Anya Fernald is eating an apple.
Between bites, the co-founder and CEO of Belcampo—the California-based sustainable meats company that includes two 10,000-acre organic farms, a processing facility, butcher shops, and six (and counting) restaurants—explains how she splits her time running her multifaceted business. “I try to spend about 80 percent of my time pushing forward new initiatives,” she says.
That’s fitting, as the 4-year-old business is constantly working on fresh approaches to how Americans think of and experience meat: from the way the company tends its land, to how it feeds its animals, to the retail experience it creates for its rapidly-growing roster of customers. Actually, the fact that all these endeavors are part of the same company speaks to its most innovative feature of all: vertical integration, from birth of the animal to point of sale to the consumer.
“I can guarantee the safety and origin of every piece I sell you,” says Fernald. “We own every piece of our supply chain. Nobody else in the U.S. [at this scale] can claim that about their meat.”
In this way, Belcampo is the epitome of the take-back-our-food ethos that we as mindful consumers have come to adopt. When it comes to our food, we want a product that is sustainable and ecological—that has a low carbon footprint—but is also responsibly grown or raised. That means knowing who handled the product at each stage of its life, whether it’s a potato or a carrot or a cow. We want to know if it’s organic, if it’s free of GMOs, if it’s local, or if it’s seasonal. We want a food system that lets you in on its secrets—because there really shouldn’t be secrets when it comes to what you’re putting in your own body, anyway.
Often, these aren’t characteristics associated with meat. Fernald is quick to admit that this skepticism, even disdain, around beef, pork, and poultry in America isn’t unfounded. “From a safety perspective and a health perspective, you just can’t trust the food chain anymore,” she says. Whether you avoid meat mostly or entirely for ethical, environmental, or health reasons, she gets it—she was a vegetarian for many years herself, even a vegan for one.
What she’s really trying to do is show people that if you are going to eat meat (which an estimated 95 percent of Americans regularly do), don’t eat a lot of it, but eat it the right way. Get the safest, healthiest products you can from a producer who knows—really knows—what the ramifications are for you and your family and the environment. When done right, she firmly believes that meat can be an excellent health product, and she and the Belcampo team are working hard to usher in a new era of the responsible omnivore.
“I think our product really is exceptionally safe and healthy,” she says, with no small dose of conviction.
Back to Basics
Vertical integration is what makes Belcampo’s products safer and healthier. Think of it as full-circle ownership and full-circle customer service. The company owns the entire process, from breeding the animals, to raising them on an organic, grass-fed diet, to carrying out a humane slaughter (certified by the Animal Welfare Association, with pens designed by Temple Grandin, an expert in humane handling), to breaking down and processing the animal in a way that utilizes it in its entirety, to creating a positive retail experience for the customer.
The Belcampo concept is not Fernald’s first time practicing holistic food philosophy. She’s worked with Slow Food International in Italy and Slow Food Nation in the U.S., and helped develop business plans for cheesemakers and other small food producers in Europe. Through these experiences she saw how small-scale operations can provide jobs, be profitable, and create products that connect with consumers. While abroad she also recognized that vertical integration is a viable option for animal farming. “It is not necessarily the norm in Europe,” Fernald says, “but it is not uncommon at all.”
Living in Europe, she also reconnected to a more traditional diet, one that included full-fat dairy, meat, and bread. It was in this period post-college that she ditched her low-fat, meat-free eating habits and, surprisingly, lost weight. “I was eating so much stuff that tasted so good—fresh, simple, good foods,” she says. “There are certainly things we can learn from that in terms of traditional diets.”
This experience encapsulates the allure Belcampo has for ex-vegetarians, an important demographic for the company. “We hear a lot of ‘I haven’t eaten meat in the last six years, and this is where I chose to come to try meat again,’ ” Fernald says.
Ex-vegetarian or not, Belcampo’s consumers are eschewing the industrial farming industry, with its factory farms, middlemen, and lack of transparency. Big Ag has deeply changed the way food gets from the Earth to our plates. It has the power to influence what’s popular or abundant, and to glamorize cheap options at the grocery store. Its priority is the bottom line—not the welfare of the animal, the consumer, or the planet.
While there are many ways to explain how a company like Belcampo differs from these corporate farms, the most glaring is perhaps its scale. According to Fernald, “we do 40 to 50 beef cows in a day”—and that’s only on the two days a week that they process cows. “Big powerhouses do 1,000 beef cows in an hour.”
The True Cost
Fernald’s way of doing things costs more than what you’d find at a typical grocery store. The namesake burger at Belcampo’s flagship restaurant in Santa Monica will run you $18, for example, and the boneless ribeye at the butcher shop next door costs $34.99 per pound. While Fernald’s customer base understands that they’re paying for more than just that burger or cut of meat, the challenge is to convince the mass market that the cost of non-sustainable methods to our environment and our long-term health is greater than the higher price tag.
“At what price do you want the bargain? It’s going to come at a physical cost to you, whether it’s the impact on your body, or your kids’ health, or at a cost to the environment,” Fernald says. But still, it’s a frequent topic in her line of work. “My advice is usually to eat less meat—I think that Americans should be eating less meat in general—but spend the same amount.” She also advises to diversify from the premium cuts—buy the “lesser” parts of the animal, like flank steak, or experiment with offal—and buy the whole chicken, not just the boneless, skinless breast.
Fernald also says that we can’t ignore the costs of standard industrial farming to the environment. One major issue is industrial farming’s monoculture system, in which farms only grow one crop. This means there’s no biodiversity in the soil, leaving it susceptible to disease and changing weather patterns. Instead of employing a monoculture system, Belcampo plants a variety of grasses and legumes with deep roots for its animals to eat. The diversity of animals raised on Belcampo’s farms—cattle, pigs, chickens, and sheep, plus geese, ducks, and turkeys seasonally—graze together in order to more fully utilize each plant. Then the next day, it’s onto a new patch of farmland. This system keeps the land fresh and allows for better water retention, protection against erosion, and natural fertilization from manure.
As Fernald explains it, “monoculture is like a perfectly smooth freeway that you can go very fast on if you’re in a Ferrari. But when you start to have floods and potholes, it doesn’t matter how nice your car is, it’s not going to work. And my kind of agriculture is more like an ATV, where you can go in any context and it works.”
In addition to being resilient to a changing climate, the Belcampo approach to meat production, particularly beef, could actually be good for the planet. “Our beef is a sound environmental choice,” Fernald says. Her grounds for this is recent research on carbon sequestration as it relates to Belcampo’s cattle. Fernald says she is “preliminarily confident that our operation is carbon positive.” That’s huge for a meat producer, as industrial farming is seen as a major contributor to greenhouse gases. But because Belcampo cattle graze on perennial grasses, which sequester carbon, the coin flips.
If it’s better for your health, better for the environment, and resistant to climate change, the price differential at your local grocery store doesn’t seem so bad. And in the near future, there may not be any difference at all. “I think it’s a question of a few years until our food subsidy system has to be massively reconfigured because America cannot afford it,” Fernald says. And if those subsidies disappear, she continues, the price of factory farm meat would increase by a minimum of 50 percent. “The second that the system starts to crumble, this starts to look very different … Maybe [products like Belcampo’s] are not so cost-prohibitive in the longer term.”
The Future of Food
Fernald hopes the Belcampo model will become much more common in this country’s future. It’s about empowering consumers to make their own choices—to decide what they want to put in their own bodies. Choosing meat that is grass-fed, sustainable, and humane is a choice that represents much more than filling an empty stomach. Food is our everyday touchpoint with the world at large—connecting us to agricultural systems, farmers, producers, politics, and the planet. And the more people realize that they do have a choice, that they do have an option to purchase foods more in line with their thinking, the more prevalent companies like Belcampo will become.
“I’m seeing people feeling empowered about their diets and their health, and that to me is really inspiring,” Fernald says. This evolution in consumer mindset has created a market in which a business like Belcampo can be successful. Since its launch in 2012, Belcampo has grown to over 300 employees. Its revenue has doubled every year, to $15 million in 2015, and the company is forecasting $22–23 million in revenue for 2016. Fernald is hoping this serves as a clear indicator to the American food industry that their approach to food is one that consumers are craving.
“We’re not dictating a dogma that you only should do this or you shouldn’t do that,” Fernald says. “There isn’t a black and white, right or wrong answer about what’s good for us right now. It’s about trying to make the best choices that you can make.”
Grace Edquist is an editor at Wanderlust Media.
Posted on June 1, 2016