With the slow food movement gaining momentum and the Obamas planting a vegetable garden at the White House, people are focusing on food now more than ever. So much so that the New York Times asks if we are witnessing a food revolution. Considering that all I think about every day is food and that I live in San Francisco — the epicenter of the farm-to-table movement — it's hard for me to tell. That's why I'm asking you: do you think we're in the middle of a food revolution?
Bill Niman created the Niman Ranch meat empire with his progressive farming techniques. Today, he won't even eat the company's products. The sustainable agriculture pioneer, who spearheaded the food movement to raise livestock sustainably, humanely, and naturally, is speaking out against the new owners of Niman Ranch, the brand he founded more than 30 years ago. Last month, the company was bought out by Natural Food Holdings, its chief investor since 2006 — and, according to The San Francisco Chronicle, its founder believes that its meat program has already changed in fundamental ways.
When he first founded Niman Ranch in 1977, Niman set the bar for ethical ranching standards by raising cattle on grass in a free-range setting, forbidding growth hormones, and using antibiotics only if animals grew sick. He now opposes many of the company's modifications, including use of antimicrobials, the closing of company-owned cattle feedlots, and the treatment of cattle in their journey to slaughter. In response, Niman Ranch's current CEO Jeff Swain defended his company's integrity:
I think idealism . . . has to be couched with practicality . . . The company-owned feedlot was sold in 2008 because it was not financially viable . . . We believe that our protocols are stronger, the auditing of the protocols more rigorous, and the current business model is more financially viable.
He also claims the company has turned its profitability around: the company is now making $7,000 a week, rather than losing $10,000. The article raises an even bigger question: whether sustainable agriculture — and brands founded on idealism in general — can sustain a profit themselves.
What do you think? Do you stand with Bill Niman, or Niman Ranch?
With its affordable menu, fresh produce, and appetite-stimulating burritos, Mexican chain Chipotle can’t get any better. Or can it? Yesterday, the casual eatery announced that it has appointed Bill Niman, founder of sustainable farm Niman Ranch, as its sustainable agriculture advisor.
The fast food company, which has purchased naturally raised pork from Niman Ranch since 2001, hopes that the Niman appointment will allow Chipotle to “help carry our message of making food from sustainable sources available and affordable so everyone can eat better.”
When he started Niman Ranch in 1971, Bill Niman blazed the trail for the sustainable farming movement in the United States. He took up farming with a focus on slow food principles of high-quality animal feed, natural, antibiotic- and hormone-free farming, and ethical animal care.
Are you surprised to learn of this news? Do you think that the pioneer, with his specialized focus on local agriculture, will be able to make an impact on the chain, which has more than 800 stores?
With President-Elect Barack Obama taking office in two months, changes to our country's economy, national security, and foreign policy are imminent. But will America's agricultural system change with Obama in the White House as well? In an interview last month with Time magazine's Joe Klein, Obama commented on a recent article in the New York Times written by Michael Pollan, the country's preeminent critic of modern factory agriculture, saying:
Our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the meantime, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they’re contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs.
With Obama in the process of selecting new members for his administration, activists have begun circulating a petition for the new president to appoint Michael Pollan as the country's new Secretary of Agriculture. Do you agree with Obama's remarks that the country's food system is in need of reform? Do you believe this is the beginning of a new agricultural era for the United States?
These days, it seems anything can make you a celebrity. We have celebrity artists, celebrity socialites, celebrity reality TV contestants, and, of course, celebrity chefs. So could celebrity farmers be far off?
In a recent James Beard Foundation writeup on the notion, Top Chef executive producer Shauna Minoprio was quoted as saying, "Celebrity farmers? It's a fabulous idea. I am 100 percent for it. I don't think it would take much work to interest people in a television series about farmers."
Here in the Bay Area, I constantly see farm names thrown around like designer labels on menus, like "Niman Ranch pork chop" or "Marin Roots Farm chicory." While it's true that San Francisco is the epicenter of the eating local movement, I know that the spotlight on farms has spread to certain parts of the country. Do you think this concept has the potential to catch on?
Take the Quiz
I learned a great deal during my experience at Slow Food Nation — not just about sustainable eating, but also all about gourmet food in general, from rice to coffee. To share all my foodie facts with you, I've put together a fun quiz. How much might you learn? There's only one way to find out!
One of the main events of last weekend's Slow Food Nation was the Marketplace, a farmers market where the public could buy produce directly from producers. Farmers from 30 different counties in California were on-hand to sell everything from mushrooms to vinegar. Check out some of my favorite moments here.
One of my favorite attractions at this weekend's Slow Food Nation was Slow on the Go, the tented market where vendors sold gourmet, ready-to-eat food. Like street food, the offerings were served out of carts and stands, but unlike typical fare, signs explained exactly where each ingredient was from. Here are a few of my favorite moments.