Blue Apron founder launches Cooks Venture: ‘We started by fixing the biggest problem in the food system: chicken’

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: Cooks Venture
Picture: Cooks Venture

Related tags regenerative agriculture

Meat often gets a bad rap on the sustainability front, but not all animal production systems have the same impact on the planet, says Blue Apron founder Matthew Wadiak, who has launched a regenerative agriculture venture that will initially focus on pasture-raised chickens, with cattle, pigs, grains, and vegetables to follow.

Cooks Venture​ – which has launched with frozen direct-to-consumer products, and will offer retail/foodservice products in July - has acquired an 800-acre farm in Arkansas with a hatchery, pedigree chickens and barns; and processing facilities in Oklahoma.

“At full capacity, our plant in Oklahoma will be able to produce 700,000 chickens per week​,” Wadiak told FoodNavigator-USA.

“It’s not a mega chicken plant, but it’s large and it’s a scalable operation. In the poultry industry there is nothing that’s really close to this. We're the only company of scale in the country that produces solely slow growing, pasture-raised birds with unrestricted access to the outdoors."

He added: “We want to build the store of the future where everything you buy is grown in a regenerative system, but is also high quality, and affordable.”

Asked if $15-20/chicken was affordable, he said: “If you look at the average price of a high quality chicken in a high-end retailer, it’s about $15-17 for something that’s below the standard of what we would serve. But I actually think that chicken has become too cheap. Portion sizes have also gotten out of control and we’re throwing half of our food away.”

We’re going to measure the soil health of every single grower that grows feed for us

The Cooks Venture team – which includes Richard Udale, an expert in slow growth breeding in the chicken industry; Crystal Lake Farms founder Blake Evans; and Mark Fisher, a US Army veteran with 26 years in the poultry industry - will measure soil health and carbon sequestration on its farms and those of partners and publish the results annually, said Wadiak.

“We’re going to measure the soil health of every single grower that grows feed for us, whether it’s sunflower, corn, soy, lupin or lentils.”

So do all partners and suppliers have to be certified organic or regenerative organic?

“There’s a base level for entry, so we don’t allow people to use synthetic chemicals like neonicotinoids, or glyphosate for GM crops, but some regenerative organic certifications out there have a very high bar and don’t provide incentives for a farmer to get from point A to B,” ​said Wadiak.

“So my view is that you have to meet people where they are, and show year over year improvements.  No one has really created a certification that combines husbandry, regenerative agriculture, and good eating quality, so we’ve created our own certification.

“Our chickens eat whole grains, whole toasted beans, and will eat more and more diverse crops over time.”

'We utilize four critical components of regenerative food systems'

While it is a complex subject, regenerative agriculture is in large part about enriching the soil and leaving it better than you found it, as well as caring for animals, said Wadiak.

We utilize four critical components of regenerative food systems: ruminants ​[eg. cattle], monogastrics ​[animals with one stomach such as chickens and pigs], feed crops, and vegetables, but there are lots of different ways to sequester carbon.”

He added: “With well managed cropping systems with appropriate crop rotations, in organic systems, we can feed monogastric farm animals while reversing the effects of carbon emissions. When these crops ​[eg. corn] are poorly managed, millions of acres of land can be negatively impacted just to grow a relatively small amount of feed for monogastric animals.  

“This is a major contributor to global warming, and perhaps the biggest threat to our ecosystem. Put simply: Monogastrics can be a huge part of the problem or a key piece of the solution – that’s why we started by fixing biggest problem in the food system: chicken.”

'There’s so much greenwashing out there'

But why is this better than organic agriculture?

“There’s so much greenwashing out there, and there’s a big difference between what I’d call an organic system, and USDA organic certification,” ​claimed Wadiak.

“Many organic farms might not be adding synthetic inputs to the soil, but they might be strip mining something in Colombia, Mexico and China and taking those minerals and adding them to the soil, and that’s not any ecologically any better than conventional agriculture.

“In a truly organic or regenerative system, we’re trying to eliminate those input substitutions and if we’re using inputs, they are generally produced on farm, nearby, or in an ecological system that makes more sense.”

Is plant-based meat the answer?

But wouldn't it be better for animals and the environment if we switched to plant-based meat?

"Eating plants is not the solution, especially if plant based meats are made from crops grown with conventional agriculture," ​argued Wadiak. "That is one of the misnomers with a lot of the greenwashing that’s happening.”

By participating in the third-party verified Global Animal Partnership Step 4 program… Cooks Venture demonstrates its commitment to high animal welfare standards and transparency.”

Nancy Roulston, director, corporate engagement, ASPCA Farm Animal Welfare Campaign

We must move to regenerative systems. I’ve spent ten years partnering with thought leaders and scientists to perfect farming methodology and working diligently to regenerate the sources of food consumption. We are building better communities through progressive agriculture processes, while allowing consumers to vote with their dollars, to ultimately reverse global warming and create better tasting and healthier food​.”

Matthew Wadiak, founder and CEO, Cooks Venture

Cooks Venture_3

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