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The Locavore Empire of Anya Fernald

With a slew of exciting new artisanal food projects—including a pastured-beef ranch, a chain of butcher shops and a beautiful eco-lodge—entrepreneur Anya Fernald is trying to turn the locavore trend into a permanent way of life.
Anya Fernald at Belcampo’s California ranch.
Anya Fernald and her cattle at Belcampo’s California ranch.
Photo © Fredrika Stjärne.

In a California valley covered in an endless expanse of swaying alfalfa, Anya Fernald tilts back her cowboy hat to admire her herd of Angus-Wagyu cattle. Fernald has the cowgirl look down—leather boots, gingham shirt—but she is not your typical ranch hand: The 37-year-old entrepreneur is the globe-trotting, glam CEO of a new artisanal food-and-agritourism company called Belcampo. “We’re the world’s smallest, crunchiest multinational,” Fernald says. She’s interrupted by a text message about her rum distillery in Belize, then a pickup truck pulls up to drive her to a meeting about Belcampo’s Uruguay operations; in the passenger seat, she checks her iPad to review a draft of the quarterly financials.

This 10,000-acre ranch, located more than four hours north of San Francisco, not far from the Oregon border, is only part of Belcampo’s incredibly ambitious mission: to produce sustainable food on an unprecedented scale. There are three major components: a self-sufficient meat company in Northern California (which will include a chain of butcher shops), a similar ranch in Uruguay and an eco-lodge in Belize, which will also produce coffee, chocolate and rum. Fernald aims to make all of these businesses sustainable, and not just in the eco-friendly, better-for-you sense. She wants to offer Belcampo as a financial case study, to prove that sustainable food can be a sustainably profitable investment. “People in the food world think that if you start talking about money, it’s like saying you don’t care,” she says. “But some people—I call them ‘brokavores’—are so local, they’re broke. My point is that to change our food system, small isn’t sustainable. I’m not interested in doing small, perfect things. I’m more interested in bigger, more aggressive, more noticeable things. I’m not the person who throws the perfect little party. I’d rather have one where 150 people come.”

Fernald’s aha moment wasn’t her first bite of farm-fresh, sheep-milk ricotta but her first financial model, a massive spreadsheet that helped a Sicilian cheese consortium calculate the best price for its cheese by tracking the product’s moisture loss over time. “They thought I was nuts, but it gave an ideal price point,” she says. That’s Fernald’s calling card: She’s the pragmatic inside a room full of romantics, the one who values the bottom line as much as aroma or taste.

Fernald pulls up to Belcampo’s new office, a barn painted with a giant B in the company’s signature Pantone 173 C red. She strides to the sunlit commercial-quality kitchen to cook lunch and ties on an apron before reheating tangy, velvety braised beef shanks and slicing up a free-form, fennel-flecked meat loaf. “Anyone want some?” she asks. Her crew quickly forms a line. Like all of Belcampo’s meats, the beef lacks the fat of corn-finished prime meat but tastes just as bold, and more complex.

This kind of grass-pastured, organic beef—as well as Belcampo’s pork, chicken, lamb, rabbit and squab—isn’t cheap. To meet the quality that Fernald demands, Belcampo owns every step of the process, including the grain farm and slaughterhouse. (To build this empire, she also has an investor, like-minded food lover and Wall Street veteran Todd Robinson.) But Belcampo’s ultimate aim is to lure more capital into sustainable food, to help those “brokavores” make money, too. “There’s no guarantee any of this will pencil out,” she says. “But what’s magical for me is that if we can make it work, then there will be a lot more capital for a lot more people. It will open up doors for everybody.”

With the vocabulary of the boardroom and the food knowledge of an Italian nonna, Fernald has been a behind-the-scenes tastemaker for years. She launched her career at the Slow Food Foundation in Italy (where she met her husband, Renato Sardo, former director of Slow Food International); she worked with a nonprofit to connect local family farms with institutional buyers (hospitals, universities) in California; and she created the pioneering Eat Real Festival, an annual celebration of DIY and street food that brings more than 100,000 people to Oakland’s Jack London Square every fall.

When Alice Waters wanted to throw a Slow Food festival in San Francisco in 2008, she tapped Fernald to run the event. “I was near a nervous breakdown,” Waters recalls. “But Anya is fearless. She has a real pioneer mentality. I would have been in the back of the stagecoach, but she was out there leading the charge.”

Fernald has been ahead of the culinary zeitgeist since she was in high school. As a teenager in Palo Alto in the early 1990s, she convinced her parents to invite local food writer Harold McGee to dinner after reading his classic book, On Food and Cooking. A decade before liberal-arts grads started selling homemade ricotta at Brooklyn flea markets, Fernald was making cheese in her dorm room at Wesleyan University, hanging curds from a closet dowel. After earning a degree in political science, Fernald tested out various food-related careers, baking bread on a dude ranch in Montana, working as a food writer in New York City and studying cheesemaking in Europe and North Africa. She fell in love with Old World food traditions: the history, the people, the craft and the flavors. “I was living at a dairy in Greece and probably eating two pounds of ricotta a day,” she recalls. “Instead of gaining weight, I felt healthier than ever, and I thought that everyone should have access to this kind of real food.” Still, the lifestyle wasn’t a fit for the high-gear Fernald. “It was too tranquil for me,” she says. “I feel like I could be a happy cheesemaker when I’m 60. But I like the quantifiability of success in business, how the numbers tell you when you’re doing something right.”

Fernald likes big, sprawling projects, and tonight’s dinner is true to form: a massive feast. Matthew Runeare, who oversees the Belize distilling operation, squeezes limes for a rum cocktail, the refreshingly tart Lady Marmalade; Bronwen Hanna-Korpi, who works on the California butcher shops, dips buttermilk-coated cuts in cornmeal for chicken-fried rabbit that’s dense, moist and flavor-rich. A side table has been set with six desserts, including deeply chocolaty yet airy-light puddings from the Belize eco-lodge.

Outside, as the setting sun casts the valley in a peaceful gray-pink light, Fernald joins colleagues in a game of horseshoes. After her first two throws fall well short, her third toss bangs up against the pin with a satisfying clank. “Whoot!” she cheers. She still loses by many points, but they agree to a rematch. “Now let’s go eat,” she says, and leads the way to the table.

Emily Kaiser Thelin is a former editor at Food & Wine. Her last story was “Uncorking Napa’s History” in October 2012.

Anya Fernald’s Empire

Anya Fernald's Empire: Belcampo Ranch
Photo © Fredrika Stjärne.

California

The core of the Belcampo operation is its California enterprise: the sustainable 10,000-acre ranch and slaughterhouse in the far north and a chain of butcher shop/restaurants located throughout the state. The first opened in Marin County last October; more are planned for San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2013. belcampomeatco.com.

Anya Fernald's Empire: Uruguay
Photo © Pablo Zamora.

Uruguay

Belcampo’s South American outpost is based near the booming beach town of José Ignacio. The biodynamic ranch produces beef, olive oil and wine. The ranch also hosts occasional gaucho-style grill dinners. belcampoinc.com.

Anya Fernald's Empire: Belize
Photo © Tara Donne.

Belize

Anya Fernald helped remake this 12-room jungle eco-lodge and transform it into a high-end agritourism hub. The lodge has its own distillery and coffee, sugar cane and cacao plantations. Experts from Blue Bottle Coffee, Vosges Haut-Chocolat and Puerto Rican spirits-maker Destilería Serrallés run classes for guests. belcampoinc.com.

Anya Fernald’s Oakland Projects

Food Craft Institute

The artisan training school for aspiring epicurean entrepreneurs holds courses on pickles, preserves and coffee-making. Instructors include food science expert Harold McGee and fermentation guru Sandor Ellix Katz. foodcraftinstitute.org.

Eat Real Festival

The annual Oakland Eat Real Festival is a massive street fair with a mission: to show that healthy, low-cost food (everything is $5 and under) can appeal to anyone. With participants ranging from Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q to jam maven Rachel Saunders of Blue Chair Fruit, it draws a crowd—last year, a total of 150,000. eatrealfest.com.

Published January 2013
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