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America's best beef?
Getting back to nature, ranchers are raising better beef -- and selling it for more money than ever.
September 13, 2004: 9:54 AM EDT
By Gordon T. Anderson, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - In the 1970s, schoolteacher Bill Niman bought 11 acres in Bolinas, Calif., with a notion to raise a few goats, pigs and chickens.

Today, that humble enterprise has grown into the Niman Ranch, a 1,000-acre spread an hour north of San Francisco. It is headquarters for a business that sells about $20 million annually of what food writer Mark Bittman called "the best meat cattle there is."

Niman is the most famous of a new breed of farmer, a purveyor of what might be called boutique food. They're small-scale producers selling high-margin products. To succeed, they turn the logic of industrial farming on its head.

Instead of adapting mass production to agriculture, boutique food relies on old-fashioned farming: letting animals graze in grassy pastures, or feeding them all-natural combinations of grain.

But if the husbandry techniques are 19th century, the marketing is ultra-modern.

The secret is branding, and not the seared-on kind. These days -- whether you're in a restaurant, at the grocer, or just flipping through a food magazine -- you'll see meat identified not just by its cut, but by where it was raised.

Instead of ribeye, it's Niman Ranch Ribeye. A New York strip steak isn't enough; you want a Coleman New York Strip, thus combining branded beef (Colorado-based Coleman) with a "branded" cut (the Big Apple's signature style).

The trend is leading toward ever more precise descriptions. One fairly typical California menu, for example, includes this:

Niman Ranch Skirt Steak with Arugula, Heirloom Tomatoes, Fried Butterball Potatoes, Red Chile-Rosemary Butter & Roasted Onions.

Sounds tasty, but aren't you dying to know more about that onion?

The magic touch of Alice Waters

To build its brand, Niman relied -- somewhat accidentally, at first -- on "thought-leader" marketing. That classic business-school theory holds that respected individuals, by the weight of their reputations, shape the opinions of others in a community.

Meat, naturally
A sampling of naturally raised and organic meat providers. Note that many distributors source their meat from small farms in multiple states.
CompanyLocationProducts
Niman RanchCaliforniaBeef, pork, lamb
Coleman NaturalColoradoBeef
Meyer RanchMontanaBeef
Western Grasslands BeefCaliforniaBeef
Ridgefield FarmsSouth DakotaBeef
Harris RanchCaliforniaBeef
Source:

In the world of fancy food, these thought leaders are chefs and culinary writers.

"We give a lot of the credit to the early California Cuisine chefs, like Judy Rogers and Alice Waters," says Mike McConnell, vice chairman at Niman Ranch, citing the influential creators of San Francisco's Zuni and Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

When Chez Panisse opened in 1971, it could be a challenge for Waters just to find suppliers of naturally raised meat. Five national distributors controlled the beef business, and they weren't interested in brand distinctions.

"A restaurant would stock 100 different wines, but meat was generic," said McConnell. "I used to call it 'jug meat.'" It was suitable for pairing, perhaps, with a gallon of Gallo.

"A lot of the better chefs wanted to link the food they were cooking back to the farm, so they started listing us on the menu," he says. "They'd write Niman Ranch beef or Noe Farm figs or Frog Hollow peaches."

For the chefs, it was a way to underscore the importance of natural ingredients. For the farmers, it became an unintentional masterstroke.

"We've never paid a dime for branding," says McConnell. "But obviously we're very happy when chefs cite us by name, because it reinforces our image."

Crowded fields

Today, the market for naturally raised meat is booming. Besides Niman, major players include Coleman Natural Foods, Western Grasslands, and Meyer Ranch in Montana.

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A new entry, Ridgefield Farms, is also getting attention. Founded in 2001, Ridgefield just raised more than $11 million to open a new processing and distribution facility in South Dakota.

These and other providers of meat that is either naturally raised or organic (the distinctions are too numerous and arcane to mention) all emphasize good breeding and good feeding. Ranchers meticulously track the multi-generational pedigrees of all their animals, which are handled with care from the moment they're born.

The results: dense, full-flavored beef; tender, juicy lamb; and cuts of pork so succulent they'd tempt a kosher vegan.

Recently, I grilled up a Niman Ranch Ribeye, to compare it to a traditional prime ribeye. It cost $2 a pound more at Citarella, a high-end store in New York City.

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The Niman cut is much leaner than normal prime. That may be a worry for people who equate marbling with flavor. But the breeding and handling of naturally raised cattle are far more important to the taste than fat content.

Off the grill, the Niman was remarkably tender. It had a clean, fresh taste -- it was moist and rich, though not overpowering. I cooked it medium-rare, rubbed with black pepper, garlic and horseradish.

With a cut as nice -- and expensive -- as this, simple is best.


The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to: goodlife@money.com.  Top of page




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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.