Can eating meat be every bit as eco-friendly — if not even more so — than subscribing to a vegetarian lifestyle? If you’re eating meat from Niman Ranch, the answer could possibly be, “yes”.

Niman Ranch started out as a small family farm when elementary school teacher Bill Niman moved from Minnesota to the small town of Bolinas, Califo. He purchased the ranch for $18,000 and began a part-time pig, goat, and chicken farming operation.

In 1979, the Niman crew began raising cattle exclusively, but in 1984 the federal government condemned the farm by eminent domain. Fortunately, that bad moment turned out for the best.

By 1994, the company had developed a reputation for high quality beef and, fortunately for them, demand was greater than they could supply. How did they respond? Niman Ranch branched out to include what eventually become a network of more than 650 small family farms in the United States.

So what makes Niman Ranch so original and so eco-friendly?

Niman Ranch farms are known for their humanely raised and natural meats which are never caged, never given any antibiotics or any added hormones, and are fed all vegetarian feed. Niman Ranch farmers also adhere to strict protocols when it comes to animal care and environmentally sustainable farming practices.

Another interesting aspect of Niman Ranch farmers is that they are required to be owners and involved in the day-to-day activities of their farms or ranches and the care of the animals that are raised there. This is a huge difference between this and modern commercial farming outfits.

What will you not find on Niman Ranch meats? The USDA’s “certified organic” label. But why not?

According to their website, “Niman Ranch strongly supports organic farming principles. Many of our farmers and ranchers have organic farms or organic pastures and use organic feeds. However, for our meat to be certified organic, all the feed that we give our livestock would have to be certified organic. This would raise the cost of production of our meat by as much as 50 percent, depending on the grain market. There is currently a shortage of organic grain in this country, making feeding only organic feeds particularly difficult. We believe a better use of those limited organic grains would be direct human consumption. "More and more of the organic grains and soy currently available in the U.S. are imported from distant lands, mostly Brazil and other Latin American countries. We do not support importing feeds from distant foreign countries, believing instead that any feeds given our animals should, to the greatest extent possible, be grown by our farmers themselves or local farmers. Sometimes this means organic and sometimes it doesn't. But it always means healthy, sustainable farming.”

The more local every aspect of the farming is, the better. As a result, however, Niman Ranch products are marketed as “natural”… but isn’t that kind of a nebulous term these days?

Niman Ranch thinks it is. “The USDA defines natural meat simply as meat that is minimally processed, without artificial ingredients. That's what allows pork raised in huge factory farms to be promoted as 'Natural Pork' by big agribusiness companies," the company says. "We believe that few consumers would consider pork raised on a factory farm and fed antibiotic-laden feed to be natural. In keeping with what we think consumers expect and deserve, Niman Ranch defines natural to mean much more than the basic USDA requirement. For us, the word natural defines the way that we raise and care for our livestock. It means each animal was raised on 100 percent vegetarian feed and was never given antibiotics or growth hormones. Equally important, we believe that for meat to be called natural it must come from animals that were given a life that allowed them to engage in natural behaviors.”

The Niman Ranch Cookbook: From Farm to Table with America’s Finest Meat, available on Amazon for $24, goes into much greater detail about how important farming is to the local community.

If you’re looking for an even more comprehensive read, Righteous Porkchop – by Bill Niman’s wife, Nicoloette Hahn Niman – is a good choice as well. Michael Pollan raved about it saying, “A searing, and utterly convincing, indictment of modern meat production. But the book brims with hope, too, and charts a practical (and even beautiful) path out of the jungle.”

If you want to try out some of Niman Ranch’s tasty meats, you can order an entrée that features them from one of these great restaurants or pick them up from a featured retailer. If neither one of those options work for you, try ordering online.

In the Southeast, the largest distributor of Niman Ranch meats is Halperns’ Purveyors of Steak and Seafood. The Halperns’ tradition began in 1966 when Howard Halpern arrived in Atlanta to start his perishable food business. The company has grown since then, but remains a family operation with three Halperns at the helm — Lynne, Howard and Kirk. If you’re wondering where you can find the tasty and natural Niman Ranch meats, Halperns’ is your one-stop shop.