Bill Niman – Pioneering the business of elevated production standards



On episode 3 of Sourcing Matters we welcome Bill Niman – founder of Niman Ranch.  As the godfather of producing meat with elevated standards, Bill has transformed consumer expectations of transparency and quality. An advisor to many large brands committed to sourcing better food, Bill’s influence in producing differentiated meat has reshaped domestic markets.

QUICK GUIDE – this episode covers the following subjects:

  • regenerative agriculture is proper on-farm natural resource management
  • healthy animals, healthy consumers, healthy planet
  • properly managed ruminants may be our saviors in climate change
  • food animals are intermediaries to reestablishing healthy soil
  • well managed herds can reduce wildfires, build flood resilience, alleviate draught
  • differentiated meat engages consumers in controlling their own health & care
  • meat is the biggest business in food

Sourcing episode 3 recap:

Early in the New Year NOAA announced that 2017 was the costliest year in dealing with US natural disasters ($306 Billion in damage).  Master Rancher Bill Niman begins our 30 minute conversation describing how herbivore food animals when properly raised in their natural environment are a solution to many of these intensifying problems.  Could this be a new kind of insurance with broach reaching net positive results?  Maybe; and probably!  

Specifically, Bill discusses the role that large grazing animals could play in his home state of California.  Niman explains that not only would well managed large hoofed animals assist in rectifying immediate concerns with wildfires, flood, drought and mudslides throughout their geographic diverse region, but how this approach is finally getting credit where credit is due for a role in sequestering carbon.  You see, animals engage the good bugs prevalent in soil into a natural process called “nutrient cycling” where a harmonized ecosystem was developed around the hoof and wastestream of herbivores hundreds of thousands of years before we came into the picture.  When we took animals off the grasslands, which account for 55% of natural land cover in the US, we stalled-out a process that naturally banks carbon.


It turns out it’s not the animal that’s the problem for the environment.  It’s actually the shortcuts in the conventional production model which we’ve broadly adopted throughout food that’s the problem.  This has created a bit of a paradox.  Even after decades of extractive agricultural practice, over tilling of prime soils and results tied directly cheap synthetic inputs that mine the land – most consumers still consider large food animals to be the primary enemy of environmental and human health. Well, based on the current industrial way we do it now – those concerns with meat are valid.  That said, you must hear how Bill plans to address this.

As Bill describes it – beef animals may just be our saviors.  We can engage them as intermediaries in this natural & free process of nutrient cycling as an approach for what commonly become known as drawdown. This practice of raising healthy animals in their proper living environment affords a new narrative to food animals as interpreters cornerstone to regenerative natural resource management, and potentially a pillar in the all important evolution into a circular economy where the consumer has a lot more control than we know now based on the choice they make their dollar.

Food animals, now totaling over 9 Billion processed in the US annually, when properly managed in natural living environments can establish many net positive results for diverse stakeholders.  Along with the environmental impact stated above – this systems based approach of investing in animals wellbeing offers cleaner and healthier food; it creates domestic jobs; and it reduces risks brewing global public health from shortcuts common in conventional meat production where we’re overusing medicines essential to human health just to create cheap meat.


Knowing where those animals should reside, and the proper husbandry methods to keep them healthy is where Bill Niman has long exceled.  His well described approach to “Locale” vs. “Local” sets course for the American farmer and rancher to become more competitive in future decades by servicing the needs of an evolving domestic consumer looking for more backstory and insurance.  Moreover, marrying Bill’s approach of elevated production standards to that of these evolving consumer interests increasingly looking for better quality meat from healthy animals seems a pillar to a food revolution happening from coast to coast and everywhere in between which seems to be that anchor for circular economies to truly thrive. If we can get there in food first, it’s going to be a long arduous fight that no one wins!

Consumer interests in safer, cleaner, and more nutritious food is returning us to values intrinsic in us all. Deeply-seated societal, cultural, familial and primal values at spurred on by a food revolution – all beginning with differentiated meat from animals raised with elevated standards. As more truths arise about the “true costs” of our current food system on our well being and that of our surroundings and co inhabitants – additional consumer affinities seem ready to be teased and magnified to the many values of Bill Niman’s approach.


episode 2:

Fred Kirschenmann – President of Stone Barns Board

On our second episode of Sourcing Matters podcast we welcome a founding father of American Organics, Fred Kirschenmann.  A true legend known for promoting regenerative agriculture and food system reform through commitment to soil health, Fred Kirschenmann is a Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center at Iowa State, and is President of the board at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Tarrytown, NY.

QUICK GUIDE – this episode covers the following subjects:

  • regenerative agriculture is proper on-farm natural resource management
  • soil health harmonizes with gut health: microflora not too much different than soil
  • investing in soil health results in positive human & public health, planetary stability
  • a review of Organic standards – then and now
  • the future of hydroponics; should USDA Organic include growing in water?
  • urban agriculture has arrived, and is here to stay
  • the future farming workforce wants to grow food for each other, and not commodities

Sourcing episode 2 recap:

Closing out 2017 we take a step back to evaluate the current state of Agriculture and regenerative natural resource management with a true expert in the field of future food, Fred Kirschenmann.   Hosts Aaron Niederhelman and Nathan Roman engage Professor Kirschenmann in a conversation of grave importance:  how do we feed ourselves on a shrinking planet?  And, how do we (re)establish food as our baseline for keeping ourselves and our planet in good standings.  ⇓

Throughout the 30 minute chat Fred offers unique insight earned from decades of fighting for a stable future. His most poignant description of Regenerative Agriculture may be the best ever captured.  Citing Sir Albert Howard’s law of return, Kirschenmann concisely describes regenerative as a process where “everything is renewed in the process of using it.”  Kirschenmann goes on to explain that “there are more microbes in a tablespoon of soil than there are humans on the planet!”  We learn that the impact of this has yet to be levered in modern food systems.  In fact, the vast majority of production in the developed world is based on an input-based approach where we’re not properly using this (free) microbial army to cycle nutrients for our benefit.  Instead, for purpose of creating empty cheap energy for more consumers to nosh, we’ve perpetuated an extractive approach in agriculture that is based on cheap petrochemicals, unlimited access to minerals and unlimited water which cannot be sustained.  


“As we look at our future, and we don’t have cheap energy to transport and grow food from thousands of miles a way – we’ll see more food grown within bio-regions.”


Kirschenmann eloquently describes that for purposes of financial expense, or true cost of externalities, or even capacity to maintain nevermind scale a production model past a ceiling fast approaching – feeding a growing population on a shrinking planet will come only from better understanding and engagement of regenerative natural resources.

To reduce the potential of continuing an industry food fight – Kirschenmann is nothing but pragmatic.  Through a process of diplomacy leaders in DC should evaluate – Fred describes how he empowers even the most staunch conventional producers to see the light of investing in soil vitality.  By justifying his argument with numbers that back increased demand for alternatively produced crops; and on the other side of the ledger – the increased costs and commitment requirements for maintaining status quo of conventional production; and even further, the realization of externalities and true costs associated to modern agriculture on human & environmental health – he makes it clear the only future of food production is regenerative.   


Digging deeper – investing in soil health does not only benefits the bottomline, it directly benefits your health and enjoyment of food.  Hear how Kirschenmann describes the diverse benefits of whole food from health soil.  From the cause & effect of changing diets and improving health in inner city communities – to supercharging the plates of the world famous chef Dan Barber – we must come out this half hour enlightened, and asking how revolutionary this could be in stabilizing our shared planet.  Maybe it’s us, the consumer, that can move the needle.  What if this approach was to be exercised through proper channels?  Could well sourced food from healthy soil be the silver bullet diet that a marketplace desperately seeks with billions of dollars every year?   

Hear what Fred has to say about this…

As the man who wrote the original rules on Organics, Fred Kirschenmann shares his thoughts on the recent ruling by the National Organics Standards Board to allow hydroponics to don a USDA Organics Certification. Fred offer a masterful description the benefits of food grown in water, and the vast market opportunities that will arise with further commitment.  But, after hearing the original intent pennded for Organics – it’s obvious there’s only one proper step forward here, and we may have just gone backwards.


In this chat Kirschenmann describes some of his recent experiences with the future workforce that’s more interested in “growing food for people, than corn or soy in Iowa”. Through his work at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, NY, and the Leopold Center at the Iowa State University, Kirschenmann is front and center in negotiating our shared future with the realities of planetary boundaries and evolving consumer interests.

The time is now for us to act, to innovate and to listen to what consumers and the future workforce seek from their food. 






Ep. 1: Lisa Sebesta – Managing Partner, Co-Founder of Fresh Source Capital ||

Founder & Managing Partners at FreshSource Capital, Lisa Sebesta has launched a creative financial vehicle to grow the local food movement into a sustainable regional food system initiative.  Have a listen to how Lisa and partner Dan have found, evaluated and supported a dozen of the quickest growing food & agricultural companies of the Northeast.


Q: Who is Lisa and what’s Fresh Source Capital?

Lisa is co-founder and managing partner of Fresh Source Capital, a Cambridge based investment firm focused on sustainable food and agriculture.  Fresh Source Capital launched their first fund in 2015 to make investments in early and growth stage food businesses that are rebuilding regional food systems.

Lisa came to the sustainable food investment movement after spending 15 years as an equity analyst and portfolio manager for various Boston-based investment management firms.  Upon her transition to private company investing, she has served on the leadership team of Slow Money Boston and was a consultant to the Fair Food Fund.  She and her business partner at Fresh Source, Dan Pullman, shared a vision of mobilizing more institutional capital into regional food businesses.

Q: Why invest in Regional Food Systems?

Lisa details the opportunity she saw in forming Fresh Source.  Driven by consumer demand, many small entrepreneurs have started businesses to fill a gap in the market.  A deviation from the past, innovation in food products, services and delivery was no longer coming exclusively from “Big Food”.

In their discourse, Aaron and Lisa discuss the externalities that arise from an industrialized food system, which have become increasingly apparent.  Out of recognition of these as well as concern for their own health, many consumers are switching to locally sourced, more sustainably raised foods.  The notion that industrial food is cheaper is coming under question.

The companies in the Fresh Source portfolio address not only shifting consumer demand but also the necessary infrastructure investments that come with rebuilding a regional food system and making it more efficient.

Q: What can individual consumers do to support the regional food movement?

There are many opportunities to buy great quality locally sourced food year-round.  Two examples from the Fresh Source portfolio are Farmers To You, an on-line farmers market, and Just Add Cooking, a provider of meal kits.  If you eat out regularly, look for locally sourced options at your favorite restaurant or ask questions about where the food came from.

Q: How do we scale this movement? 

Currently only about 10% of the food that New Englanders consume come from local sources.  A study issued by Food Solutions New England describes what’s needed to achieve their vision of 50% food security by 2060.  The study recommends utilizing more land to grow food responsibly (including converting current forest to farmland and pasture, and utilizing small spaces in urban settings).  The study also allows for changes in diet to foods that are more readily grown in the Northeast.

Lisa points out that capital investments also have to happen beyond the farm – in processing, transportation, and storage, for example.  That is potentially a large need for capital.  This can also provide much needed stimulus to rural economies, as discussed in this recent book from the Federal Reserve in partnership with the USDA, Harvesting Opportunity.

“Ultimately, one fund is not enough to scale this movement.  Lisa discusses the types of investments and investors that are needed, and how her firm works to coordinate among various groups.  Co-investment is a great way to collaborate.” explains Sebesta.


Finally, Aaron and Lisa share a little about their own holiday plans and traditions, and how to think about waste.  While there’s a lot that individual households can do around sustainable consumption, a much bigger problem lies further up the supply chain.  There are some innovations happening to reduce waste there as well.


Portfolio companies mentioned:

  1. Farmers To You: @FarmersToYou
  2. Just Add Cooking: @AddCooking
  3. Imperfect Produce: @ImperfectProduce
  4. Little Leaf Farms: @LittleLeafFarms
  5. Ocean Approved: @OceanApproved
  6. Spoiler Alert: @SpoilerAlert
  7. Food Solutions New England: @_fsne