another. What is known about Aberdeen Angus (Black Angus) and the other breeds of catle raised for meat that were developed over the last several hundred years in the UK, is that they were selected for one purpose -- how their meat ate. The breeding lines were not kept because of how much milk they produced, how big their calf was, or how large a plow they could pull. The primary criterion was how their flesh ate from a flavor and tenderness viewpoint.

              The Angus Beef Cattle breed association has done a great job of promoting (perhaps overpromoting) their breed as the standard of excellence. In my opinion, Hereford Beef (another British Breed) is the equal and the cross between the two breeds is the best. A good indication in the cattle industry of the relative value of Black Angus vs Herefrod is the price tag on the purebred bulls. For the first tim in many years Herefrod Bulls are more expensive than Angus. That confirms what cattlemen have known for a long time now and that is that there is now a lot of quality variation within the Angus Breed and what may appear to be an Black Angus is just a black version of other cattle that have not been carefully selected for eating quality rather for color and other insignificant factors that have nothing to do with eating quality.

            2. Back in the 1950s pork & specifically pork chops became my absolute favorite meat because my Dad grilled pork so well. Today I never buy pork because when I roast or fry or grill it, it always turns out dry and tasteless.

              My question is: Is Heritage Pork a throwback to the succulent meat of the 50s and 60s?

              Thank you for conducting these dialogues!

              7 Replies
              1. re: RedTop

                Bill Niman here.

                What makes great tasting pork, the way it used to be, is when pigs are raised outdoors. Pigs regulate body temperature utilizing a layer of backfat beneath their skin. They do not have sweat glands or fur coats. The backfat keeps them cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Oh, and by the way, it correlates directly with intermuscular succulence and flavor.

                The "other white meat" industry has done a great job of breeding the backfat out and creating a "lean generation" that didn't need to worry about staying warm because they lived their entire lives in climate controlled buildings. What the modern pork industry didn't concern themselves with is that backfat and intramuscular fat are essential to juiciness and flavor.

                Any pigs that get the chance to live outdoors and still have some of the traits necessary to survive the Minnesota winters will be reminiscient of that wonderful pork that many of us remember and seek. Most of the breeds that can still do that are considered heritage breeds because they can get fat and therefore taste great. Be careful, though, because if you put those pigs indoors and deprive them of a natural environment they quickly become "the other white meat" -- the dry and tasteless variety.

                1. re: NicoletteHN

                  Hi Bill. Thanks for your feedback. Is there any directory of "real pork" one can go to to get natural pig meat? The problem most people have in most parts of the country, is that they don't know where their meat is coming from. It is nice to say that people should be selective in their purchases of meat, and only buy "wholesome meat," i.e. meat that is certified organic, or direct from a farmer they trust, or is from a farmer's market. I do that most of the time, but tonight I was at Trader Joe's, and they were offering a really good price on a rib steak, and it was late, so I bought it.

                  I think there should be a labelling law instituted, which tells everyone where their food is coming from. A sticker on every fruit (they already do it in the banana and avocado industries), a way to trace where the food comes from. It would go a long way toward creating trust in the quality of the product, and would also give the government a way to track foodborn illnesses, hopefully in a way that would pinpoint contamination and not decimate whole industries with the ocassional farm's failures.

                  1. re: NicoletteHN

                    Thank you for your reply, Bill. I'm off to find a Michigan farmer, or two, that raise hogs in an outdoor environment.

                    1. re: RedTop

                      Nicolette Niman here this time.

                      Michigan has some excellent outdoor pig farms. I am from Michigan and Bill and I have visited about a half dozen traditional pig farms in Cass County. The pigs were running around on spacious pastures, grazing, raising their young outdoors, and fed only natural feeds. Some of those pig farmers are selling their hogs to Niman Ranch. Some sell their meat at the farmers market. Your local farmers market is a great place to start your search! Have fun!

                      1. re: NicoletteHN

                        I am in Vacaville, Solano County, California. Aren't you in Sonoma? I see many of your products at Nugget Market, but no pork chops! We have no pork in our farmer's market (but we can get lamb in Yolo!), I can try Vallejo farmer's market. Any other suggestions for "good 'ol pork" around here or Sacramento?

                        1. re: Shrinkrap

                          Shrinkwrap, unless the Nimans have decided on an encore, the question period has expired. A big thanks to them for sharing their expertise!