- Written by: Mary Raitt Jordan
- Produced by: Liz Fallon & Matt Welch
- Estimated reading time: 4 mins
There’s nothing like sinking your teeth into the perfect, mouth-watering Wagyu ribeye. The marbling of the cut; the soft, velvety texture; the unctuous flavor achieved by grilling over an open flame. As steaks go, these premium cuts are as good as it gets.
Francois Leger, owner of FPL Food, LLC, has been selling high-quality Wagyu out of the company’s Augusta, Georgia, facility since 2004. As part of his life-long goal to change the way people look at the steaks on their plates, Francois is determined to put the Southeast U.S. on the map as a beef-producing powerhouse.
Through its four dedicated farms, FPL Food is helping transform meat production in the Southeast by raising thousands of hormones- and antibiotic-free cattle by maintaining a genetically purebred herd of Chatel Ankony Black Angus and Wagyu cattle.
FPL Food has transformed the region’s cattle industry by raising hormone and antibiotic-free Angus and Akaushi Wagyu cattle on its four farms in Georgia, creating vertically integrated farming and harvesting processes that put both the wellbeing of the animal and the quality of the product at the fore, Leger says.
“It is a deeply-rewarding process—from harvesting our own grains to what we finally put on the plate of a consumer,” he says.
Quality is priority 1
When it comes to creating the perfect steak, there’s no cutting corners, Leger insists.
That process begins at FPL’s Chatel Farms: 3,500 acres of pristine farmland that supports 50 percent of its feed. The crops nourish the company’s impeccably bred cattle, including its own herd of the Akaushi breed of Japanese cow collectively known as Wagyu, that creates a tender, almost buttery-flavored meat with a high degree of fat marbling.
Leger says FPL Food meticulously researches the genetics of each breed, including for its growing herd of pure-blood Akaushi and its genetically pure Black Angus. By methodically conducting DNA tests on each animal—from the time they step foot on the farm to when the animals are harvested—FPL Food ensures purity.
Once born, each calf is raised humanely at FPL’s calf farm, located just miles from Chatel Farms. Here, calves are allowed to graze the pastures and feed on a custom blend of grains. Then, they’re moved to the barns, where they’re transitioned to an all-corn diet. According to Leger, all feeding operations are overseen by an on-staff veterinarian and several bovine nutritionists.
“We turned to nature for producing healthy food, long before it became popular to fully consider the benefits of anti-growth hormones and antibiotic-free meat,” he says.
As for the cattle themselves, Leger says each animal is treated with respect, and that FPL Food goes to “great lengths to ensure their comfort.”
To reduce stress on the animals, Chatel Farms provides shade, fans, water, and quality grasses. In addition, specially designed barns help lessen the Georgia heat by promoting additional airflow while the animals feed. The more heat-tolerant Wagyu live in comfortable pens outdoors, while the Angus spend more time in a barn, with ample space for each cow. All cattle are fed at a natural pace to simulate natural grazing patterns during their periods of confinement.
FPL Food is also engaged in collaborative efforts to promote its Black Angus and Wagyu breeds by selling its bulls to interested farmers while buying back the calves.
What this also means, long-term, is that FPL Food can ensure the quality of its meat by securing the value of its herds. The better the cow, Leger says, the better the end product. Typically, up to 25 percent will be considered “prime”—the highest level of quality on the scale set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture—while the remainder will be considered “choice plus.”
Care and commitment
FPL Foods’ operations are a labor of love. Leger says the work involves continually seeking ways to improve the feeding and production of its animals and crops. In fact, the farms are often referred to as a large-scale “research and development project.”
In addition to the care afforded to its livestock, FPL Food has adopted sustainability measures. For example, manure is stored and covered on a concrete pad to prevent runoff. With that storage area in place, FPL Foods has invested in a specialized tank that presses the collected manure. The liquids are sprayed on the land to replace chemical fertilizers, while the solids are composted with a liner placed underneath the pile to prevent groundwater contamination.
These measures alone have improved the farm’s yield of silage (cattle food) by up to four tons per acre in three years.
“We have to give back to land what we take out of it,” Leger says. “While these practices lead to increased costs, it’s a good—and moral—business practice in the long run, ensuring the animals’ health, the protection of the land and the overall quality of the product.”
Leger insists that FPL Food will continue to research every detail in the food production process—all with the aim of bringing the best possible beef to as many plates as possible.
“I think every farmer in the U.S. wants to do the right thing,” Leger says. “That is certainly where we are coming from and what we try to do here: to act responsibly and do our share to reduce the carbon footprint while putting food on the table.”
View this feature in the Terra Firma Vol I 2022 Edition here.
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