Growth without End: Can We Accept Limits in Farming?

The raison d’ĂȘtre of our farm blog isn’t to document food scandals. But they sure are plenty to choose from. And sometimes they can’t be passed up.

Last night I was discussing with some farming friends the implosion of Belcampo Meat Co, a California-based grass fed and Organic powerhouse of a meat marketing business. I’d say Belcampo’s fall illustrates well the prevailing conditions by which food businesses, even on the green/organic spectrum, lose their way. It happens with such regularity that I am tempted to say that this is an inevitability. Perhaps it isn’t inevitable, but it lands on whatever you would call the ladder rung directly beneath inevitability.

Belcampo closed its stores and restaurants this week, deleted its social media accounts, and shuttered everything except its online store. This wasn’t how things were supposed to be.

Origin Story

It began with a $50M investment from an investor who owned 20,000 acres of ranchland in Uruguay, Belize and California. The business started with noble aspirations: locally farmed, single sourced, organic meat, entirely run from beginning to end through a vertically integrated chain. With the huge initial capital investment, Belcampo was easily able to capture publicity wherever it turned. It was everywhere, from high brow articles to cooking shows. New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, Vice, Modern Farmer, Rachael Ray, Oprah, and the list just keeps going. They were selling meat in the $20 to $50 per pound range, and selling a lot of it with a good story about how their meat was worth it because it addressed the systemic problems in the mass market agricultural system.

Listening to the story as they told it, they were doing things just right. They were feeding the animals well, raising them in appropriate environments, slaughtering them in a well-designed facility for humane treatment, and then paying all the staff adequately for their efforts. The story sure sounded a lot like the kind of meat I’d want to eat.

But rumors started circulating that things weren’t on the up and up. Something wasn’t so wholesome.

Switcheroo

Not all the meat what what they claimed it to be. They were buying commodity beef from National Beef (the fourth largest beef processor) and marking it up between double and quadruple the initial purchase price. They were buying Pasturebird (a Perdue subsidiary) non-organic chickens and mixing them in with their own brand of organic chickens. Social media posts would show pictures of chickens stating they were at their home farm when they no longer were raising any chickens. Eventually the company admitted that some of this was going on, but available evidence suggests a widespread pattern of purchasing lower cost meat and reselling it as their own without proper attribution.

I obviously can’t know what motivated these people to make these compromises. Greed would be a simple explanation but I don’t think it quite fits the story. At least, superficial greed isn’t the answer. I don’t think the opportunity to make a quick buck, to screw the customer, was the motivation. I think the larger greed in building an expansionist empire was the downfall.

Belcampo kept opening new restaurant/butcher shops in California. It also opened a New York eatery. The publicity and the brand outreach created extraordinary demand. Belcampo expanded, growing, growing growing. They sold pricey “experience packages”, opened a distillery, and expanded online sales. They started selling through high end grocery chains. All this growth put stress on their initial conception of a local, vertically integrated food system.

Ten or twenty thousand acres seems huge compared to my 100 acre farm, but with all their expansion they soon overshot their own production capabilities. They needed more meat than they could produce. Farms grow slowly, and Belcampo didn’t have time to add more land, to add more production. They tried adding partner farms, but even that wasn’t quick or cheap enough to meet their ambitious goals. They needed meat now. Meanwhile store managers were pressured to reduce costs to help fund the business, motivating the local management to look for easy solutions. It turned out that buying feedlot beef was cheaper than sourcing their own company’s beef. So they turned for help to the very system they set out to oppose. Their success transformed them into their adversary.

Blowing Past Limits

Rather than accepting limits of what their farm could support, the Belcampo business assumed the principle of unending growth. Unending, limitless growth is the foundational principal of most of our business culture. Intuitively we all know this is ridiculous, that nothing on earth can be infinitely expanded. But it is unimaginable for a corporation to report to their shareholders, “We’ve reached our ideal size for our market. This is where we’ll stay until the market changes or until we find a really good reason to adjust.” You might find a small-time sole proprietor who turns down work because he or she already has enough. But this is never a possibility for investor-backed businesses. The company must feed the investors. Backers need their returns. Grow, grow, grow.

Belcampo isn’t alone in this position in the niche meat business. Venture capital funding backs Crowd Cow. Butcher Box and Cooks Ventures both sit atop fortunes made in other industries. None of these businesses will be able to do what a true farm can do, to grow to a size and then to say, “I think we’ve done well enough. Let’s maintain this.” They must keep growing. Edge out the small farms, cannibalize each other if possible, and then wait for acquisition by one of the big four meat companies. That’s the growth trajectory. That’s the exit strategy for investors. That’s the only way it works.

Sane Food Production

I believe that the only lasting way to create a system of food production with embodied integrity is to build it with the assumption of restraint. Just because I could push my farm further doesn’t mean I should. Instead of distributing meat all over the country, I’ve decided to stick with our local food shed just within a few hours drive. Instead of owning every step of the production process, I’ve found it is better for me to allow others to own stakes in it, like our butcher owning his own shop, or the farm next door where our calves are born having its own cattle herd. A system of self-imposed, disciplined, limitations may not be the best way to increase capital, but it is the best way to steward the natural resources, the people and land around us.

Stewardship is a word that always feels too stuffy, but I think there’s something to it. Instead of viewing our farm as a tool to create endless growth, we want to understand it as a place we are honored to inhabit during our tenancy. We can make decisions that are appropriate to its resources, and the farm can create the wealth we need for our lives.

Good farming and good food are always tied to the idea of stewardship. This involves people who understand what the land requires of them, and what they require of the land. It involves people who understand the others around them, and how they can meet each other’s needs. The system is bountiful, but always bounded.

Nonstop expansions, ever-increasing market share, unlimited valuation growth – these are the hallmarks of exploitation and corruption. Maybe infinity makes sense in the made-up world of fiat money. Maybe it makes sense in digital domains that are essentially unbounded. But when we’re talking about dirt, plants, animals, and people, we’re deceiving ourselves if we make endless growth the ideal. This way lies factory farming. This way lies lab grown food. Limitless growth sets us on paths that inevitably lead to tumbles down the slopes of moral compromises.

If we want to change food for the better, we must first change ourselves and our orientations toward limits and growth. Only then can we understand how we fit into the world.

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