For many who are familiar with Bill Niman’s efforts to reform how the country’s beef, pork and poultry industries treat their most prized stock, Thursday may have seemed like a sad day.
But to hear Niman tell it, the sale of BN Ranch to the blue-ribbon pre-packaged meal service Blue Apron culminates a journey to his life’s dream. As a member of Blue Apron’s staff, he’ll be able to continue influencing the way America raises the animals it counts on for food.
BN Ranch has actually been a part of Blue Apron since February. The company, whose share in the prepared food shipment industry is estimated at $5 million, started buying beef and poultry from BN Ranch a couple of years ago; the ranch's ethical meat offered an added plus to Blue Apron customers who pay about $60 for three pre-packaged, ready-to-make meals on a weekly meal plan. Selling BN Ranch, which included cattle raised in New Zealand, was perhaps a natural progression for the relationship.
But it’s also a step that comes with some unfortunate past lessons. Niman and his then-partner Orville Schell (well known for his books and articles on China), acquired a reputation in the 1970s and '80s for humanely-raised pork, something hard to source for restaurants offering local farm-to-table cuisine in the Northern California area.
Soon Niman’s first venture, Niman Ranch, was getting calls from restauranteurs in California’s exclusive wine country and beyond. Those successes led to bigger commercial breaks and eventually to a contract with Chipotle, which featured Niman Ranch’s logo on its menus.
By the early 2000s, however, things were beginning to change. Niman discovered that the company was hemorrhaging at a clip of about $3 million a year (now believed to be the result of a company executive who reportedly embezzled funds). To stay afloat, Niman allowed Natural Food Holdings (NFH) to invest in the company and in 2006, when NFH took a controlling stake in the operations (and how the animals were raised, according to the ranch’s founder), Niman left.
“I left Niman Ranch because it fell into the hands of conventional meat and marketing guys as opposed to ranching guys," Niman told BusinessInsider in 2014. “You can't really ferret out how [the animals] are being raised.”
NFH flatly denies that it uses conventional feedlots or has changed the way animals are handled. Still, for Niman, the sale represented an unacceptable divergence from where he started.
He returned to his ranch in Bolinas, California, to concentrate on raising cattle and poultry, and it wasn’t long before more opportunities began to emerge. His reputation for pasture-centric animal farming and dedication to ensuring humane treatment “from womb to tomb,” as he phrased it, earned Niman a celebrity status among California wine country’s boutique restaurants, where startup entrepreneurs like Mike Wadiak, founder of Blue Apron, would turn up.
The meeting led to more meetings, trips around North America, Australasia and Oceania and eventually new ventures. It also meant new, expanded opportunities for both entrepreneurs.
For Blue Apron, the purchase of BN Ranch will secure an opportunity to continue its line of grass-fed and grass-finished beef characteristic of the Niman line. For Niman, it means a greater voice in policies and approaches in how cattle, chickens, turkeys and hogs are raised.
It also means more opportunity to teach a new age of consumers that humane animal rearing is possible, profitable and worthwhile. In the early days, chefs swore by Niman’s method of animal rearing, saying they could actually taste the difference in meat that came from humanely-raised animals. And their customers did, too.
Yes, it’s a bit of a shame that Niman is leaving BN Ranch. His work embodies a credo that many (including those who consider themselves vegetarian or vegan) adhere to in this day and age: that the food we buy is only as good as the ethical investment we put into its own welfare. We owe Bill Niman thanks for reinforcing that point.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.