Meat We Can Trust Q&A with CEO Anya Fernald, CEO Belcampo Meat Co.
There’s is a new meat production player in town, and they are making a stir by owning the whole process, from farming the organic feed through ranching, slaughter and retailing. Belcampo Meat Co. produces CCOF (organic certified) and Animal Welfare Approved grass-pastured beef, pork, chicken, turkey, lamb and squab. The pasture, non-GMO feed, clean water and fresh air add up to meat in our foodshed we can trust. And we can find it here in Palo Alto at their Town & Country butcher store.
I met with founder and CEO Anya Fernald to learn more about this unique product.
Edible Silicon Valley: How did you get started and determine the strategy of owning the whole process from farming the grains to raising the animals to slaughter?
Anya Fernald: Everyone in the beef industry or the meat industry would like to control the whole process, that’s the aspiration because the more you control the better your quality can be. I happen to be fortunate to have an investor with resources. Differentiation is out of the gate and the reason for this is health and safety. You can’t outsource the killing of the meat… that’s where the bad stuff happens. By owning the slaughterhouse, we can guarantee the highest quality and the cleanest and safest product possible.
The reason for the retail stores is the complexity of selling the whole animal. In beef it is easy to sell 10%, which is premium steak. The rest gets more difficult to move with any margin. Typical dressed weight is about 500 pounds, which means 50 pounds is the popular stuff (rib eye porterhouse, tri tip). The remaining 450 pounds is chuck, briskets, shanks, forequarters, shoulders and lots of ground beef.
A beef animal costs anywhere from $2500 to $4000, depending on where you are raising it. Slaughtering the animal costs $700. Assuming you can get a best case scenario of $20 per pound, at 50 pounds that’s only $1000 and it costs significantly more to raise. Selling the rest of the meat at reasonable margin is the only way to recoup money spent.
ESV: How long from idea generation to execution?
AF: Three years from conception to scale. The initial planning happened in January 2010. Then one year of of business planning and one year of infrastructure (slaughterhouse and farm). We opened our first test market store in Marin at the end of 2012.
ESV: Did you veer from your goal? Or have moments of discouragement?
AF: We’ve never abandoned hope on it, but it’s been challenging every day in different ways. Getting the slaughterhouse up and running has been extremely challenging and then the USDA certification was a big challenge.
Working with issues like grazing certain species and having higher than anticipated mortality rates, or issues with breeding or birthing. Every day there is a new problem. But the whole momentum of the project and the way that people responded to the idea of the product has been so encouraging.
It’s like, “Hey I’m going to have meat that comes from my own farm that’s all been killed in my own plant, that’s all handled by me, that’s 100% forest verified, 100% organic and humane certified.” That’s a compelling thing to offer. Everyone says “I would love to have that.”
It has been very transformational and very big picture—managing a huge investment in agricultural infrastructure but also creating the first scaled profitable sustainable foods business in the meat space. Which is very rewarding proposition at the end of the day.
ESV: Our current Dungeness crab season is on hold due dangerous algae from warming ocean temperatures. Do you see environmental challenges with sustainable meat production?
AF: I’ve been raising rabbits on the farm for three years, and I was the first organic certified rabbit producer in the United States and also the first to apply and build a humane system for rabbits. But rabbits have been selected by humans to be extremely docile and they don’t have any natural defenses, so when they were free range they were getting plundered by predators. So we ended up giving up on that and moving them indoors to cages four feet above the ground with their young and I thought, “Why are we doing this? We tried and failed and, yeah, they are being fed organic feed, but it’s pellets. They aren’t foraging and are in an 18-by-24 inch cage. It’s not right.” So we cut the program. You have to balance practices and make an ethical product, while meeting a culinary audience.
ESV: How did you acquire the farmland and what did you look for?
AF: Our investor already had the base of the farmland—four hours north of San Francisco—and we’ve more than doubled that to 20,000 acres in Shasta and Siskiyou Counties. We are trying to buy land in different geographies and with different weather patterns, to take advantage of California weather shifts and have access to grass year round.
ESV: How far can you raise animals from the slaughterhouse? What is your slaughter capacity?
AF: The slaughterhouse is 20 minutes from the ranch [in Yreka], but half of the volume is for other farmers. We can’t serve Bay Area farmers because it’s a five-hour drive. We serve Yreka, Shasta and a little in Redding. The farthest distance we are comfortable with is a three-hour drive because of animal welfare. They start to suffer and have stress hormones when it’s longer than that.
In the months before slaughter our animals are finished at the home farm—pork and poultry are already there. Before that time, beef moves around as they need more space and fresh grass, while sheep can feed on low-nutrition grass year round.
We never slaughter more than 50 beef in a day. Big slaughterhouses do about 800 to 1000 an hour. Our process happens slowly, by hand, and people are very careful versus large-scale machinery.
ESV: What is your biggest distribution outlet?
AF: We only distribute through Belcampo restaurants and butcher stores. [Seven shops: two are butcher shops and five are a combination of restaurant and butcher shop.] We recently launched our first outside-of-Belcampo line, Belcampo by Mario Batali—a line of slow-cured salumi products that combine traditional Italian and Italian-American meat-curing techniques.
ESV: When animals have illnesses do you keep them in production or do they go a different route?
AF: It depends on what stage they are in their life. In general if an animal is very sick and could be made better with antibiotics, we give the animal antibiotic. But one of the great things of raising the animals free range with exercise and clean grass is that they are usually really healthy. So we don’t have a high incidence of sick animals. If they do become sick and need to be treated, we make a call based on the stage of life. If early in life, we might sell the meat as nonorganic. If late in life—for example bulls, which tend to live longer, like 15 years old—they would be sold on the wholesale [commodities] market or food service. Ninety eight percent of what we produce gets sold through our own channels.
ESV: What is it going to take for consumers to support local?
AF: There are a lot of different drivers on local. California is a huge supplier and a huge player in the international foodshed, with access to food that is designed to be in season year round. What I think is interesting around local and what might be a bigger driver is around safety, especially with meat production and ability to track providence. Looking at food scandals and trying to find out what went wrong, getting to where the animal was slaughtered, how it was handled etc. is complicated. They spend months doing DNA analysis on E. coli.
The shortest chain is also the most traceable chain. With E. coli at Costco and at Chipotle, it’s pretty scary right now. It’s a jungle out there. And what we are seeing is that these massively scaled systems that we are designing are not foolproof.
ESV: Are there any other ways we can enjoy Belcampo products?
AF: We do business through Munchery, Uber Eats, Eat 24, Try Caviar, etc.—technology companies that do in-office delivery day. We also do a significant catering business. Private chefs create an upscale three- to four- course “asado-style” meal in your house, at $75 to $100 per person. We also just launched coming to your home or office to do tacos and margaritas or hamburgers and bourbon parties.