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Photograph by Carlie Statsky
They're what's for Dinner: Free-range pigs at Jim Dunlap's TLC Ranch

Back in Rack

It isn't yet politically correct to eat meat, but it is a lot less politically incorrect. The back-to-the-pasture movement is letting carnivores feel good about themselves again.

By Christina Waters

VEGAN, locavore, vegetarian, omnivore—politics makes strange dining partners of us all. And now, in ways unforeseeable just a decade ago, politics is helping to create a new renaissance in, of all things, meat-eating.

Not for any single, or simple, reason. Perhaps it hasn't yet become politically correct to eat meat, but it has become a lot less politically incorrect. And for that we can thank pioneers like Bill Niman as well as new "back to the pasture" ranchers like Jim Dunlop of Watsonville's TLC Ranch and David Evans of Marin Sun Farms.

A dish of succulent braised pork with chanterelles created by Ristorante Avanti chef Ben Sims from Dunlop's free-roaming, organic pigs gave me a glimpse of what's at issue. The meat was robust and slightly sweet, the texture sturdy and supple. The chef was inspired. The menu acknowledged the pork's provenance. Visitors can visit the ranch, see the pigs, ask questions and be as convinced as I was when I toured the ranch that these animals lived large and rooted around to their hearts' content. Maybe this is part of why meat is back on the menu.

A quick rewind might help set the table. About 10,000 years ago, when agriculture sprang up across the globe, gregarious animals found that they could survive better in the company of humans. The grain grown on small family farms became feed for domesticated cows, chickens, donkeys, goats, sheep, camels and pigs. A classic win/win situation that helped put milk, cheese and—yes—meat on the table.

So the human diet expanded to include accessible flesh, as well as foraged nuts and berries and cultivated crops like maize, barley, beets and cabbages.

Full bellies fueled the expansion of human populations, which in turn began moving their herds to new grazing lands. The price of beef, pork, chicken and lamb went up. Soon, even with the mechanization of husbandry (i.e., factory farming) made possible by the 19th century industrial boom, fewer people could afford the end product. Meat became a special occasion food—and most of the week, the working classes ate grains, breads and legumes. That "chicken in every pot" usually showed up only on Sundays. And sometimes only for the rich.

After World War II, First World lifestyles and incomes supported and encouraged the consumption of meats. Inexpensive ground beef and roasts became everyday fare for the middle and upper-middle classes. And with those came high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity. Synergized by the publication of the animal welfare manifesto Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, in the 1970s the back-to-the-land movement joined forces with warnings about animal fats and heart health, and suddenly the word "vegetarian" was on everyone's lips. Avoiding meat became not only fashionable, it flattered the budgets of those without trust funds.

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Gnaw

Restaurants added meat-free entrees to their menus. Natural foods stores refused to carry any meat or fish or poultry. Books for vegans looking for ways to pump flavor and nutrition into their diet did brisk sales. Just as vegetarians reached philosophical palate fatigue, new medical research came out with the astonishing news that eggs were not bad for us, that lean meats might not lead to heart attacks and that carbohydrates like bread and potatoes were in fact the evil empire.

Call it coincidence, but just as the discovery of mad cow disease and the unsavory details of factory farming and stockyard practices came to light, organic farmers began raising chickens not only for eggs, but also for their meat. Looking to the free-pastured practices of Niman Ranch—not to mention the profitability of chops, steaks and roasts bearing the Niman brand—ranchers began putting pigs on their pastures, letting them roam and forage freely before taking them down to the road to be slaughtered, and then selling the all-natural, artisan-butchered cuts at farmers markets and small local restaurants. For top dollar.

All of this expands the possible solutions to the "omnivore's dilemma," a term coined by psychologist Paul Rozin, and popularized recently in the eponymous book by Michael Pollan. Centering on the issue of choosing what to eat when you can eat everything and anything, the dilemma seems to have eased, thanks to the growth of traditionally raised, naturally fed and humanely treated animals.

Never, Never Land

"Niman is true to its mission," says Niman Ranch CEO Jeff Swain, en route to a meeting in New York. "There are a lot of 'natural meats' out there using the 'never ever' mantra—that means no added hormones, no antibiotics, no animal products in feed, ever."

But Swain contends that Niman still leads the production pack in significant ways. "We also grow our animals on individually owned family farms. Other brands can still be 'natural' and still be factory farms. Niman means open-range, traditionally pastured animals who are unconfined, grown on traditional family farms."

In the 30 years since Bill Niman pampered steers on a small ranch in Marin County, the brand has networked into 650 family farms raising beef, lambs and hogs in a sustainable way. "We move the hogs from one pasture to another, so that their fertilizer improves the soil. It's a closed circle of sustainability," Swain says.

Also easing the consciences of growing numbers of take-back-the-steak carnivores is the notion of provenance. "We have complete traceability of our animals," says Niman's CEO. "We know their parents' stock and, in some cases, even their grandparents' pedigree." Growing animals on small farms means that the cycle of waste, soil enhancement and pasture health is maintained. The messy infrastructure of intensive, large-scale ranching is avoided.

Politics aside, the superior flavor of these hand-raised meats has gained Niman meats access to top menus, including Chez Panisse, the Ahwahnee Lodge, Spago, Post Ranch, Mondavi Winery and Zuni Cafe. And let's not forget the fast-food chain Chipotle, which, with its huge market, has helped drive Niman's growth.

Following the money as much as the ethics of Niman Ranch, farmers interested in creating artisan specialties for discerning chefs are turning to traditional husbandry techniques. And purists looking to lower their environmental footprint by eating locally as much as possible are looking for sources closer to home than Niman's pork farms.

Oh, yes—they're also interested in grass-fed meat. According to the business research group Organic Monitor, the grass-fed meat movement is growing, with more than 1,000 ranchers in the United States switching to an all-grass diet in the past five years. This helps small farms stay in the game and compete with large stockyard operations.

Greener Pastures

Niman paved the way for ranchers like David Evans, whose Marin Sun Farms networks with a small group of Marin and Sonoma family-owned ranches to raise grass-fed animals. Here the livestock graze out on the open range and travel a short distance to their final destination on Bay Area tables and kitchens. Evans, a fifth-generation California farmer, not only raises his beef, pigs and sheep on sustainable farms, he refuses to ship his products out of the state. Locally grown meat shows up on local tables.

The results of doing without antibiotics or hormones, of allowing for long, natural growth and of providing grass foraging means that there may not be the consistency found in mass-produced products. And prices will almost certainly be higher for steaks and roasts that have taken months longer to mature. Steaks finished without the addition of hormones and water will weigh less and cost more—often twice as much as conventional steaks.

Chefs don't seem to mind.

"It makes such a huge difference," says Avanti's Sims. He's breaking down a quarter of a pig delivered the day before from TLC Ranch, 15 miles south of his restaurant. TLC hogs eat pretty much anything in sight on the Watsonville acres they share with a few cows, some sheep and hundreds of heritage breed chickens. Allowed to grow to their full 350- to 400-pound maturity, the hogs are taken to a family-run slaughterhouse, dispatched as humanely as they were raised, and then sold to restaurants eager to pass along the superior flavor and the culinary ethics to consumers. Sims uses pastured pork in his signature meatballs with pappardelle and his pork chops. "They just fly out of here," he grins.

Like Peninsula restaurateur Jesse Cool, Sims also uses Poulet Rouge chickens. "They're more like a wild breed," he explains. "More muscle development. The meat is incredible, even though it can be tougher and not as uniform as commercially raised chicken."

Cool calls the pasture-raised heritage chickens "delicious." Her restaurant also uses beef and lamb from Marin Sun Farms and Niman pork because of her long-standing relationship with Paul Willis, Niman's pork guru, and his work with small family pork farms. A 30-year veteran of local, sustainable and organic foods, Cool is finding "greater access to these meats, and increased local production—which is so exciting."

What's at Steak

So given the increasing availability of small-farm-pastured, sustainably produced meat, are former vegetarians turning into omnivores?

"For sure," says farmer Dunlop, himself a vegetarian for a dozen years. "I was in the same boat when I was in school, and did homework on factory farms and saw the suffering, the incredible stress that these animals undergo," he recalls. "But I started eating meat again once I began raising my pigs."

Chef Sims doesn't keep statistics, but he does have the kind of anecdotal evidence that confirms Dunlop's hunch. "Once I started putting Niman Ranch, humanely raised meat on our menu a year ago," says Sims, "two friends of mine, both vegetarians for over 17 years, started eating meat again at our restaurant."

And for the CEO of Niman Ranch, the numbers support a resurgence of thoughtful meat-eating.

"Our company grew 26 percent last year," Swain notes. "And not just in the Bay Area."

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