There’s a growing number of online marketplaces offering to ship boxes of meat from the farm, direct to the consumer. Not only do they promise to cut out the costly middleman, but many of them also offer consumers many of the labels they increasingly look for such as pasture-raised, grass-fed, grass-finished, humane, small-batch and so on. According to a 2010 consumer reports poll, 93% of consumers want to know where their meat comes from.
For a new service out of Minnesota, they’re also doing it for the birds. Blue Nest Beef has another label for its domestically raised, grass-fed beef: “from bird-friendly land.” The startup has partnered with the National Audubon Society, a major bird conservation group, and sources its meat from ranches that have a certification from the society. Many of Audubon’s requirements dovetail with regenerative grazing principles regarding soil health, water quality, animal welfare, and preserving ecosystem balance. And the presence of birds serves as one of the simplest and best resources to help determine which ranchers are using their cattle for good and pursuing truly regenerative farming practices, according to the company.
Blue Nest Beef is hoping that the certification will help differentiate its product in the growing online meat vendor market by attracting consumers who want to support wildlife habitat as well as domestically-raised beef. Many competitors in the online meat vendor space rely on some imported products, according to Conser.
“There are a lot of consumers that are confused by all of these labels but if we can bring a high level of integrity through a partner like Audubon and deliver a high-quality product, from a farmer doing something good for the American system, we can build consumer trust. That’s a key part of scaling for us,” Russ Conser, CEO of Blue Nest Beef, tells AFN. Conser is a former Fortune 50 business and technology leader who led Shell’s GameChanger innovation program.
Birds are the treasure as well as the measure
“The Audubon Conservation Ranching certification program is a win-win for farmers and ranchers as well as birds,” said Marshall Johnson, National Audubon Society VP for conservation ranching, in a statement announcing Blue Nest Beef’s launch. “By restoring prairie habitats through stewardship of grazing lands, producers who meet Audubon’s stringent requirements are awarded a green ‘grazed on bird-friendly land’ seal. Our seal marks a premium product for consumers who want to know their purchases contribute to sustainable land use.”
Requiring ranchers to comply with Audubon’s bird-friendly management practices, Blue Nest Beef is hoping to assure consumers that the meat on their plates was raised in an environmentally-friendly, regenerative manner. As Audubon says, birds are the treasure as well as the measure.
“There still isn’t very much domestic grass-fed beef produced and what is produced is almost entirely sold direct-to-consumer,” Todd Churchill, chief marketing and financial officer at newly-launched Blue Nest Beef, told AFN. “If we really want to have an impact on the environment and capture the benefits that we know can be created with properly managed cattle grazing, we have to achieve scale.”
Also aiding Blue Nest Beef’s effort is chief pasture advisor Allen Williams, a nationally recognized expert on both grass-fed beef production and soil health, as well as executive VP of land and livestock Bill Godfrey, who claims to own the first Audubon-certified ranch in Oklahoma.
Churchill launched the 100% grass-fed beef company Thousand Hills in Minnesota in 2003 and considers himself a pioneer in the grass beef business. Once he showed that the market had an appetite for a different type of beef, many of the market buyers switched to imported Uruguayan and Australian meat, he explains.
A hot debate about COOL
The question of whether grass-fed, regeneratively-managed beef is scalable – or even how big the current grass-fed beef industry might be – has been a hotly debated one throughout the community. And while you can find differing opinions regarding the answer to that question, the rapidly growing market demand is clear; demand for grass-fed beef grew from $17 million in 2012 to $272 million in 2016, doubling each year along the way, according to Nielsen data.
“It might be better to say, ‘is it a market problem, or a supply problem?’ It’s a chicken and egg thing. To create supply, we have to create a market of people who can distinguish between American-raised grass-fed beef and imported grass-fed beef,” Churchill explains. “We have to provide consumers with an option to purchase something exclusively coming from the US.”
Country of origin labeling, or COOL, is also an increasingly firey topic in the meat industry and among concerned consumers. In 2015, the Obama administration rolled back regulations in the USDA’s COOL program that required meat products to disclose the country of origin. The remaining rules allowed meat imports shipped to the US to be labeled as “product of USA” as long as the meat underwent further processing on US soil. This means that a steer butchered in Uruguay and processed into steaks at a meatpacking plant in Colorado is labeled as a product of the USA, the New Food Economy reported.
The problem with reinstating COOL regulations, however, has far-reaching international trade implications. What prompted the Obama administration’s decision to rollback COOL was in response to a decision from the World Trade Organization authorizing Canada and Mexico to target $1 billion worth of tariffs against the US in response to COOL. According to our northern and southern trade partners, labeling domestically-produced meat products created a stigma against imports of Canadian and Mexican meat products.
A fowl solution that fits the bill?
Switching management practices and complying with Audubon’s requirements is no small undertaking, however. To incentivize ranchers, Blue Nest Beef is providing “a significant premium” to ranchers with Audubon’s certification.
“The first step is working with ranchers who are already certified by Audubon. We take the certification requirements which are excellent but focused on environmental benefits and we stack on top our requirements, which reflect the eating experience we want the customer to have,” Churchill explains.
This requires ensuring that cattle are eating a species-appropriate diet free of grain, not kept in confinement, and not provided with hormones or antibiotics. Low-stress animal handling and cattle with genetics well-suited to grass-finishing are also key for Blue Nest Beef. So far, it’s working with four ranches with Audubon’s certification that meet these additional requirements.
As far as launching a meat business during the rising tide of plant-based protein and increasingly anti-meat rhetoric calling for everything from meatless Mondays to a global shift to veganism, Conser sees the ongoing dialogue as a wonderful opportunity.
“We really appreciate the fact that there are more thoughtful leaders trying to make decisions about how food affects bodies and the environment at the same time. From our perspective, people are not doing a deep enough dive to understand the real science behind the choices,” he explains. “We are trying to demonstrate that with a more thoughtful business model, supply chain design, and education, we can bring something to scale. We view the plant-based movement as igniting the right questions within the consuming community and we hope to provide a new choice that will be more deeply grounded.”
Blue Nest Beef is launching with two box options that can be ordered monthly, bimonthly or quarterly: the Premier Flyway Beef Box with 12-14 lbs of mixed steaks, roasts, and ground beef for $179, and the Prairie Ground Box with 10 lbs of ground beef and burgers for $99. The company is also expanding its partnerships with conservation and like-minded organizations, including a new national sponsorship with Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever to bring better beef with a bigger purpose to the broader bird-loving community.