Blue Apron just partnered with the godfather of sustainable meat — and the move will transform its meal kits
In 1969, Bill Niman bought his first ranch, an 11-acre plot with pigs and chickens that roamed freely, for $18,000. Over the next four decades, that ranch grew to several hundred acres, and he built up his own sustainable meat supply company, Niman Ranch.
At the time, there weren’t many farms who let their animals graze in open fields and spend time in low-density feedlots. Niman, who is essentially the godfather of sustainable meat, pioneered humanely raised livestock in the US.
In 2007, Niman launched BN Ranch, a small network of farms in California and New Zealand that only raise grass-fed cattle and free-range turkeys.
Now, he has sold BN Ranch to a meal kit company with a national reach: Blue Apron. Niman’s not leaving — he will be in charge of building a supply chain for all the beef, pork, turkey, and chicken that Blue Apron ships in its 8 million meals every month.
Take a look inside Niman’s family farm, where Blue Apron will source some of its meat.
Bill Niman lives and works on his family farm in Bolinas, California, where he raises grass-fed beef and free-range turkey.
Niman left Niman Ranch in 2007 after Natural Food Holdings (NFH) took a controlling stake. He disagreed with how NFH changed the cattle-raising process, which wasn’t up to his standards (Perdue later acquired Niman Ranch in 2015.) Niman then immediately launched BN Ranch.
Since launching BN Ranch in 2007, Niman has built a small network of ranches in California and New Zealand that produce meat under the BN Ranch brand. His own ranch, which is meant to serve as a model for the larger operation, borders the Bolinas Bay.
Over the years, BN Ranch has supplied to restaurants from Chez Panisse to Chipotle.
By acquiring BN Ranch, Blue Apron will greatly increase the number of ranches in its production network, and start to work with ranchers who raise pigs and chickens, too. Before, Blue Apron bought its meat from dozens of farms across the US.
“I really enjoy the camaraderie and the opportunity to continue my life’s work, and change the way people eat and raise animals the way they should be raised,” Niman tells Business Insider. “It’s what my family does, and now we can do it in a much more impactful way.”
Blue Apron will raise only grass-fed, grass-finished cattle of British breeds, like Black Angus and Hereford, in areas where grass thrives year-round (e.g. Northern California and New Zealand), according to The Washington Post. Before the purchase, the company did not have these requirements.
Niman started supplying to and consulting for Blue Apron, a meal-kit company valued at $2 billion, after he met co-founder and chief operating officer Matthew Wadiak in 2012.
“I think one thing’s for sure: We are seeing brick and mortar stores shutting down across the country. And we’re talking about a trillion-dollar industry with food. I think it would be naive to think that will be buying food in the same way in 10 years,” Wadiak tells Business Insider.
“Through technology, we have opportunities that we haven’t seen in traditional food systems. Most of the energy used in a grocery store is keeping customers warm and food cold. It’s the most inefficient way to properly manage a food system, and customers pay for that.”
This year, Blue Apron will buy tens of thousands of cows, chicken, turkey, and pigs, which will go to slaughterhouses near the ranches that raised them. The meat will then go to processing facilities, where it will be frozen and shipped to Blue Apron’s warehouses. The company will incorporate the meat into its meal kits for customers.
Niman says the partnership will allow him to scale BN Ranch and make sustainable meat more affordable for the masses. “It was challenging to scale, because we were a small ranch,” he says. “Now that we’re scaling, we’re going to be able to bring down the costs of production and distribution.”
Niman adds that, going forward, Blue Apron may partner with farms in Australia, Canada, and states in the Pacific Northwest like Oregon and Washington (that will join the BN Ranch network).
“We can pay farmers more, while paying less for meat,” Wadiak says. “By vertically integrating, we’re going to be more lean, and that’s better for everyone.”
The move also adds a bit of prestige to Blue Apron, which came under fire in late 2016 after a Buzzfeed investigation suggested the company’s rapid growth led to inhumane working conditions at its Richmond, California warehouse facility.
Working directly with the ranches will also allow Blue Apron to cut out middle men (like secondary processors or breeders) and buy the meat at a lower cost per pound.
Since the company will be purchasing whole animals in large quantities, it will cost less per pound to ship beef from, say, a slaughterhouse in New Zealand to a processing plant in Chicago.
A larger goal, Wadiak says, is to help fight climate change. Blue Apron will be focused on working with farms that don’t use petrochemical fertilizers, which emit a great deal of CO2.
However, it’s important to note that whether ranches feed animals grass, grains, or corns, raising livestock takes a big toll on the environment. Scientists at Japan’s National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science estimate that producing 2.2 pounds of beef emits more greenhouse gas than driving 155 miles.
Transporting meat from New Zealand will likely also emit a lot of CO2, and as Buzzfeed’s Ellen Cushing notes, meal kit customers are also left with waste from all the plastic packaging. (Though it’s recyclable, many cities don’t accept it for curbside pickup.)
Though New Zealand is far from the US, Niman says ranches there can raise cattle at peak condition when it’s wintertime in North America.
“It’s the same idea as if you would harvest a tree-ripened fruit,” he says. “In order to do that on a year-round basis, you really need to be in the northern and southern hemispheres, because it’s driven by nature. When the grass is at its best, and grazing animals can get fat and mature, that can only happen at a certain time of year in any one geography.”