Here's a fun survey to take in a room full of beef industry executives: How many of y'all went through that phase in high school when you went vegetarian, you know, for ethical reasons? Any hands?
Count Anya Fernald, for one. Having read that it takes 12 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef, the earnest student swore off meat. After college, she worked with cheesemakers in Sicily, coordinated Slow Food Foundation programs in Europe and directed San Francisco's Slow Food Nation event. Now, as CEO of Belcampo Meat Co., she says, "I love meat, I love talking about it, love thinking about it!" Clearly, she's comfortable with the ethics of this new venture.
Belcampo is an ambitious "ranch to table" operation. Unlike smaller grass-fed operations that can only offer shares of animals in frozen parcels, Belcampo has scaled up a vertically integrated production, processing and retail system that's set to go statewide. The first in a chain of butcher shop and restaurant outlets opened in Larkspur in November 2012.
Fernald was initially brought in as a consultant when investor Todd Robinson purchased land in Siskiyou County, she says, speaking a mile-a-minute from her Oakland office. Little wonder. She's also developing a 20,000-acre sugar plantation in Belize with a "farm to bottle" rum distillery powered by biomass, plus coffee and chocolate, and a 12-room agritourism lodge.
"It's bigger and more engaging in some ways than the California operation," Fernald says. "There's lots of chemical agriculture in Belize, and it's a very, very delicate ecosystem in an amazing delta of rivers."
As if that wasn't enough, Fernald also consults for Belcampo's cattle ranch in Uruguay. That's a commodity operation, and the beef will never be shipped to the California market, Fernald insists. "I don't care about the math, it just doesn't feel right."
Unlike Uruguay, however, lack of viable grass during summer months is a big issue in California's grass-fed beef business. "I've seen enough of the shady side of grass farming," Fernald avers. At Belcampo's CCOF certified organic ranch, a crew of veteran ranchers and bright-eyed ecology graduates are able to keep the cattle on pasture for all but a one-and-a-half-month "bridge" during the year.
The secret to their system is, it's not just cows. It's a mob. Cattle, sheep, goats, heritage pigs, ducks and chickens are rotated through the pasture inside electrically fenced enclosures. "Keeping all those animals is kind of a party trick," Fernald says. "The animals look almost crowded." Because the differing species graze at different levels, Belcampo's farm managers can extract more productivity from this relatively poor range land. Following just three days of grazing, a particular area is rotated into one full year of rest.
The contemporary farm buildings include a kitchen, where future events will be held—for instance, they're talking with local author and Butcher's Guild cofounder Marissa Guggiana about holding butchery classes there.
"The whole production of food has been totally deskilled," Fernald laments. "To get people to appreciate the quality, we need to re-professionalize the people who sell meat." Belcampo opened its own slaughterhouse in Yreka, 20 minutes north of the farm. Animal Welfare Association–certified and designed according to the prescriptions of compassion-in-butchery advocate Temple Grandin, the abattoir is a key link in a transparent, easily traceable system, all the way to the consumer.
Echoing the farm's Mount Shasta view, Belcampo's Larkspur outlet is located at the Marin Country Mart, in the evening shadow of Mt. Tam, across from the Golden Gate ferry terminal. The big, red "B" painted on the building is hard to miss. Designed like an old-fashioned butcher shop, with white tile walls and marble counters, it's a fairly straightforward space, with nothing stagey about it.
The cold case is neatly stocked with popular cuts, eclectic cuts and discovery meat: dry-aged picanha and bavette steak, ground beef and ground steak, lamb sirloin, pork belly, lamb hearts and lardo butter by the pound; quail, squab, duck and goose, too. So far, the lamb hearts are mainly popular with Marin County dog owners, says head butcher Chris Arentz.
Guardians of less gourmet dogs may be happy with the "dog grind" from the freezer case, comprised of lamb lungs and, well, other stuff. Leaving little opportunity to waste the animals that they've so thoughtfully raised is integral to Belcampo's retail model.
If an item seems over-ordered, they can turn it around in the restaurant. The casual eatery adjacent the shop offers a short menu that changes daily. Order at the counter, take a number and sit; the wait isn't long, and meanwhile, you can watch your Belcampo cheeseburger ($11) sizzling on the grill in the open kitchen—if the kitchen fans drown out the already unobtrusive music, that's part and parcel. The burger is the real deal—fresh, moist ground beef on a toasted sesame bun, with butter lettuce, aioli and chutney. It's simple, original and focused on the meat. A savory side of petite, fried Brussels sprouts ($6) is grilled blackly, caramelized and doused in citrus juice.
Menus change daily, and recently included a goat sandwich with Red Hawk cheese ($15), ham steak with honey and mustard ($11), beef tallow fries ($5) and several attractive-looking salads.
It's not surprising to find Anya Fernald at a business meeting in the restaurant, although she's slowed her pace just a bit, with infant daughter Viola in her arms. She's taken a liking to chewing on lamb bones and goose thighs already, says her proud mother.
Belcampo plans a slow launch of shops in San Francisco and Los Angeles this year, topping out at 10 in California. They're limited by what the farm can supply, and Fernald wants to make sure they'll never be another sustainable-meat operation that ends up in the red.
"I want to be the one who figures it out and is here in 20 years," she says. "And is thriving in 20 years."
Belcampo, 2405 Larkspur Landing Circle, Building 4, Larkspur. 415.448.5810.