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Fields of Green

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Anya Fernald wants to create a new kind of agribusiness: one that turns profit by growing healthy sustainable food on an unprecedented scale.

 


By Richard Bradley


It is December dusk in Belize and Anya Fernald is giving me a tour of the garden at Belcampo Lodge, the luxury resort that is part of Fernald’s burgeoning eco-business, also named Belcampo. Inside the confines of a wire fence that keeps out the nibblers, Fernald and I walk past row after row of wooden flats. From them and nearby groves Belcampo employees will harvest, among other things, avocados, callaloo, chaya, chocho, cilantro, ginger, lemongrass, mint, okra, papayas, passion fruit, plantains, red noodle beans and yampi—all to be served at Belcampo’s farm-to-table restaurant.


It has been a long day for the 37-year-old Fernald—a long two days. She arrived from California the prior afternoon with her 8-month-old daughter, Viola, and a nanny. (Fernald’s husband is holding the fort at their home in Oakland, Calif.) It’s a grueling trip: San Francisco to Dallas to Belize City, then an hour-long puddle jumper south to Punta Gorda, where the solitary runway is often commandeered by children flying kites, followed by a 20-minute drive to the verdant hills in which the lodge is gracefully embedded.


Today Fernald has risen before breakfast to fish for tarpon on the Rio Grande, which winds through Belcampo’s property before reaching the Caribbean. After lunch—dressed in chic leather boots, pink jeans and a sleeveless silk blouse—she hopped into a four-wheel-drive vehicle to visit the site where Belcampo will grow organic sugar cane and distill its own high-end rum. It’s now home to 2,000 acres of orange trees, but Fernald plans to convert the trees into biomass and replant; she would only want to grow organic oranges, and there’s no market for that. Returning to the lodge at sunset, Fernald inspected three new barn-like buildings where the lodge will hold agritourism courses for passionate foodies.


Fernald could be forgiven for showing signs of stress. She is the CEO of Belcampo, and this Belize property—some 23,000 acres—is only one leg of the two-year-old company’s agricultural tripod: Belcampo also has farms in California and Uruguay. But if anything, as she walks through the garden, Fernald only becomes more energetic. She kneels in front of one plant, plucks a stalk and hands it to me. “Taste this bok choi,” she says happily. “Isn’t it amazing?”

 


Belcampo Belize: the surrounding jungle; roasting cacao; the lodge garden and veranda; and opposite, the abundant (and vocal) howler monkeys

 


I have come to Belize because Belcampo is not easy to understand until you’ve seen its work firsthand. On the most basic level, Belcampo is a company that owns about 40,000 acres of land in three countries. In Belize Fernald plans to make rum, chocolate and coffee. The rum and some of the chocolate will be marketed under the Belcampo brand, but the company will also sell cacao to high-end chocolate maker Vosges Haut and coffee beans to Blue Bottle Coffee, the boutique coffee seller.


In Uruguay, where the company owns about 3,000 acres, Belcampo will produce olive oil and maybe a little wine. And on its 12,000-acre farm in Mt. Shasta, Calif., a four hour drive from San Francisco, Belcampo is raising livestock for meat—cattle, goats, pigs, rabbits, chickens, sheep, quail, 20 different species in all. The company has its own slaughterhouse, something almost without precedent for independent, sustainable farms, and one butcher shop/restaurant that sells its grass-fed beef and free-range meats; Fernald plans to open at least half a dozen more


Belcampo is not just an interesting company, it is potentially an important one. It aims to manage its land and animals in a sustainable fashion, using best practices typically only used by much smaller farms that find turning a profit an ongoing challenge. No agribusiness has ever tried this experiment on such a large scale, much less in three countries simultaneously. Fernald wants to show the world that you can raise healthy food on large farms and, if you’re savvy and innovative and hard-minded about it, build a successful, stable business.


“I want Belcampo to be a benchmark for success in sustainable agriculture,” Fernald says. “Like, ‘They’re the people who figured out how to do farming the right way.’”


“Belcampo is a big bet,” says James Freeman, the founder of Blue Bottle. “Anya’s got projects going in three different countries with three different regulatory environments. It’s a breathtakingly complex thing that she’s trying to do.”

 


Belcampo’s restaurant/butcher shop in Larkspur, Calif., and animals from the farm in Mt. Shasta.

 

The pressure is substantial, but Fernald is about as prepared for this job as anyone could be: Fernald is one of the American pioneers of Slow Food, an international organization working to preserve food traditions against the rise of fast food and food conglomerates. “She is an entrepreneur and kind of a buccaneer on top of that,” says Corby Kummer, one of the country’s most respected food writers, who has known Fernald for about a decade. “She is a force of nature.”


The daughter of two Stanford University professors—her father is a neurobiologist, her mother a psychologist— Fernald had an interest in both food and entrepreneurship from an early age: As a girl, she baked chocolate chip cookies to sell at Stanford football games. Traveling east to attend Wesleyan University in 1994, Fernald made cheese in her dorm room. “I majored in political science, but only because I couldn’t major in cheese,” she says. She didn’t like Wesleyan much—too political and too precious—and after her freshman year she took a year off to bake bread in Montana and Greece. “I said, ‘I’m way too bored, I’m going to become a food maker.’”

At the time, Americans’ interest in sustainable and organic food was far from widespread. “When I was in college,” Fernald says, “apart from being a chef, working in food was nothing that anybody encouraged.”

 




She graduated from Wesleyan in 1998 and won a fellowship to travel to Southern Europe and Northern Africa, where she worked for a cheese makers’ cooperative. The cheese, Fernald says, was incredible, and so was the quality of life. “On our lunch breaks, we’d get into a car and drive 15 minutes to the Mediterranean, get into a Zodiac, go free diving for sea urchins and cook them with pasta on the beach. It was beautiful.”


The business side of things wasn’t always so picturesque, though. “When they like you in Sicily, you usually have to jump through a few hoops to show that you’re loyal, which usually involves ripping a few people off,” Fernald says. “We had a line item in the budget for the Mafia.”

 


Food for carnivores: Butchers working at the shop in Larkspur, where the meat is both for sale and served at Belcampo’s adjacent restaurant

 

In 2001 she traveled to Bra, Italy, to work for the Slow Food Foundation, part of Slow Food International, which originated in Italy in 1986 to protest the opening of Rome’s first McDonald’s. There she became the head of the foundation’s investment program, supporting indigenous food initiatives around the world: llama jerky in Bolivia, coffee roasting in Guatemala, a food co-op in Madagascar. Fernald found that she not only shared the goals, she relished making things work. “Sometimes if you’re in the values-driven, change-the-world mentality, and you like business, you’re the only person who likes it,” she says. “I felt that, in working for a nonprofit, you don’t have any power unless you understand the numbers. But if you know the numbers, you’re going to call the shots.”


Unbeknownst to Fernald, at about the same time, a wealthy businessman named Todd Robinson was starting to buy farmland. Robinson himself has a remarkable story. An Air Force brat and graduate of Bates College, he’d worked as a stockbroker for Smith Barney for five years, leaving in 1985 to start Linsco Financial Group—later Linsco Private Ledger Corporation—to provide software and back-office services to independent financial advisors. LPL filled a niche and grew fast; in 2005, Robinson and his partners sold a majority stake to two private equity firms for a reported $1.5 billion, and Robinson retired.


“Once I sold my company,” says Robinson, now 55, “I wanted to get back to a farm; my grandparents were raised on a farm [in Maine], and that’s where I fell in love with food. Once you taste farm-fresh food, nothing else ever tastes the same.” He was also an active outdoorsman who fished, scuba dived and took up hunting with a bow and arrow: In 2012 he brought down an 1,800-pound cape buffalo. (“If you make the right shot, it’s easy,” he explains.)


So, in a piecemeal fashion, Robinson started buying land. He loved Uruguay, where he had traveled for business, so he bought a ranch about 30 miles east of Punta del Este. “That was a lifestyle decision,” he says. “I spend about half my time there.” He purchased the 12,000 acres in California with the idea that he’d raise a small number of cattle. “I was really hoping to break even or make a little money, and just rehab some pastures and make some good food.”


The 23,000 acres in Belize coalesced over a period of years. He bought Belcampo Lodge, then named El Pescador, because he’d gone fishing there. And he purchased thousands of acres around it for the sake of preservation.


“I wanted to do something philanthropic, but when I looked more deeply at some of these opportunities, I wondered how effective some of these nongovernmental organizations are,” Robinson explains. “Some of these NGOs come in and buy up all this property, and then they walk away. And their rules are, ‘You can’t do anything with it.’ So the locals are literally hungry, and there’s animals and wood in that land, and then they go and they loot, and there are no rules—as opposed to preserving the land and using it.”


But figuring out what to do with all his land proved a challenge. Uruguay, the smallest parcel, was already raising cattle. (Fernald would add olive oil.) But Belize was more complicated; consultant suggested plans for eco-marinas and a fertilizer-free golf course “didn’t feel right” to Robinson. In California, he rejected proposals to wholesale meat to restaurants or start a chain of grass-fed burger joints.


Plus, Robinson says, it turned out that raising beef on a relatively small scale was extremely difficult without a slaughterhouse. When most modern slaughterhouses are killing 2,000 animals a day, they’re not very interested in a small farmer who wants to slaughter two or three a month, and under the most sanitary and humane conditions possible.


“I started to realize that you can’t do this on a calculator and a legal pad,” Robinson says. He began searching for someone who knew how to transform empty farmland into an eco-friendly but moneymaking property.


Fernald had returned to California from Italy in 2005. She brought with her a husband— Renato Sardo, who had been the director of Slow Food Association and has since started an organic pasta company, Baia Pasta—and a sense that the time was right to come home: Americans were increasingly interested in artisanal food. Unlike when she had graduated from college, “there were just a lot of young people attracted to food as a career,” she says.


She took a job running the Growers Collaborative, a farmers’ cooperative that sold high-quality vegetables to hospitals and schools; in two years there she built a distribution system, bought a fleet of trucks and landed new clients such as Kaiser Permanente. Then, in late 2007, she became the director of Slow Food Nation, hired by Slow Food guru Alice Waters, founder of the legendary Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, to salvage a planned Slow Food festival that was over budget and behind schedule. Fernald rescued the event—“it couldn’t have happened without her,” Waters says now—and some 90,000 people turned out to sample artisanal food, attend panel discussions and hear music from Gnarls Barkley and Phil Lesh.


In the aftermath, Fernald launched a consulting company she named Live Culture. Boosted by the success of the festival, “I realized that if I were going to do my own business, this was the right time,” she says. The firm developed business plans for landowners, mostly wealthy ones. “A client might say, ‘OK, I bought 80 acres in Sonoma and I have a certain amount of money in the bank and I’d like to not lose money on my 80 acres, but I don’t want to do wine,’” Fernald explains.


She was by now a food celebrity. Well-known among Bay Area foodies, she had founded Eat Real, a food festival of her own, and reached a broader audience as a judge on the Food Network show Iron Chef America. She was certainly a gifted cook: Brilliant at making bread, cheese and jams, she also knew how to slaughter and butcher a cow. (“I would never eat meat if I didn’t know where it came from,” she says.) She was funny, warm and accessible, but also almost unnervingly confident. In a YouTube video of Fernald making sausage, she explains that she has a particularly large sausage stuffer because “I’m a big bad-ass.” Adds James Freeman, “Anya is cool, but she is formidable.”


At the end of 2008, Fernald got a call from Robinson, who had gotten her name from Alice Waters. He hired her as a consultant to develop a business plan, figuring out what ecoventures could make money and what never would. After two years of creating spreadsheets, “it was clear that the numbers were going to look good,” Fernald recalls. “And Todd said to me, ‘If I’m going to fund this long-term, you have to run it.’”


For years she had come up with concepts for other people’s businesses. Now Fernald realized that this was an offer she couldn’t refuse: the chance to run an experimental new company that would reflect her values, backed by a patient and quietly passionate billionaire who believed in the same things she did. “That kind of comfort level made me think, This is a bigger playing field than I’ve ever had the opportunity to work on before,” says Fernald.


The two entrepreneurs came up with the name “Belcampo,” which Robinson describes as “some combination of Latin and Italian and Spanish meaning ‘beautiful farm.’”


For Robinson, making money, while not a trivial goal, may be the least important part of the Belcampo project. “I could earn a lot more from my passive investments without ever doing anything than I would ever make from this, with a lot less risk,” Robinson says. “There’s no guarantee that the farm’s going to produce, that people are going to buy stuff from the store.”


And there are always unexpected hurdles. In recent years, for example, Chinese poachers have been hiring impoverished Guatemalans to cut down rosewood—extremely valuable in China—on Belcampo’s land in Belize. The poachers would arrive with chainsaws, do their work and disappear in a day or two, the trees on a boat to China, usually before anyone even knew they were there. Fernald instructed that Belcampo employees cut down all the mature rosewood they could find. If it was going to be chains awed anyway, at least it should stay in their hands.


That kind of dilemma is part of what motivates Robinson. “This isn’t just a straight-up business for me,” he says. “If it were, I’d put my money with my money manager and let him send me a check once a quarter. This is really the big philanthropic thing that I want to do.”

 




 

In November, Belcampo opened its first restaurant/butcher shop, Belcampo Meat Co., in Larkspur, about half an hour north of San Francisco. A New York Times reviewer wrote that “one half of the large space contains a long, gleaming stainless-steel butcher counter, filled with hunks of bright red meat,” flowing into “a spacious informal restaurant that serves an extremely simple, extremely meaty and deeply satisfying menu.”


“Anya identified a real weakness in the distribution chain,” Alice Waters says. “The links between the rancher, the slaughterhouse and the dinner table had all lost their transparency. She is trying to give that back to people in an incredibly ambitious way.”


At Belcampo Belize a few weeks later, Fernald nibbled on a breakfast of farm-fresh eggs—Belcampo’s chickens had recently survived a jaguar’s nocturnal attempts to break into their coop—and Guatemalan coffee. We sat on a deck overlooking the jungle; the air was filled with birdcalls and the deep, gruff barks of howler monkeys. Fernald kept one eye on her daughter, who was nearby with her nanny.


I asked Fernald where she hopes Belcampo will be in five years’ time. “I want to have seven or eight stores in California by that point,” she said. “To have this place producing rum, exporting it across the U.S. To have the lodge be at 80 to 90 percent occupancy,” while adding another six rooms to the current 12. “We’d also like to have two more properties,” she says. “We’ve learned to do a million things reasonably well at this point, and now that we’ve done that, it makes sense for me to take that and replicate it in other places.”


But what about the big picture? I ask. Wouldn’t she like to change the world? To be known as someone who pioneered a business with profound environmental benefits and influence?


“I hope there’ll be other people inspired by us and all those good, fuzzy things,” Fernald says, then quickly adds: “But I think we have a huge first-to-market opportunity.”

 

For more information, visit belcampoinc.com.

 

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2013 issue of Worth.