Produce Is Seasonal. Why Not Meat?

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Photo by law_keven/FlickrCC

As warm weather creeps in, our thoughts naturally turn to what follows: the re-emergence and growth of things green. Many of us will return to toiling in our gardens and begin eagerly anticipating the pending arrival of bounteous harvests at our local farmers' markets. We know that strawberries and asparagus will be among the earliest treasures, that blueberries and green beans will start showing up mid-summer, and that the growing season will wind down with bushels of apples and squashes. The seasonality of fruits and vegetables--while obscured by the unchanging, year-round offerings of supermarkets--is at least still vaguely understood by most Americans.

But turn to the topic of meat and suddenly many people will give you a blank stare. Meat (along with dairy, fish, and eggs) has become widely regarded as something that should be available and unvarying 365 days of the year. The one exception to this is wild game, which is generally understood to be more abundant and in peak condition at certain moments on the calendar. The expectation that foods from farmed animals will be uniform throughout the year is logical because, to the extent that farm animals are raised in metal buildings with artificial lighting and fed mass-produced feeds in automated systems, the foods they produce will be quite uniform. And bland. Such foods will no more reflect changing seasons or regional terroirs than do the flavorless, hard strawberries available in supermarkets in January.

The most environmentally sustainable, humane animal farming is based on grass. Like other vegetation, grass has a season of plenty and a time of retreat.

If we are seeking something better from our food and our food system, however, we must begin regarding meat and other foods derived from animals as among foods that have a season. That's because the most environmentally sustainable, humane animal farming is based on grass. Like other vegetation, grass has a season of plenty, a time of growth, reproduction, and then retreat. The best animal farming is based on, and in harmony with, those cycles. All animals--cattle, pigs, chickens, turkeys--benefit from being on pasture. Time spent on pasture gives an animal exercise and fresh air, minerals, vitamins, and fiber. It also tremendously enhances to flavor and healthfulness of the foods they produce.

Here on our ranch, we raise cattle, goats, and heritage breed turkeys. Cattle and goats are ruminants who can get all the nutrition they need from naturally occurring vegetation, and our cattle and goats spend all of their time on pasture. Turkeys, like chickens and pigs, are omnivores and cannot live on grass alone. But they graze extensively when given access to pasture, and it keeps them healthy. Our turkeys begin spending time on pasture when they're about 13 weeks. It's fun to watch them rip into the grass, peck the ground for seeds, and hunt for bugs. We believe that the time our turkeys spend on pasture helps tremendously to keep our flock healthy. We also believe that the food we produce is healthier and tastier because our animals live on grass.

Raising animals this way means that there is a season for their meat.

Presented by

Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are ranchers in Northern California. Nicolette is also an attorney and writer, and Bill is the founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. More

Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are owners and operators of BN RANCH, a seaside ranch in Bolinas, California, where they raise their son Miles, grass-fed cattle, heritage turkeys, and goats. They were featured in an August 2009 cover story in TIME about the crisis in America's food system.

Nicolette is a rancher, attorney, and writer. Much of her time is spent speaking and writing about the problems of industrialized livestock production, including the book Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009) and four essays she has written on the subject for the New York Times. She has written for Huffington Post, CHOW, and Earth Island Journal. Previously, she was the senior attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance, where she was in charge of the organization's campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry, and, before that, an attorney for National Wildlife Federation. Nicolette served two terms on the city council for the City of Kalamazoo, Michigan. She received her Juris Doctorate, cum laude, from the University of Michigan and her B.A. in Biology and French from Kalamazoo College.

Bill is a cattle rancher and founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. He was a member of Pew's National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released recommendations for reform of the nation's livestock industry in April 2008. Niman has been named "Food Artisan of the Year" by Bon Appetit and has been called the "Master of Meat" by Wine Spectator, the "Guru of Happy Cows" by the Los Angeles Times, "a pioneer of the good meat movement" by the New York Times, "the Steve Jobs of Meat" by Men's Journal, and a "Pork Pioneer" by Food & Wine. The Southern Foodways Alliance named him its Scholar in Residence for 2009, stating that he was "this country's most provocative and persistent champion of sustainably and humanely raised livestock." Vanity Fair magazine has featured him in its "Green Issue," and Plenty magazine selected him as among the nation's five leading "green entrepreneurs." He has been honored with the Glynwood Harvest Good Neighbor Award. Bill co-authored The Niman Ranch Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2005), which was selected as one of the year's best cookbooks by the New York Times, Newsweek, and the San Jose Mercury News.

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