Founded in northern California in the late 1970s, Niman Ranch has, in the decades since, become synonymous with livestock raised in humane, sustainable conditions and high-quality beef, pork and lamb. The company works with a network of more than 720 family farmers and ranchers in 22 states—all of whom are required to meet Niman's stringent husbandry standards. And while you may not know the name Niman, if you dine out frequently in Sarasota, you've likely tasted the company's meat. Niman has become a major provider for some of the area's best chefs.
But the relationship goes deeper than just buyer-seller. For proof of that, book a reservation for the third annual Niman Ranch Next Generation Scholarship Dinner at Mattison's Forty-One on Wednesday, Aug. 28. Mattison's chef and owner Paul Mattison has been a Niman devotee for years, and the company's products are all over the menus of each of his three restaurants. The scholarship fundraiser next month will feature six courses, four of them blessed with Niman meats, plus wine pairings from Chris Benziger of California's Benziger Family Winery.
The goal of Niman's Next Generation Scholarship fund is to help second-generation farmers avoid racking up student debt, which in turn helps them return to family farms and keep them running. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average age of the "principal operator" of an American farm rose from 50 in 1978 to 58 in 2012. Today, more than 31 percent of farm operators are 65 or older.
Aaron Williams, 28, is a sixth-generation Iowa hog farmer, whose father, Bruce Williams, began working with Niman in 1998. The Niman scholarship fund helped Williams pay for school at Iowa State University, an experience he says was invaluable in teaching him how to run a business. "When you graduate from high school, you're a naive adult and you think you know everything," he says, "but in college I learned a lot of life skills. I worked a lot of internships. I worked at a bank. I worked as a salesman. Those experiences have been very beneficial to my operation today."
After graduating, Williams moved back to Williams Family Farm in Villisca, Iowa, and today raises hogs following the Niman standard of care, which emphasizes letting the pigs roam outdoors, shunning antibiotics and feeding the hogs an all-vegetarian diet. He joined the board of the Niman scholarship committee last year and helped distribute roughly $115,000 in scholarship money to aspiring young farmers. He's flying to Sarasota next month to attend Mattison's fundraising dinner. For him, it's all about paying back what Niman has done for him and his family. "If it wasn't for their business model," he says, "I wouldn't be raising pigs here on the farm."
The 3rd Annual Niman Ranch Next Generation Scholarship Dinner takes place at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 28, at Mattison's Forty-One, 7275 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets are $125. The liquor company Edrington is also partnering with Mattison's to raise money for the Niman Ranch scholarship fund by matching donations made to the fund through GoFundMe.