Photo by Nicolette Hahn Niman
Nine years ago, I had just started working as an environmental lawyer for Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. when he approached me about leading a national campaign to reform the livestock and poultry sector. He said that industrialized animal production had become one of the nation's worst polluters of water and air, and he wanted to aggressively attack the problem.
Initially, realizing that Bobby was asking me to work full-time on poop, I hesitated. It was not the glamorous job I'd envisioned when moving to New York to work for him. But then I visited towns in Missouri and North Carolina that had been overrun by factory-style production of hogs, chickens, and turkeys. I witnessed Biblical-scale plagues of pollution and stench; I spoke with people whose lives had been ruined when an industrial hog or poultry operation was built next door; and I heard the details of how animals were raised. My reticence vanished.
I loved the job. But there was one problem: I could no longer deny the shady past of my own food. Every day, I was putting stuff into my mouth that undeniably came from the very same type of operation that I was working to eradicate. I was a vegetarian, yes. But I ate plenty of eggs, milk, yogurt, butter, and cheese. And much of the data and stories I was gathering from all over the country was about industrialized egg and dairy operations.
To avoid the products of factory farms, I became something of a food detective. My groceries were the subjects of my investigations. Where were they coming from and how they were produced? I roamed grocery store aisles carefully reading product labels: there was little to no information about the conditions in which the animals were raised. I wrote letters to food companies with questions about what they fed their animals: the letters went unanswered.
I mostly gave up on supermarkets and began exploring new ways to get at the good food I was seeking. Although the task was daunting, my goal was simple: I wanted all my food to come from places I would feel good about if I visited the farm and met the people and the animals they raised.
Three years later, I was still fighting factory farms but had moved across the country from New York to California. Surprising myself (and others), I had married a cattle rancher and meat company head--Bill Niman, founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch. Over the past six years, I've worked here on our ranch in Northern California while continuing to research both industrial agriculture and sustainable farming. In addition to raising grass-fed cattle, we also raise goats and heritage turkeys. And I'm still hunting down the foods of non-industrial, traditional farms.
My book Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms, released earlier this year, tells the tale of my journey through the meat system and from East Coast vegetarian lawyer to West Coast rancher. In a chapter called "Finding the Right Foods," I also share what I've learned about how to avoid food from factory farms and how to get the good stuff.
As we near Thanksgiving, the biggest feast of the year for most of us, I thought I'd share some of what I've learned about how and why I think it's worth it for consumers to make the switch from industrially produced turkeys to heritage turkeys raised on traditional farms.