Food Companies United by a Greater Mission by Jane Black

A green pasture showing several wooden crates and pigs roaming outside

 

For more than 50 years, White Oak Pastures was a conventional cattle ranch. The Harris family raised young steers, then sent them to be fattened at a feedlota practice that White Oaks’ current proprietor, Will Harris, now likes to say is the equivalent of “raising your daughter to be a princess and then sending her to the whorehouse.” Over the last 20 years, Harris has remade his farm into a showplace for regenerative agriculture. Today, along with cattle, he raises sheep, hogs, chickens, turkeys, and ducks, and the farm has helped to remake the economy of its rural hometown of Bluffton, Georgia.

 

It’s no wonder then that the Savory Institute, a pioneer in regenerative agriculture, chose White Oak as the location for the first meeting of its corporate and foundation sponsors. Among them was EPIC Provisions founders Katie and Taylor Collins, along with Gina Asoudegan, Applegate vice president of mission and innovation.

 

On paper, the two companies are competitors. Both sell high-end meat and snacks to the kind of consumers who understand the importance of good animal welfare practices and reducing the use of antibiotics in agriculture. But together, on the farm, they got to talking about what it would take not just to support White Oak Pastures, but to remake more farms in the United States in its image.

 

“We realized that if we’re really going to scale this kind of ‘tip-of-the-spear’ agriculture, we’re going to need to work together to use every part of the animal,” Asoudegan remembers. “It’s obvious, of course, but the thought of competitors working together doesn’t come up—not unless you’re in this convivial situation at Will Harris’s ranch.”

 

It took more than a year to find the right project. In September 2018, EPIC was looking to boost its supply of pork skins, which it uses to make its popular pork rind snacks. While high-end pork rinds sounds like an oxymoron, says the company’s chief financial and operating officer, Robby Sansom, they made perfect sense at EPIC. Pork rinds are exactly the type of products sought by EPIC’s many consumers seeking to follow keto and paleo principles with an emphasis on options high in protein, rich in fat, and low in carbs. And the market was lacking in pork rinds made from high-quality pork. EPIC bridged the gap, and the snacks sold like crazy.

 A mom and her piglet stand in an open field with a fenced and grassy area behind them.

 

At first, EPIC had tried to build its own supply chain for premium pork skins. But a robust market for them didn’t exist because, until EPIC, no one had ever asked for them. “Even the skins from animals raised the right way are just sold [at a discount] into the commodity market,” says Sansom. “There’s no process for segregating the good stuff and the less good stuff.”

 

Led by Kirk Blanchard, EPIC’s then-director of operations, EPIC began to pay processors for taking the time and trouble of separating out the high-quality pig skins. But the demand for pork rinds grew faster than EPIC could build up its supply. Blanchard picked up the phone and called Applegate.

 

Matt Hackfort, Applegate’s senior director of raw supply, answered the call. Within minutes, it was clear that the two men had a lot in common. Both represented small companies—at least in meat industry terms—with high animal-welfare standards. Both were charged with upholding the highest food-safety standards.

 

But while EPIC specializes in ruminants such as cattle and bison, Applegate’s biggest business is pork. Applegate was founded in 1987 by Stephen McDonnell, a reluctant vegetarian who really missed eating meat, and was determined to find a way that he could feel good about eating it. Applegate started with bacon without synthetic nitrites and, soon, became a pioneer in changing the meat Americans eat—banning antibiotics in its animal agriculture sourcing and promoting organic and grass-fed cheese and meat.

 

A full-grown pig stands in an open field and faces rancher Josh Trumm. Josh is wearing a red hoodie, a gray cap, neutral-colored pants and rain boots. More pigs can be seen in the background feeding and foraging in the open pasture. Josh Trumm is one of four brothers who run the Trumm Farm, one of Applegate’s pork suppliers, located in Cascade, Iowa

 

Today, Applegate has the largest network of certified no-antibiotics-ever, high animal-welfare pork in the country. Among other things, its standards mandate: no gestation crates, no tail docking or ear notching, and 33% more space for hogs than conventional standards. The pigs are free to engage in natural behaviors, with more space and environmental enrichments compared to conventionally raised pork. They are given outdoor access and vegetarian feed with no animal byproducts. All farms are certified by third-party certifiers like Global Animal Partnership and Certified Humane. By partnering with Applegate, Blanchard didn’t have to build a whole new supply chain. He could tap into one that already existed.

 

“It was obvious that Kirk just got it,” says Hackfort. “I didn’t have to spend all that time talking about why we do what we do or why it’s different. We were able to get right down to business.”

 

There was another reason to work together, too. Both EPIC and Applegate are committed to helping farmers succeed financially. When EPIC buys with Applegate, the company’s farmers get a premium price for not just bellies and hams but for skins as well. That’s more money in their pockets and more proof to other, still skeptical ranchers, that it pays, literally, to raise animals well.

 

“The more we focus on using every part of the animal, the more money goes back to the farmer and rancher, and the more it fuels growth,” says Blanchard. “The reality is we are not always able to use the entire carcass, so partnering with other brands that use other parts of the animal, well, that’s just logical.”

 

Two full-grown pigs and their piglets forage in an open field in Iowa.

 

EPIC is buying pork skins from Applegate weekly. Without the collaboration, it would have been a lot harder to bring new flavors to market, which were introduced earlier this year. EPIC and Applegate are now looking for other ways to work together.

 

“In some ways, we can learn from big agriculture,” says Applegate’s Asoudegan. “They are laser focused on efficiency and finding a home for every part of the animal so they can make their products affordable. We owe it to our customers to do the same, but never at the expense of our values. Collaborating with EPIC has made that possible.” 

 

 Jane Black is a Washington, D.C.-based food writer who covers food politics, trends, and sustainability, and has a particular interest in how Americans shop, eat, and think about food. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. In her free time, she cooks, eats, and travels to eat—whenever possible to Italy.

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