Many in the food world were shocked by this week’s announcement of the sale of Niman Ranch to poultry giant Perdue. As one of the go-to brands behind Chipotle’s antibiotic-free pledge, and a relatively accessible alternative to industrially-produced meat, Niman Ranch has carved out an important niche in a market where demand for antibiotic-free and humanely produced foods are steadily on the rise.
And while much of the public’s response has centered around how this change will affect consumers’ choices, the sale raises another equally important question: What will it mean for farmers?
Fast Growth, and a Life Raft for Mid-Sized Producers
For many of the most purist locavores, Niman has already slipped in the ranks. In fact, rancher-founder Bill Niman broke away from the company to raise animals on a smaller scale with more transparency under the name BN Ranch in 2007.
While die-hard sustainability advocates may prefer to buy meat from BN Ranch and other smaller-scale, direct-sales oriented operations like it, Niman Ranch has nearly doubled in size, becoming a network of over 700 farms in 28 states. With 3,500 retail locations and over 5,000 restaurants, it has become a familiar brand outside coastal food bubbles, and provided an alternative in areas where the options are slim.
And it has also attracted large-scale investment; at the time of the sale, Niman Ranch was owned by LNK Partners, the second private equity group to control it since 2006. As it has grown, the company has also faced environmental and food safety challenges.
But there’s no arguing the fact that Niman Ranch—and pork farmer Paul Willis, who has been with the company since the early days—have also played a very important role in the American farm landscape in an era where the vast majority of the food we eat comes either from small farms or very large ones. Most of the little guys are staying afloat thanks to thriving local and artisan food scenes around the country, but they face significant challenges [PDF] when it comes to scaling up. And more than half of all the small farms in the U.S. must rely on at least some off-farm income. Niman Ranch, on the other hand, has allowed a number of rural, mid-sized producers to thrive.
“It was about creating an opportunity for those full-time professional ranchers who were raising a substantial number of animals, but not at industrial scale,” says Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Righteous Porkchop and Defending Beef, rancher, and wife of Bill Niman. “[Niman Ranch] was a way for them to get their product to market.”
Niman says she is cautiously optimistic that the sale could lead to “more farms and ranchers that are functioning at this higher level, and increase the total number of consumers who are able to get better meat.” She also thinks it’s a promising sign that a company like Perdue is listening to consumer demand.
“Bill and I are both very deeply committed to the idea that the mainstream food industry needs to change quite radically. And until these big players get involved, that’s not going to happen.”
In the press release it issued when the sale was announced, Perdue made a point to say: “All Niman Ranch livestock will continue to be raised by the same small family farmers and ranchers, following the same protocols, and with the same focus on sustainability.”
“We’re going to be run as a separate company,” Niman Ranch Executive Vice President Jeff Tripician, told Civil Eats. “The team of individuals who built the company over the last decade are still going to be there, making the decisions. As for Niman Ranch and its treatment of farmers, there will be absolutely no change.”
Tripician went on to point out that, on the up side, he believes, “Perdue provides stability. Jim Perdue’s family has been in agriculture since 1920, which just means that he’s sensitive and aware and understands, versus private equity, which doesn’t.”
Barry Estabrook, who has spent several years studying the American pork industry for his latest book Pig Tails, compares the Perdue sale to other similar sales of once-independent organic companies, such as the sale of Stonyfield to Group Danone, Earthbound Farms to Whitewave, and Applegate Farms to Hormel.
“These corporate behemoths have the money to make offers the shareholders, owners, and investors of smaller operations simply can’t refuse,” he says. But “time will tell” about the future of the company.
When the news of the sale hit on Tuesday, Estabrook posted a series of photos comparing the humane, picturesque practices he had seen on farms working with Niman Ranch to practices on the industrial farms he visited. “One of the remarkable things about Niman Ranch is the close relationship it has with the farmers who sell their animals under the Niman label. I hope Perdue continues that,” he says.
The big question is: What will happen two, five, or even 10 years down the road? And unless the Perdue-owned Niman Ranch bucks some very pervasive trends, the odds don’t look good.
Perdue’s Track Record
Christopher Leonard, author of the Meat Racket, has been reporting on the poultry industry for years. He says that joining forces with the nation’s number three poultry producer seems contrary to the entire reason Niman Ranch was started in the first place. For one, chicken farmers working in contract with companies like Perdue, Tyson, and Pilgrims Pride have often gotten stuck in a debilitating cycle of debt.
“What we’ve seen steadily over the years is that with each buy-out, and as competition drops, the terms of the contracts become less and less favorable to farmers. So that now your typical contract poultry farmer has no bargaining power, and no other options with whom they can do business,” Leonard says. “And you see that companies like Perdue are clearing record profits while it is not uncommon at all for the farmers to be living paycheck to paycheck.”
This is not Perdue’s first foray into other forms of meat production (it bought Coleman Natural Foods, which sells a range of organic and antibiotic-free meat products, in 2011). But it’s also common for pork producers to work on contract with very large producers in what Leonard and others often refer to as the “chickenization” of the rest of the meat industry.
Nicolette Hahn Niman agrees that a great deal hinges on the way Niman continues to treat its farmers. “And are they going to ratchet down on the farmer network and basically squeeze out the existing producers and replace them with big operations? Are they going to start producing all sorts of basically industrially raised products and selling them under the Niman Ranch label? There are many unanswered questions and legitimate concerns.”
And to Leonard, it boils down to cold, hard numbers—the swiftly dwindling numbers of businesses selling our food today. Even as Niman’s executives insist otherwise, Leonard says, “anyone raising animals for Niman just lost one more avenue to market. I just don’t think that losing more competition is going to be good for the animals or the farmers. Competition is the mechanism by which consumers can vote. When that mechanism is gone, what incentive is Perdue going to have to innovate and keep up the high standards?”