January 10 2013

Cultivating Change: An Interview with Nicolette Hahn Niman of Niman Ranch

Written by  Lauren Ketcham & Nicolette Hahn Niman
Cultivating Change: An Interview with Nicolette Hahn Niman of Niman Ranch Photo courtesy of Nicolette Hahn Niman & The Ohio Ecological Food & Farming Association

Attorney, rancher and author Nicolette Hahn Niman will be the featured keynote speaker at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association's (OEFFA) 34th annual conference, "Growing Opportunities, Cultivating Change". She is the author of Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms, which chronicles the problems with the concentration of livestock and poultry and her work to reform animal agriculture as the senior attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance. Today, she lives in Bolinas California, with her husband Bill Niman, the founder of Niman Ranch, a natural meat cooperative supplied by 700 farmers and ranchers. Her keynote address is titled, "Eating as We Farm (And Farming as We Eat)" and takes place Sunday, February 17 at 2:45pm.

Hahn Niman will speak as part of the state's largest sustainable food and farm conference, an event that draws more than 1,100 attendees from across Ohio and the Midwest. In addition to Hahn Niman, this year's conference will feature keynote speaker George Siemon on Saturday, February 16; more than 90 educational workshops; two featured pre-conference events on Friday, February 15; a trade show; a fun and educational kids' conference and child care area; locally-sourced and organic homemade meals; and Saturday evening entertainment. For more information about the conference, or to register, go to www.oeffa.org/2013.

Describe your transition from living in New York City and working as an environmental lawyer reforming the concentrated livestock industry to ranching in rural California.

I absolutely loved working in New York as an environmental lawyer to reform the industrial livestock sector. So when I married Bill Niman and moved to California, I expected to continue it. To my surprise, however, the longer I lived here, the more I felt drawn to the ranch. I didn't want to be on the ranch and not fully understand how it functioned. I began by assisting our ranch manager on a daily basis. I found deep satisfaction in taking care of the animals, learning how to steward land as a working landscape, and being outdoors, doing physical labor. Often, I am working side-by-side with my husband, which sometimes can be stressful, but is usually a lot of fun.


Describe the difference between the way animals are raised at Niman Ranch, compared to what you saw working at the Waterkeeper Alliance.

While working as an environmental lawyer for Waterkeeper Alliance I toured concentrated pig, dairy and poultry operations and saw hundreds more from the outside as well as in videos. They keep large numbers of animals continually confined in crowded buildings. They cause pollution and odor, from festering manure piles and lagoons. I always found it depressing to be in and around industrial animals operations. In contrast, visiting the farms of Niman Ranch was pure joy. Niman Ranch is a collective of over 700 farmers and ranchers who all follow traditional animal husbandry practices. My husband, Bill Niman, is the company's founder and former CEO. On the farms and ranches of Niman Ranch, as well as on our own California ranch, animals are allowed to graze, root, and roam, breath fresh air and exercise. They are fed natural, drug-free diets, and stay healthy by virtue of their high quality living environments. These traditional farms preserve natural resources and enhance communities, which is what an agricultural operation should do.

What made you want to write Righteous Porkchop?

When Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. hired me in 2000 as the senior attorney for Waterkeeper, I knew almost nothing about the industrial livestock sector and its pollution and social problems. I soon realized that most Americans were living in a similar ignorance. In writing Righteous Porkchop I aimed to share what I'd learned about how food is really being produced in the United States today. Equally important, I wanted to make the case that collectively we can choose to create a much more environmentally sustainable, ethical and humane way of producing our food.

What are your biggest concerns about conventional livestock production?

My concerns are manifold. But to state them briefly, the current way of raising animals is environmentally unsustainable and inhumane. Animals are continually kept in large, highly concentrated confinement operations that are energy and water intensive, pollute water and air, and rob millions of animals of the pleasures to which every living creature is entitled. They also produce uninteresting meat that is much more likely to be contaminated with antibiotic resistant bacteria and drug and chemical residues.

Why do you think consumers are increasingly seeking out sustainably and humanely raised meat?

Thankfully, consumers are becoming much more aware of what's wrong with industrialized animal production and are seeking out foods they know something about and can feel good about eating. If the farms producing your food are not places you'd want to visit, something's wrong. I've always believed that the greatest potential agent for massive change in our food system is for consumers to simply begin asking grocers and restaurants: "Where is this from and how was this raised?"

How do you reconcile being a vegetarian with raising livestock for a living?

Well, I'm fairly sure I'm one of the few vegetarian ranchers in America. I became a vegetarian 25 years ago, long before getting involved in ranching or advocating for food system reform. I never believed that it was morally wrong to raise animals for food because, to me, a person who'd grown up roaming fields and forests and majored in biology in college, humans are part of a complex web of plants and animals that sustain one another. Now that I'm directly involved in raising animals for food the importance that animals can play in the food system is even clearer. I've learned that animals are essential to sustainable farms, which don't rely on fossil fuels and chemicals. Animals can increase soil fertility, contribute to pest and weed control and convert vegetation that's inedible to humans, and growing on marginal, uncultivated land, into food. I've stuck with my own diet of several decades but I strongly support the presence of animals in our food system—especially as we envision a future farming that does not rely on fossil fuels.

What do you think the biggest obstacle is to reforming the concentrated livestock industry?

Money in the political system is an enormous barrier. The combined political clout of drug companies, chemical companies and agribusiness corporations is huge. However, this obstacle is not insurmountable. Farmers, chefs, consumers and others are collectively moving the food system in a different direction by creating and demanding food that is delicious, fresh, healthful and responsibly produced. Despite the enormous political challenges, I am optimistic about the future of food and farming.

What do you say to critics who charge that natural and organic meat costs too much?

There is no denying that meat from non-industrial sources tends to cost more. Yet the truth is we cannot afford the "cheap meat" from industrial operations. Why? Because industrial animal operations are and have always been dependent on the model of externalizing their costs—passing on their costs of production to others. A good example of this is the way they deal with their wastes. Although every industry in America is required to dispose of its waste in such a way that it does not contaminate water, soil or air, concentrated animal operations have essential dumped their wastes—unregulated—into the environment for decades, leading to water, air and soil pollution on a massive scale. This is in spite of the fact that the Clean Water Act expressly covers Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). As Waterkeeper's senior attorney, my job was to get industrial animal operations to finally bear their true production costs. This battle continues. The point is that while industrial facilities produce meat that has a low cost at the grocery store they are costly to us all.

What can people do who care about livestock and animal agriculture issues?

All of us have at least two ways to change the food system: as consumers and as citizens. As citizens, we can demand that our elected representatives take an interest in the healthfulness, environmental sustainability and humaneness of our food system. At a minimum, every Congressperson and Senator should be urged to support the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which would ban the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics at livestock and poultry operations, as the European Union did years ago. The greater impact we can have is as consumers. Each of us chooses food several times a day. We need to buy foods that are produced from the kinds of farming systems we want to support. When this idea takes hold, the impact will be enormous.

What are you going to talk about during your OEFFA keynote address on Sunday, February 17?

My talk will make connections between the way America farms and the way we eat and show the parallels between the problems in farming and problems related to food. It will connect a lot of dots—hopefully in a new way.

What do you see for the future of animal agriculture and the meat industry?

As I said, despite the huge environmental, health and social problems related to our food and farming systems I am truly optimistic about the future. My hopefulness comes largely from the people I've met all over the country—young farmers, chefs, school lunch activists, urban farmers and on and on—who are bringing a vibrant new energy to food and farming. They are re-making our food system for the better, one community at a time.

Read 1127 times Last modified on January 10 2013



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