Righteous Porkchop: Vegetarian Rancher Explains How to Raise Animals the Right Way and the Ills of Factory Farms

It's not easy to debate the nuances of eating meat with vegans or dedicated carnivores, who tend to see the issue in black or white terms -- either you do or you don't eat it. Most of us lie somewhere in between, and for those of us who are trying to change our habits, there's the approach of eating less that could come from animals raised more humanely and in more environmentally responsible ways than we've come to expect from industrial agriculture.

That's where Nicolette Hahn Niman comes in. In her new book, Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms, she describes the work she did as an attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., which has led the fight in taking on factory farms or CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) for their horrendous environmental impacts, particularly on waterways.

In the book Niman describes, not just what she uncovered about the environmental abuses from CAFOs, but also the miserable labor practices in the facilities, the torturous conditions that confined animals endure, and the health risks posed to those who eat the meat, live nearby or work in the places where the animals are raised.

But Niman's book is not just a Jeremy Rifkin-style expose on the meat industry; it also offers another scenario to consider. After years of working on these issues as an East Coast vegetarian lawyer she ends up moving to California and marrying Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch Inc., which paved a new path for "natural meat" production that veered sharply from the factory farm model. Her book discusses the problems with factory farms and the solutions being offered by farmers and ranchers who have returned to more traditional ways of raising animals for meat and dairy. Part personal narrative and part investigative journalism, Righteous Porkchop is a much-needed addition to the conversation about what should be on our plates these days. We recently spoke by phone and she told AlterNet why she and Bill decided to part ways with Niman Ranch, how to find meat and dairy products that haven't come from factory farms, why "local" may not be the most important designation when it comes to meat, and why wild fish populations are at risk because of CAFOs.

Tara Lohan: Since you and Bill separated from Niman Ranch Inc., what do you think of the way the company is being run now -- are you still supporters of their work?

Nicolette Hahn Niman: Bill really truly is a passionate perfectionist. He was unhappy with some changes that new management made to the beef protocols. The lamb and the pork are the same as they ever were. I can say unequivocally that we are very supportive of what is happening with the pork and the lamb. The beef is probably very similar now to what is happening with other natural beef companies, it is certainly no worse. What Bill was insisting on the whole time he was there were protocols that were stricter than those of other natural beef companies. Bill had established incredibly high standards, and those were changed. We are no longer endorsers of the beef but I don't believe it is worse than other natural beef companies. Also, we are very supportive of the model of having a collective of traditional farmers and ranchers working together. I really think that Niman Ranch is a great example of getting food from traditional farms to ordinary consumers. To get what we are advocating for to become mainstream, you have to have groups of farmers coming together. Niman Ranch is a good model for that.

TL: You mention in the book that the designation of 'local' food when it comes to meat isn't always the best indicator of what we should be striving for. Why not?

NHN: I always sort of de-emphasize local in the context of meat because I've seen the most bizarre abuses of that phrase. I give one example in the book of someone I knew in Minnesota who had a local co-op that was buying local pork. And she asked the co-op manager where the pork was from and when she found out, she knew the operation. She said "That's a confinement operation, they have a liquefied manure system, the animals are fed antibiotics, they are confined continually." The co-op manager said, "Well, it's a local source, and that's what we are focusing on." She was shocked. She knew that's not what people who are shopping at a co-op are expecting to get when they see a sign that says "local pork." They are thinking of a small, family farm using traditional farming methods. I always like to emphasize that the word "local," especially when dealing with meat, isn't the most important virtue.

TL: Meat that is not produced by industrial agriculture can be pricey. How do we make sure that good meat is more accessible to people?

NHN: The most important thing an individual can do is examine his or her own eating habits. One step at a time. Baby steps are OK. In fact, I think they are imperative. The more you change, the more you want to change and you become more willing over time to pay more for your food. It does currently cost quite a bit more.

Eventually, the consumer demand will create the supply, which will lower costs. I have no doubt that this can happen. There is a whole new generation of younger people interested in traditional farming. There is a whole community of people who have come here from other parts of the world who are familiar with traditional farming and would like to farm here. Consumer demand will create an opportunity for people. There will be more supply of traditionally raised foods and, over time, the costs will come down. For example, Niman Ranch discovered that if you have enough pigs to fill a truck versus half a truck it makes an incredible difference in the cost of every pound of pork. There's another problem, and it's not the fault of farmers. When you are talking about animal-based foods, the processing step is a critical part of the cost for consumers. I'll give you an example. I was talking with an organic pasture-based farmer in Kentucky and he was telling me that for every organic chicken he sells he pays $3 for the processing. Three dollars! That's a huge amount to process a single chicken, because the consumer has to pay that on top of the value of raising the animal. It's almost impossible for a farmer to make any money off of that and provide an affordable product.

Here's another example. An agricultural economist I spoke with recently said that in Kentucky it costs between $300 to $400 to slaughter and process a steer if you're a smaller farmer and only have access to a smaller slaughterhouse. In contrast, if you're a big company and have access to a bigger slaughterhouse, it's about $150. Obviously, that is an enormous difference. I hear about these slaughter and processing problems over and over. That's a bottleneck and there are ways that could be addressed by local and state governments but it hasn't been. I know a number of individuals and non-profits trying to improve the situation. I think when we see better slaughterhouses and processing facilities available to smaller farmers we'll see a dramatic reduction in cost.

TL: A lot of people who don't eat meat think they don't contribute to the horrendous practices in feedlots, but eating dairy is just as bad or worse, you write. Why?

NHN: I've met many vegetarians who were shocked when they found out I was involved in raising beef cattle but they're eating dairy products every day. As I say in the book, the life of beef cattle is so much better -- even in a conventional model -- than a dairy cow. Especially for the calves. There is a lack of understanding about how dairies function among even people who are quite well informed about food, and certainly among the general public. Here are a few of the worst aspects. For one thing, dairy calves are separated from their mothers within hours of birth. They spend no time nursing or on pasture with the herd. Instead, they're raised in huts, tethered at the neck. It's not terribly different than the way veal calves are raised. And by the way, most male dairy calves do become veal. Then there's the life of the mature dairy cows. The average age a milking cow goes to slaughter now is around 3 years and they don't even reach their milking peak until 6-8 years! That is a sign that we're doing something horribly wrong if we are burning them out before reaching their peak of production.

TL: What should dairy companies be doing and are any of them using the right model?

NHN: I think with dairy cows it is most important that they be on grass. They are grazing animals, designed to spend all their time on grass. The turkeys, chickens, and pigs I always make the case that they should be on grass, but they are omnivores. It is important but not essential for them to be on pasture. All grazing animals -- sheep, goats and cattle -- should be on grass. Finding dairies where they are grazing the cows is important. Here in Northern California a good example is the Straus Family Creamery -- they are kinda like Niman Ranch in that they are a collective of farms. When I'm trying to find out whether a farm or ranch is good, I always look on their Web site for photos and a detailed explanation about how the animals they raise live. Straus provides that.

TL: I've heard a lot recently about how much better it is to eat grass-fed beef, but you write that most 'natural meat' companies aren't doing truly grass-fed beef. Can you explain?

NHN: Right, it depends on where you are getting the beef from. We are not associated with Niman Ranch anymore but it's a really good model to get a group of farmers together to follow the same protocols and I think that is the most viable way of making the kind of farming we support something that can feed the country. There are some groups trying to do grass-fed beef on a bigger scale, and among those larger outfits that I'm familiar with, they generally don't raise the animals in a way that is truly grass-fed. For example, they have the cattle in areas that are like feedlots, they are in so-called "dry lots" (not pasture) and fed in feed bunks. They are fed hay and other things that are not grass, such as waste products like rice bran from cereal companies and almond hulls from nut companies. Maybe it is fine for cattle to eat those, but I don't believe that it is truly grass-fed, they are not on pasture. And, once again, consumer expectations are important. If a label is claiming it's "grass-fed" those animals should be going to slaughter off of grass. That's what people think they are buying.

Bill believes it is important to have grass-fed beef, but only available seasonally, at those times of year when the animals have been on very high-quality pasture for a good long period of time. The cattle would go to slaughter from that point. The reason those larger grass-fed beef companies are putting cattle in dry lots and feeding rice bran is to make it a year-round product. In other words, to make it available even when there's not enough natural vegetation to keep the animals in good condition. That's why I'm skeptical of coming up with a big company to do grass-fed beef,. A big company must have to have a year-round supply and it wouldn't be possible to have enough quality pasture throughout the year. That was something Bill was exploring with Niman Ranch the last few years he was there -- he was producing a small amount of totally grass-fed beef every year, to build the interest and tweak the methodology. You could have a company where that is part of what you offer. I don't see a way to do it as the only product.

TL: And most people don't think of a hamburger as being a seasonal food.

NHN: Right. All of the work we do involves getting people to approach eating differently. To think of everything that they are eating -- not just meat -- but to think of eating overall as something that is different every day depending on what's happening on the land. In our household we do a lot of canning and freezing. I'm going to get involved in drying foods, as well. We are working on more of an approach that tries to eat as closely to the seasons and then preserve foods for the off-season. Of course, you're never going to be perfect, but you do what you can.

TL: These days there are a lot of labels on food -- from 'organic' to 'humanely raised.' Are any of them particularly useful or are they doing more harm than good?

NHN: I think in general the best foods are not available in a typical supermarket. But if you're going to be in a supermarket, you have to depend on labels. If it says it is raised on pasture that's the best. The second best is the organic label. Those are both very good. I think that as far as a humane label, the only one that is very good is the Animal Welfare Approved label (AWA), from the Animal Welfare Institute. They are the only ones in my opinion that give a consumer the assurance that the food is not from what most people would consider a factory farm. Some of these humane labels, they have really specific things like where the fire extinguishers should be located yet they allow the animals to be continually confined in metal sheds with no windows. How can that be humane?

I believe that the fundamental thing that most people want to know is were these animals raised in a factory farm type setting -- and some of these labels do allow that. The only one that really doesn't allow that is the Animal Welfare Approved label. They really truly don't. The AWA standards require that all the animals be given outdoor access and, they don't allow crowded conditions. They are also the only standards that require animals to be raised on a family farm. The farmers must own the animals, (so you can't have contract growing), and the proprietors must provide the majority of the labor. The AWA standards also require that the owners live on and operate the farm. The reason AWA demand that is that is in their experience it makes a huge difference in the lives of the animals - people who actually own and control the farm and their animals have a much greater stake in the animals' welfare. I also like the family farm requirement for another reason. From a community standpoint and an environmental standpoint, when you have people truly in charge of and running a farm and living there, they are more concerned about their neighbors and their own quality of life.

TL: You begin the book talking about your work with Waterkeeper fighting the pollution from CAFOs. Has much progress been done to improve water quality since you began that work?

NHN: There are actually quite a few Clean Water Act permits that have been issued now, regulated at the state level. When I was working for Waterkeeper there was only one CAFO in the entire country that had a Clean Water Act permit and the reason it had one was because it had been sued by an environmental group. As part of the settlement the CAFO had to get a permit. I do believe there is more of that happening -- they are being forced to get Clean Water Act permits -- but there's still a long, long way to go. Some states have issued no Clean Water Act permits in spite of the fact that states are supposed to be issuing and enforcing permits on all CAFOs. It's not anywhere near where it should be. But we are seeing some movement. The Obama administration made an announcement about three or four weeks ago that they were going to step up Clean Water Act enforcement. They specifically talked about CAFOs as being an area where they will focus attention. I think the most important way to help solve the environmental problems associated with CAFOs is for the Clean Water Act to be fully enforced.

TL: Most people will be surprised to find a chapter in your book about the connection between fish and CAFOs -- can you tell us a bit about that?

NHN: The connections came as a surprise to me, too. One connection is that there's a lot of fish in animal feeds, especially in pork and poultry operations. It has been happening so much on the Atlantic Coast that they've been noticing declining stocks of certain fish (like striped bass) that eat the smaller fish being used as CAFO animal feed. This is damaging our commercial fishing and our ecosystem. Striped bass have actually been starving to death because smaller fish, such as menhaden, are being overfished in order to create feed for poultry and pork operations.

There's also a second CAFO-fish connection, in the opposite direction. The waste from some CAFOs is actually being turned into feed for fish. In the United States it's processed first. But in Asia (where as much as three-quarters of our seafood is coming from) there is actually a widespread practice of taking raw poultry waste and feeding it to the fish in fish farms. That's a real food safety concern.

TL: So what's next for you and Bill?

NHN: We've gotten very involved in raising heritage turkeys. This is our second year in it. We are doing it with two other families. We've started a breeding flock here and we are providing the young turkeys for another farm (in Sonoma) that is raising them to maturity. It's a collaborative venture. We've raised almost 3,000 heritage turkeys for this Thanksgiving and Christmas season. Last year we had 50, so we grew it a lot. We are also doing totally grass-fed beef. We used to have our beef be part of the Niman Ranch network but we're no longer doing that any more. So we are raising our cattle to full maturity on grass. They will go to the slaughterhouse directly from our ranch, off of pasture, of course.

And the third thing is goats raised for meat. We are only doing it seasonally right now, in cooperation with a handful of other ranches. We've had goats here for part of the year for each of the last two years and we hope to eventually have our own herd of goats. Essentially, we have diversified what we are doing. When Bill and I first met there were just cattle here.

We're interested in continually trying to increase how much of our own food we produce. And we both continue to do a lot of writing and speaking. We just want to be catalysts in the national movement to get rid of factory farming. We think it's wrong and we believe that a much better alternative is viable. And we do believe that America's eating habits. If we want to preserve this earth for future generations, we will all have to be mindful of how we eat. For a lot of people, a good step is to cut back how much animal-based foods they are consuming. And we think that that's fine. If people ate less meat and cheese they'd probably be healthier. And for the meat and dairy we do consume, we should try to get it from the best possible sources. In our advocacy, we are trying to present the whole vision for how this could happen -- for individuals and for the nation as a whole. The one thing I do find frustrating is not knowing how much of an impact we're actually having. But periodically something happens and Bill and I get heartened by signs that major change is afoot. We'd like to think we're part of helping to make that happen.

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