Bill Niman is something of a celebrity in the restaurant world. “He’s such a rock star,” one female maitre d’ sighed to me a few months ago. Not a term you would usually hear used to describe a pig farmerbut it’s true. Niman and his company, Niman Ranch, have almost single-handedly changed the face of the meat trade for consumers in America. They have also changed it for many farmers, and North Carolina farmers are among those who are benefiting.

Niman prides himself on having set the bar of excellence and trustworthiness when it comes to natural and humane meat production in America. If you are buying Niman Ranch meat, you can be sure the animal you are eating was humanely treated and slaughtered, that it was pasture-raised and lived outdoors in a traditional farm setting, and that it was not fed growth hormones or antibiotics.

This goes against everything taking place in 95 percent of the meat industry in the United States today, but it is not a new way of farming. Much of the meat sold under the Niman Ranch umbrella is raised by farmers who never stopped farming in the traditional way, who never had the money or the heart to convert their family farms into factory farms. Now, Niman Ranch is giving those family farms a way to get their product to a national market.

Niman began his own farming efforts over 30 years ago in Marin County, Calif., just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. By the mid-1990s he had developed a reputation with a number of chefs in the Bay Area for producing high quality, humane beef. It was in 1994 that he met Paul Willis, a pork farmer from Iowa who had a large operation raising all-natural pork. With Niman’s restaurant connections and Willis’ capacity to produce, Niman Ranch was born as a national distribution company. This endeavor went so well that, before long, the demand was far greater than what Willis’ Iowa farm alone could produce.

Restaurants around the country had begun to recognize the superior quality and taste of meat that was raised naturally and without the use of hormones. But at a time when the local and sustainable movement was growing and more chefs were trying to use natural, fresh produce, natural meat was harder to come by. Niman and his pork were like a breath of fresh air to these buyers, because he was more passionate about the principals of raising natural meat than anyoneand had a reliable supply. It wasn’t long before the Niman name became synonymous with quality, natural pork.

At the same time that Niman was selling his pork quicker than Willis could produce it, family farms that produced meat traditionally were struggling. Niman Ranch began recruiting these family farmers to raise meat to be sold under the Niman Ranch name, with the same standards of natural farming and humane treatment. There are now over 500 family farms around the country raising meat for Niman Ranch, and these farmers own almost half of the company.

“With our practices, you can be an entry-level farmer,” Niman says. “You don’t need nearly as much capital, because you don’t have to build a factory.” It is with this in mind that he hopes the tide will slowly turn in the direction of more natural farming. He is not as concerned with whether this change takes place under the Niman name. “If we get crushed by a bunch of small entrepreneurs who can do it cheaper or better than us, I’ll feel like I’ve done my job just getting the ball rolling. I’ll be happy.”

In North Carolina, the number of farmers who are benefiting from being a part of Niman Ranch is growing, too. North Carolina now produces just under 10 percent of Niman Ranch pork on about 30 farms. These are farms that before becoming a part of Niman Ranch were selling at regular meat markets, competing with factory farms like Smithfield. “Many of these farms were selling to conventional markets and got no premiums for the fact that their pork was top quality,” Niman says. “They weren’t being compensated for the lower impact on the environment, or what the animals were eating. We are simply providing the opportunity for these producers to get to the markets that appreciate them, and to get them the premiums they deserve.”

These premiums add up, and while they are great for family farms, the higher prices are harder on the consumer. I asked Niman about this, wondering if he foresees a time when natural meats will be more affordable for lower-income consumers. “I don’t know,” he says, “but I will say that we use the whole animal, and the food value is equal, even if the dollar value is different for different parts of the animal. I would rather eat a great, healthful, natural hamburger than a factory-farm produced steak.” He also gives credit to restaurants that have decided to commit to natural meats. “These restaurants have to give up something when they decide to use our products, because they are more expensive and they can’t put all of those costs on their menu. There is a potential out-of-pocket cost for these restaurants that is significant.”

But for the restaurants that do use Niman Ranch products, the cost is offset by the fact that they can feel good about the taste, the quality and the origin of the meats they are serving. Ashley Christiansen of Enoteca Vin in Raleigh has had a relationship with Niman Ranch stretching back three years, when she contacted Niman about doing a special dinner to showcase his meats. The dinner was a huge success, and they have had one every year since. “One of our rules at Vin is that we are able to ask questions about where the food that we serve comes from,” Christiansen says. “With Niman, they can tell us everything about every aspect of their meat, from breeding to slaughter. And it is an incredibly superior product in terms of quality, not just in the way it was raised but also in terms of taste.”

Last week, Niman was in the Triangle to talk to the staffs at the Lucky 32 restaurants in Raleigh and Cary. Lucky 32 (and all Quaintance-Weaver restaurants in the area) are now using Niman Ranch beef and lamb in addition to the Niman Ranch pork they have been using for some time. Bart Ortiz, executive chef at Quaintance-Weaver, the parent company of the Lucky 32 restaurants, is also thrilled to have a distributor that can meet the demands of five restaurants in four cities, that has a values system their restaurants can feel good about, and that’s excited to help them get the message across to their staff and customers. “The Niman Ranch values system really fits in with ours like a hand and glove,” Ortiz says. “We are just really excited to be able to come together on this.”

For Niman, his business is about personal connectionswith the farmers that raise the animals he sells and with the restaurants that, in turn, represent Niman Ranch on their menus. His energy when he talks about Niman Ranch and the changes he is implementing in the meat industry is infectious. It is this enthusiasm coupled with his dedication to making personal contact with as many people in the chain from animal to table that has gotten Niman Ranch where it is today. Once you have had a conversation with Niman, you are unlikely to feel the same about the meat you consume. He hopes that by having these conversations, parts of his message will be passed on and more people will think harder about what they are buying and what they are eating.

Good meat

You can find Niman Ranch products at the following Triangle restaurants and retailers:

  • Bin 54 (a steakhouse soon to open in Chapel Hill)
  • EarthFare
  • Elaine’s on Franklin
  • Enoteca Vin
  • Lantern
  • Lucky 32
  • Starlu
  • Washington-Duke Inn
  • Whole Foods