It’s a brisk winter day in Bolinas, a wind-swept coastal California hamlet north of San Francisco. Seated beside a roaring fire, in a home nestled on his BN Ranch, legendary livestock farmer Bill Niman, in jeans and fleece, is talking about burgers. And he’s getting a little worked up.
“I used to get pissed off,” Niman laughs, recalling some of the burgers of his past. “I’d eat the eight ounces of grain-finished* meat and then couldn’t function. That drowsy, full, hard-to-digest feeling just doesn’t happen with a grass-fed burger.”
Growing up the son of a Minneapolis grocer, the sight of grazing livestock was common for Niman. Driving the highways of Minnesota meant cruising past fields of free-ranging* cattle, chickens, and pigs. But over time, as farms pivoted toward ever greater size, concentration, and mechanization, American meat became a more industrialized product—relying on hormones to expedite growth, antibiotics to ward off sickness in crowded buildings, and questionable feeds, including slaughterhouse wastes, surplus candy, and even cardboard.
Niman came to California in the late ’60s to be a public school teacher and subsequently worked several years as a carpenter. But as he fell in with Bolinas’s off-the-grid community, the project of raising animals responsibly took hold. He threw himself into learning about poultry, pigs, goats, and, when he ended up with six calves after a barter with a neighbor, cattle. Soon locals were teaching him time-honored ranching wisdom, while acclaimed Bay Area chefs Alice Waters and Judy Rodgers extolled the results on the menus of their landmark restaurants, Chez Panisse and Zuni Cafe. Niman’s operation, premised on the radical idea of doing things the right way, gradually grew from a single ranch to a network of like-minded farms and ranches, eventually becoming a multi-million dollar enterprise called BN Ranch, which has just joined with Blue Apron. Along the way Niman himself has become known the world over for his passionate pursuit of well-raised, delicious meat. In the words of Men’s Journal, he is the Steve Jobs of meat.
“From the beginning, our mission was to create models that would influence others,” he says, throwing on his rubber boots. “The public has become much more aware of the dangers of hormones and over-use of antibiotics. Now, bringing ruminant agriculture* back to grass-fed in North America would be a similar victory.”
Niman heads out onto his ranch, the wet grass beneath his feet stretching clear to the Pacific. Long before European settlers arrived, this was a sprawling treeless grass buffet for great roaming herds of elk. To Niman, these grassy areas are part of a nearly magical system in which ranging beasts transform the sun’s energy, captured in grass, into flesh.
“Cattle convert stuff we can’t survive on into one of the most nutritious and delicious foods humans can eat,” he says. “I’m not going to say it’s a miracle but…”
He trails off. A shoulder-high calf is nibbling a tuft of grass in front of him. “Look at this one,” he says. “Perfect little heifer calf.”
To the untrained eye the little heifer calf looks no more or less perfect than any of the others. But to Niman the doe-eyed creature represents a singular triumph. No government-subsidized feed was necessary to keep this animal healthy and robust through winter—it was thriving in the way it was born to, free ranging and foraging its diet from natural vegetation, and subverting one of the country’s most entrenched agricultural follies in the process.
When it comes to cattle, the assorted advantages of grass-fed over grain-fed are numerous: Well-managed grazing protects water, creates healthy soils, can sequester carbon* and gives the animals a happier life, too. “An animal should have only one bad day on a farm,” Niman likes to say.
More importantly, happy and healthy animals translate to better meat: juicy but not greasy, a cleaner mouthfeel and a richer, beefier taste. But not all grass-fed is created equal, Niman is quick to point out. Breed matters. And good beef must come from an animal that’s been allowed to mature. “A lot of people nowadays think tenderness trumps everything, but flavor comes with age,” he says. “There’s an adage on the farm: ‘Old hens make the best soup.’ It’s the same reason veal, while tender, is something you have to put sauce on for flavor.”
The lower fat profile that tends to accompany grass-fed requires a somewhat different approach at the stove. From there the improvement is striking. “Anybody who’s been around the world and tasted great beef—in Argentina and the Australian island of Tasmania, for example, where grass-fed is common—is always struck by the difference,” Niman says. “And once you have it, it’s hard to go back. During times of year when our grass-fed would be unavailable, we assumed our customers would just buy grain-finished. But they walked out of the store instead.”
To Niman, grass-fed isn’t just win-win—it’s too many wins to count, for the cattle themselves, for the steaks on our plates, for large tracts of open space throughout the country, for the precious top soil, and for the oceanfront grassland around him.
“I just can’t imagine a landscape without them,” he says, gesturing out at his quietly foraging cattle, descendants in some cases of those very first six calves. “We’re blessed with a moment of history when we are stewards of this land. It’s a great responsibility, and we’re always cognizant of that.”
At the sound of his familiar voice a mother cow lifts her head from some leafy brush. She may or may not take in the ocean views, then returns studiously to the lunch Niman has provided.