For a cow to magically transform into the ribeye steak sitting in your fridge, the animal travels through numerous middlemen: From the farmer to the feedlot, the feedlot to the slaughterhouse, the slaughterhouse to the butcher, perhaps from the commercial butcher to the market, and finally to carnivorous consumers. Over the course of the past half-century, the meat industry has lowered prices through massive, unchecked consolidation -- larger and larger farms, fewer and fewer slaughterhouses.
Belcampo Meats is introducing a different model of bringing meat to the table. If we were talking about commodities and retail chain stores, we'd call it vertical integration: Within the course of the next year, the new company is aiming to bring pasture-raised meats from its farm to its own slaughterhouse in far northern California, then shipping them south to its own retail stores in the Bay Area. Only a few small enterprises in the United States are trying anything similar.
Belcampo CEO Anya Fernald -- organizer of Slow Food Nation and founder of the Eat Real Fest -- first developed the business plan working as a consultant to Todd Robinson, an investor who owned a 10,000-acre parcel of farmland in the Shasta Valley as well as plots of undeveloped land in Uruguay and Belize. Fernald recently closed down her consulting business to run the new venture. (The Uruguay and Belize ventures will be run separately, though there are some interesting cacao and rum projects afoot on the latter site that Americans will soon be hearing more about.)
Fernald hired Mark Klever, who previously supervised Cal Poly's farm, to build up the farm's herd of cattle -- mostly Wagyu, the famous breed that produces Kobe beef, and Angus-Hereferd crosses -- and herds of faster-growing animals. "We're raising everything from rabbits to guinea fowl to pigs," Fernald says. Currently, the cattle herd is approaching 1,000 head, almost the right size and age to begin producing a sustainable volume of beef.
The company just broke ground on a slaughterhouse in Yreka, which, pending USDA approval, is slated to open in August. The slaughterhouse will process all the animals from the farm. "In the long term," says Fernald, "we're hoping 50 to 80 percent of the volume will be from other farmers." At the moment, Shasta Valley is too far from major cities and slaughterhouses for the farmers there to raise animals for meat on a larger scale; Fernald hopes that by building the infrastructure, the surrounding community can make use of it.
According to Fernald, the first Belcampo Meats shop will open in Larkspur's Marin Country Market sometime in the summer, with a San Francisco shop to follow in the fall. At first, the Larkspur store will only sell packaged and prepared meats until the slaughterhouse is up and running.
In the meantime, Belcampo has been arranging "Meat Ups": advance-order sales of meat out of its offices at 65 Webster in Oakland's Jack London Square. The next "Beef Bonanza" will be held Thursday, December 22, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. (though you can order delivery for $20 extra). The prices, right now, are definitely on the premium side: six-to-eight-pound geese sell for $95, Angus stew beef for $125/10 pounds, and ten pounds of dry-aged Wagyu steaks for $350. To place an order, visit Belcampo's online store.