By Mike Cianciulli
We’ve all been there. Slightly fatigued, not quite thinking clearly…Desperately needing a quick hit of protein to keep hunger at bay and buoy energy levels. Whether it’s while backcountry hiking, road tripping or simply working away with no regard for lunchtime, people have been reaching for dried beef since prehistoric times. It was the Ancient Egyptians who first preserved their meat by leaving it in the sun to dry.
Thankfully for us in this modern era, Figure Ate’s new biltong grab-and-go snack comes in a nifty little pouch, packed with 32 grams of protein and contains everything you want and nothing you don’t. Wait, what? Bill…who? What about beef jerky?
Turns out, despite it’s tasty twang and intriguing texture, there’s plenty of room for improvement when it comes to the curing and processing of dry beef. Most commercial jerky brands use ingredients like soy sauce, sugar, hydrolyzed corn protein, yeast extract, smoke flavor and maltodextrin. And then there’s the source of beef, which often comes from cows confined to a feed lot, pumped full of antibiotics, hormones and other synthetics while only chowing on GMO grain (as opposed to grass). Here at Figure Ate, we sought out a truly sustainable and regenerative version of these vital nips of protein. Enter biltong.
The word biltong literally means “strip of beef.” Originally created by the indigenous people of southern Africa over 400 years ago, biltong production is simple and not entirely far off from Ancient Egypt’s “organic” technique. The early Africans cured their meat by salting it and hanging it to air dry. Thus preserving it for consumption at a later date. Or whenever they required that quick protein hit, much along the lines with how biltong is produced and consumed today.
This uncompromised approach to dry beef is what inspired Figure Ate to release our second product in a growing line of restorative foods from regenerative agriculture. Figure Ate’s small-batch biltong comes from grass-fed and grass-finished cattle seasoned with organic spices (never any sugar or artificial preservatives) and supports the regeneration of grasslands while also providing plenty of nourishing proteins that our bodies crave. The all organic seasonings list contains words we can pronounce such as wine vinegar, sea salt, black pepper and coriander. (There’s also a “spiced” version available which includes organic red pepper flakes, garlic and paprika.)
Hungry for more? Here’s a high-level breakdown of Figure Ate’s biltong production process:
First, the raw beef is marinated with vinegar and spices. Then it is tumbled to tenderize the meat and further mingle with the marinade. After that, the beef is cut into strips and air-dried for seven to 10 days. Once our strict quality parameters are met, it’s cut into smaller, bite-sized pieces and packaged. (Nearly all of our packaging and shipping materials are able to return to the land without harm. Our goal is to continue working toward entirely compostable packaging.) What’s even better is that there are never any heat steps, additional preservatives or added sugars in our biltong, which beef jerky can’t exactly claim.
Beyond our drying methods and organic seasonings lies the key ingredient — pasture-raised, grass-fed and grass-finished beef from southwest Georgia’s White Oak Pastures. During our first meeting, we quickly realized that Figure Ate’s approach to the tenets of regenerative agriculture aligns perfectly with the mission of White Oak Pastures. We originally connected with them through our alliance with Savory Institute, which equips farmers and ranchers with the tools and knowledge to regenerate grasslands locally. Properly-managed livestock are the key to healthy grasslands, which absorb and store carbon in soils, teem with water and a biodiversity of species, provide nutritious, healthy foods and create economic abundance for farmers and ranchers.
Seems like a win-win? We think so. Let’s dig deeper…
Photo Courtesy of White Oak Pastures
Over the past 25 years, the land at White Oak Pastures has been steadily moving towards an American version of the African Serengeti plains. Cattle, sheep, goats, hogs, turkeys, chicken and geese all intermingle in the same fields, each complementing each other and enriching the soil for the pastures and over 80 types of vegetables.
“You have a natural rotation of grazing going on — nature’s way of mixing things,” said owner Will Harris, a fourth-generation cattleman born and raised at White Oak Pastures. “We try to emulate that here. For us, regenerative agriculture means we leave the land ecosystem better every year that we operate. Today, we don’t feed the animals. We feed the microbes in the soil. The soil feeds the plants and the plants feed the animals. And every generation, the animals are healthier and happier. The organic matter in our pastures has gone from 0.5% to 5% over 15 years.”
Photo Courtesy of White Oak Pastures
White Oak is also a zero-waste facility, meaning they’re doing all this farming without wasting a single thing. They make biodiesel out of matter from the cutting room floor and create liquid organic fertilizer out of the excess blood. Bones and guts are ground up to be used as compost. From the leftover fat, they make candles and soap. The hides become rugs and chew toys. Even the non-sellable chicken eggs are fed to the hogs as a protein source.
Needless to say, this five-star model of regenerative agriculture attracts people and workers from all over the nation to aid in their mission. And this has turned White Oak Pastures into one of the most successful organic suppliers in the country.
Sure the Serengeti vibe is an organic farmer’s nirvana. But for Harris, it wasn’t always this idyllic.
“It used to be ‘how many pounds of beef could I squeeze out of this operation at the lowest possible price,’” he quips in a deep southern drawl. “As we evolved, I quit thinking of it that way. Today, all I think about this land and these animals. One hundred thousand beating hearts out there.”
Photo Courtesy of White Oak Pastures
So what really distinguishes pasture-raised, grass-fed beef from conventional cattle ranching? Most cows in America are fed grain for several months to fatten them up quickly before slaughter. They live out their final days confined to a feedlot, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs. Along this process, they may be given antibiotics to prevent disease in crowded conditions and also hormones, synthetic vitamins or steroids to encourage unnatural fattening.
On the flip side, White Oak’s cattle forage on grass, pasture or hay — the natural diet of ruminant animals. They are free to roam, graze and live their entire life on the pasture, while unknowingly regenerating the soil. They’re never given any antibiotics or hormones because they gain weight at a natural rate, ultimately staying healthy and strong through their entire lives.
But it’s not all about the cows. There’s also plenty of environmental benefits for operating like White Oak does, especially compared to conventional beef production. White Oak boasts a negative carbon footprint, creating roughly -3.5 kg emissions per 1 kg of beef produced. This means reduced water use for irrigating crop land, reduced nutrient runoff from fertilizers or concentrated manure and increasing the natural habitat, all while simultaneously eliminating pesticide use.
And when you source biltong from the archetype of regenerative practices as we do, it’s fairly easy to adorn our packaging with meaningful certifications. Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV) research is performed to track and trace accountability around improving land health through regenerative agriculture, which can build soil fertility, sequester carbon, protect watersheds and facilitate biodiversity. Figure Ate’s biltong is Certified Humane, American Grassfed and Land to Market Verified — which is awarded as a result of positive EOV research.
Figure Ate was born out of the White Buffalo Land Trust, a non-profit dedicated to regenerative agriculture, which currently conducts EOV research at their Jalama Canyon Ranch. And as a Savory Hub, White Buffalo is a certifier to help train and educate others on how to implement the EOV/Land to Market framework. So when you see the Land to Market seal, rest easy knowing it provides true transparency back to regenerating land.
The Center for Regenerative Agriculture at Jalama Canyon Ranch
And that’s where all of Figure Ate’s proceeds return to as well — the regeneration of the land. Under the White Buffalo Land Trust umbrella, Figure Ate is unique in our ecosystem- and human health-first approach. For each product, we start by identifying ecological needs that can be addressed with regenerative agriculture and finish with nutrient-dense and delicious foods that can restore our bodies, communities and ecosystem. All of the land we steward, as well as our farming and ranching partners, go beyond organic standards to regenerate the land. Our practices aim to improve soil health, water cycles and biodiversity.
But back to this delicious biltong we’re nibbling on…The first thing you’ll notice is the lightweight feel and natural color of the beef. It’s not weighed down by added sugar or a syrupy coating like beef jerky. Whereas jerky comes in a variety of elaborate (artificial) flavors and a glossy (sugary) finish, our biltong has nothing to hide. The pieces of meat look exactly like what they are: pieces of meat. Flavor-wise, the organic spices create an earthy combo of zesty and savory and the meat itself tastes tender and fresh. Imagine a sliver of mouth-watering steak, except it’s air-dried to perfection. Considering our beef source, clean ingredients, Land to Market verification and, of course, Figure Ate Biltong’s major flavor, there’s really no need to settle for jerky ever again.