The unlikely cowgirl

Author, lawyer, rancher and vegetarian Nicolette Hahn Niman squares off with meat industry

At first glance, Nicolette Hahn Niman is a walking contradiction.

A vegetarian from Michigan and former high-powered environmental lawyer who launched crusades against the U.S. meat industry, she's now married to the founder of Niman Ranch, the Bay Area's pioneering natural-beef purveyor, and has become a cattle rancher who passionately defends the production and consumption of beef.

But a closer look reveals an unwavering commitment to her original career crusade: working at the intersection of public health, food and the environment to fight for a more just and sustainable meat industry.

Hahn Niman will be speaking in Mountain View as part of a Peninsula Open Space Trust lecture series on Monday, April 28, about her experiences and the host of issues surrounding industrial meat production, all of which is encapsulated in a book she wrote in 2010 titled "Righteous Porkchop: Finding A Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms," and a second one in the works called "Defending Beef."

"Righteous Porkchop" (originally written under the working title "The Unlikely Cowgirl") is one part personal memoir and one part detailed expose on the dark evolution of America's pork, poultry, dairy and beef industries. The book follows Hahn Niman's own discovery of these industries' darkest practices after she took a job with Waterkeeper Alliance, a water-preservation organization led by Robert Kennedy, Jr., (who also penned the foreword to her book).

Hahn Niman joined Waterkeeper's legal team as senior attorney in 2000 and for the next two years became totally enveloped in the organization's fight against factory meat farms -- particularly hog farms whose waste-management practices create huge amounts of pollution, posing significant harm to water, animals, people and communities in the surrounding areas.

In "Righteous Porkchop," Hahn Niman brings readers on tours of North Carolina communities that are home to factory farms, which keep pigs crowded together and confined for their entire lives. She describes "barracks" in which pigs stand indoors at all times over slatted floors where their manure and urine collects until it's combined with water and pushed out into large, open-air storage ponds known as manure lagoons. The waste is pumped into surrounding farmland, and evaporated pollutants get into local rivers and water sources. The practice creates a permanent smell that not only permeates houses and laundry hanging outdoors, but has dangerous health impacts. She cites Environmental Protection Agency documents that show nationwide, 1.5 billion pounds of nitrogen from manure lagoons and another 880 million pounds of nitrogen from liquefied manure spread on land and ends up in surface water after first evaporating into the air. Hog operations also emit 70,000 tons of hydrogen sulfide gas, 296,000 tons of methane and 127,000 tons of carbon dioxide every year.

"I'd now had my first up-close glimpse of our modern, industrial food system, and I didn't like what I was seeing," Hahn Niman writes. "I was witnessing how corporations have been quietly but radically altering how our food is produced."

Since then, she has committed herself to reversing this massive industry shift.

"... my raison d'etre became remaking the modern food system," she writes.

During her time with Waterkeeper, she filed numerous major lawsuits against big agribusiness companies that were violating anti-pollution laws and organized national "hog summits" to raise awareness about best practices and reform in the meat and farming industries.

She said she wrote "Righteous Porkchop" in part because she, like many Americans, was previously blissfully unaware of the way the food she ate was being produced. (Though she did make the decision to cut out meat from her diet well before her first-hand exposure to factory farming, while a biology major in college.)

"When I started working on it, I was always so shocked by the situation, and then I was also shocked that I didn't know about it," she said. "And then I was continually reminded of that by my conversations I was having with ordinary people that weren't involved in that field -- whether it was my family or friends or whatever, I would describe what I was working on and they just kept saying, 'What? That doesn't seem possible. All of my bacon is raised that way?' So that's when I decided I had to write that book because I just really realized that a big part of the problem was that people didn't understand how their food was being produced."

The book is a heavy condemnation of the meat industry, but Hahn Niman, even as a vegetarian, does not argue for a total rejection of meat. Rather, she advocates for the sustainable, return-to-roots best practices exemplified by a select few meat farms across the nation.

One of these farms is Niman Ranch, started by natural-meat pioneer Bill Niman in Northern California in the 1970s. Niman Ranch disrupted industry norms, then and now, by raising livestock humanely, outdoors as much as possible, strictly on grass until they're fully matured. Right before slaughter, they're fed all-natural grain. This model produces meat that quickly became highly regarded for its superior flavor and quality.

Today, restaurants as high-end as Chez Panisse and as low-brow as Chipotle use Niman Ranch beef, pork and lamb, being sure to point out its origin on their menus.

She encountered Bill Niman infrequently during her time at Waterkeeper, but was well-aware of his existence as the "rare golden child in a meat industry riddled with bad boys," she writes. Their courtship begins with him eventually asking her to have dinner one night in New York City (with Hahn Niman admitting her meatless ways, something she avoided in other interactions with meat purveyors). Coinciding with leadership changes at Waterkeeper, Hahn Niman soon decided to end her high-powered legal career and move with Bill to the original Niman Ranch in Bolinas, a small town just up the coast from San Francisco.

The couple currently lives in a very modest house on the picturesque 1,000-acre property with rolling green hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean with their two young sons, two Great Danes and a herd of breeding cattle and turkeys. (The ranch has been known as "BN Ranch" since 2007, when Bill severed all ties with the original company after changes in leadership impacted the cattle-raising process.)

Hahn Niman's new husband and home introduced her to the intricacies, both good and bad, of the beef industry. All-things-beef became the topic of her forthcoming book, "Defending Beef," to be published this October.

The book aims to debunk widely held beliefs about cows from both environmental and consumer perspectives, she said.

"A lot of what my book is arguing is that there's this idea now that's been so embedded in the modern environmental ethic that animals in the landscape are damaging," Hahn Niman said. Cattle are criticized for contributing to global warming because they cause methane, for depleting water supplies and overgrazing, which is associated with erosion and land degradation.

"The idea is that if you actually manage them appropriately, and especially if you try to mimic the way the wild animal herds functioned, then you can actually keep a landscape more as it would have been in its natural state before humans came, better than any other way. There's no better way to do that," she said. "So rather than thinking of cattle as environmental destroyers, you can think of them as the best way to maintain the ecosystem that's intended to be here."

She also writes in "Righteous Porkchop" that "even the worst aspects of modern cattle raising are less troubling than the daily norm at industrial poultry, hog, and dairy operations," though many think of beef as the most problematic. Cattle have traditionally spent much of their time outdoors on spacious grassland, much more in touch with nature than most pigs or chickens.

Hahn Niman also advocates for a re-thinking of red meat, widely stigmatized for its high-fat content and disease-causing impacts.

"It's become so entrenched in the medical and public health community to think of these things as bad, that the only time you'll ever see the words red meat, ever, in a public health or medical pamphlet is 'limit your consumption of,'" she said.

But she argues -- as an increasing number of people from public health communities have, too -- that saturated fats shouldn't be condemned, and eating them in moderation can be good for you.

The anti-fat, anti-meat arguments also might ring true with mass-produced meat from livestock raised in inhumane conditions, but Hahn Niman said it shouldn't apply if the animals are raised properly.

"The whole way that we raise (animals) increasingly has nothing to do with how they're meant to live, what they're meant to eat, what they're meant to do every day," she said. "So when you take the food from those animals, whether it's the eggs or milk or their meat, those foods are not going to be the same foods they would have been."

Though the meat industry is slow to reform, Hahn Niman said the best thing consumers can do is question where their meat is coming from -- and with the local abundance of farmer's markets, the rise of farm-to-table restaurants and a broader awareness about the food we eat, there's no place easier to do that than the Bay Area.

"To my fellow humans, I make the following plea: Do not thoughtlessly eat foods from animals," she writes in "Righteous Porkchop." "Know the source. Question the methods. There is great power is posing the following simple question to grocery stores, restaurants and farmers: 'How was this raised?'"

--- --- ---

If you're going...

What: Nicolette Hahn Niman discussing her two books, "Righteous Porkshop: Finding A Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms" and "Defending Beef"

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View

When: Monday, April 28, at 8 p.m.

Cost: $22; call 650-903-6000 or go to www.mvcpa.com

Info: www.openspacetrust.org


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