Don’t you dread hearing the latest about American agriculture? It seems like it’s all bad news – sad news you feel powerless to change and would just as soon ignore. Sigh.
Not so fast: I just devoured a book that gave me more hope about the future of American farming than anything I’ve read in years. It’s called The Niman Ranch Cookbook: From Farm to Table with America’s Finest Meat (Ten Speed Press, 2005), and it’s written by Bill Niman, the founder of Niman Ranch – a sort of next-level grower’s collective – along with noted cookbook author Janet Fletcher. The first half of the book is a clear and quick explanation of both conventional contemporary meat practices and, inspiringly, the real-world family-farm alternative. The second half is all beef and pork recipes, contributed by various chefs, many of whom are among the most famous in America.
I learned so much from this book. For instance, did you know that pigs can winter outdoors? Even in places with bitter snow, like Iowa and Minnesota? I had no idea. They build nests of straw and regulate their body temperature with a layer of fat beneath their skin, kind of like whales. But that’s only if they’re old-fashioned pigs and not the new industry-bred kind that have almost no fat. Industrial pigs can only live in human-built buildings with heat and air conditioning.
I also didn’t know that in traditional family farming, pigs are a critical component of crop rotation: After you grow corn or something else that sucks a lot of nutrients out of the land, you plant a cover crop of, say, winter rye to fix the soil in place, and then next year your pigs use it as pasture. They eat whatever grows there, be it weed or cover crop, and from this (and their grain feed) they produce plenty of healthy manure, which they then grind into the soil with their feet over the course of the year, thereby returning the soil to a robust state of health and fertility.
Of course, I knew all about the bad side of corporate agribusiness: I had heard about the industrial animal feed laced with subtherapeutic antibiotics (blamed for contributing to antibiotic-resistant superbugs in human hospitals) and hormones (used to plump up animals faster, but implicated by some scientists as causing low sperm counts in men and early onset puberty in girls).
I knew about the reeking manure lagoons (which regularly leak or overflow, creating toxic brown-fields and fish-killing water pollution). I’d heard rumor of terrible-tasting meat produced by pigs forced to live on metal grids suspended over their own waste (the stench of which is effectively absorbed back into their flesh).
Given the increasing prevalence of all this bad news in recent years, I suspect that a great many health-conscious but meat-loving Americans have begun to feel that their only options were to go vegetarian (no BLTs!) or to choose ignorance. It’s people like these who will have their hearts lifted by learning about the economic hope of a system like Niman Ranch.
Here, briefly summarized, is how that system works: Farmers who join the collective agree to abide by the Niman Ranch standards for quality, land care and animal-husbandry practices. In return, they get a guaranteed floor price per animal in bad times, with room for big profit during strong markets. This allows them to run viable farming and ranching businesses without having to succumb to industrial methods or sell out to irresponsible agribusiness giants.
The system is explained in greater detail in the book, which – for anyone who has ever felt crushing despair about contemporary farm economics – comes across like a beautiful ray of sunshine and hope. Niman, the visionary behind Niman Ranch, says he wrote the book because so few home cooks currently have access to good information about the meat they buy. And when I interviewed him for this story, he spoke passionately about the need for more and better food education.
“The prevailing wisdom in the food industry today,” he told me, “is, ‘Just eat it.’ Most livestock operations now are ringed by two chain-link and barbed-wire fences, one for biosecurity, and one to keep out photographers and journalists. The idea that you can’t go visit the places that grow and process the food you eat is obscene to me.”
What they’re hiding, asserts Niman, is the fact that the whole meat industry is inherently dangerous: “It’s dangerous for the people eating it,” he says, “for the people producing it, and for the watershed and the soil. And most of it doesn’t even taste good!” It is cheap, Niman acknowledges. Or rather, it’s cheap today. “Unfortunately,” he explains, “the actual cost of this industrial food will be borne by future generations, who will have to pay for the clean-up of the water pollution, and who are going to have to deal with the virulent and antibiotic-resistant bacteria that come out of industrial livestock operations.”
That sounds like more bad news. But happily, it doesn’t have to be this way. If enough of us demand higher-quality, more sustainable foods, instead of taking the easier, but far less healthy, path of food ignorance, we can still respect our burgers, roasts and BLTs – and eat them, too.