Nicolette Hahn Niman
From New York to Bolinas … and from vegetarian to cattle rancher
Photo by Tim Porter
When I was an attorney, living and working in Manhattan,” confesses Nicolette Hahn Niman (pronounced “nigh–man”), “I mean, I had lots of pairs of high heels. Now I don’t wear them at all.” And that’s just one (albeit rather insignificant) transformation the 42-year-old native of Kalamazoo, Michigan, has undergone in the past decade. Ten years ago, Hahn Niman was working closely with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the environmental leader’s well-respected Waterkeeper Alliance; seven years ago, the vegetarian met and married Bill Niman, the legendary Bolinas cattle rancher whose grass-fed beef appears on myriad high-end restaurant menus; six years ago she made the aforementioned exodus from New York City to West Marin; a year ago she published her first book, Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms; and nine months ago she gave birth to Miles, a smiling, someday-sure-to-be-strapping ranch hand.
These days, whether or not to wear heels never figures into Hahn Niman’s rather crowded to-do list. “Three days after I gave the last talk on my book tour,” she says, “I was out doing ranch work when my water broke. Miles was on his way.” A year earlier—again when she was on the ranch working—the phrase “righteous pork chop” popped into her head as the perfect title for her almost-completed book. “The original name was ‘An Unlikely Cowgirl,’ but that implied the book was mostly about me, which it never was,” she explains. Her newer choice, to her, “makes it clear the book is about meat, and suggests that meat can be produced in a way that is righteous, ethically humane and environmentally sound.”
In addition to Porkchop, since moving to Bolinas Hahn Niman has had four op-ed pieces published in the New York Times, several of her book reviews have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, she contributes regularly to the Huffington Post, and she and Bill have a blog presence with The Atlantic. She feels her book has “some overlap” with such recent titles as Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals.
How did working with an environmental group in New York lead to your living on a cattle ranch in Bolinas? Waterkeeper Alliance was (and still is) a nationwide organization concerned with, among other things, the pollution of rivers and bays by large agriculture operations. A few weeks after I went to work there, Bobby Kennedy asked me to head up a nationwide campaign to address livestock pollution. At first I wasn’t too enthusiastic about working full time on, well, poop—because that’s what it was all about: pollution caused by animal manure. Regardless, I went to Missouri and North Carolina and large farms in the Midwest that were causing both environmental and odor-related problems. After a few months of working on the issue, I came back and told Bobby that if we just focused on suing and trying to shut down bad livestock operations, we were going to be attacked for not being constructive, simply anti-meat. I told him we needed a few positive models, farms and ranches that were raising animals the right way. Bobby agreed, so I surveyed the people across the country I was working with on this issue—and the name Niman Ranch kept coming up. I then started talking with their ranchers and staff and eventually I met Bill. And eventually, we got to know each other personally. And eventually, we got married. Now I live and work on a ranch.
Before meeting your cattle rancher husband, you said you were a vegetarian—are you still? Yes, but I don’t think it’s wrong for humans to eat meat. For me, it’s just a personal dietary decision. I think my views on this have been formed by my life experience. Back in my childhood, my father and I walked in the woods almost every day, and that’s where I learned about nature and its cycles and the role they both play in the lives of animals. In addition, since being a biology major in college, I’ve pretty much understood the world in (terms of) the way its natural rhythms and systems work. Over the last couple of years, I’ve frequently heard it suggested that meat was, you know, sinful, it is bad, it’s evil. And to look at much of the modern meat industry, you cannot blame people for saying that. Yet, that’s not the only way to raise animals and produce meat. And the more time I’ve spent here on the ranch, the more those childhood and college lessons have come back to me. I mean every day, literally I see a turkey vulture eating a rabbit carcass, a bobcat hunting gophers, a raven eating an egg it had taken from a nest somewhere. So it kept striking me over and over again how so much of nature is about animals eating other animals, whether they’re hunters or scavengers.
You’ve now lived on a West Marin cattle ranch almost seven years. What are your observations? Marin is an amazing place, especially for its natural beauty and its commitment to agriculture. Bill always says that years ago, thanks to folks like MALT (Marin Agricultural Land Trust), there was the political will to save farming and ranching in West Marin. We’re now raising 300 head of cattle and around 100 heritage turkeys on about 1,000 acres of the Point Reyes National Seashore land. To be honest, it’s a struggle to be profitable around here. Everything is so expensive and there’s little slaughtering and processing capacity close-by. And of course we have to bring in things like gas for tractors, hay, and feed for the turkeys. So it’s difficult to make a living without some supplemental income.
Any thoughts about Marin as a place to live? As for the lifestyle, it’s really been interesting. With (my) having moved (here) from the center of Manhattan, one would think that would feel like an extreme difference. But surprisingly, it really wasn’t that much of a shift because West Marin has this eclectic, sophisticated, worldly group of people and there’s so much going on as far as the arts and culture are concerned. I have never lived in a place where so many people are involved in artistic expression, especially here in Bolinas. Almost everyone I know here either paints, or writes poetry, or they’re in a musical group. A year after moving here, I started singing at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church doing solos, and then was asked to join a small baroque instrumental group as their vocalist. Now I’m very involved with the church, and with local music, and enjoying it a great deal. I also continue to be awed by Marin County’s natural beauty. I first came here in the early ’90s when I was in law school, and remember driving to Stinson Beach and telling my friends as we drove along Route One, “This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in my life.” And the smell of eucalyptus, it was so intoxicating. I also appreciate the people here; they’re incredibly tolerant of individuality. And I like being able to go almost anywhere dressed in jeans. My high heels are now definitely in retirement.