Marin Sun Farms owner finds niche for former Rancho Feeding slaughterhouse in Petaluma

After using a slender blade to sever a beefy hunk of hindquarter, the butcher quickly separated sections of tenderloin and top sirloin for packaging, setting aside what would become New York strip steaks for further aging.

On a nearby table lay a slab of beef plate, or navel, which Marin Sun Farms owner David Evans described as similar to pork belly, from which comes bacon.

The plate “makes really great pastrami,” Evans said while standing in a Petaluma slaughterhouse that now doubles as an animal processing center and a “cut-and-wrap” butcher facility.

Evans this month is celebrating his first anniversary at the plant, whose previous owners had shut it down in the midst of a massive meat recall and federal investigation. Two owners and two employees of the former Rancho Feeding Corp. since have pleaded guilty to distributing adulterated meat, crimes that involved sneaking meat from diseased and condemned cattle past federal inspectors.

Since reopening the plant a year ago, Marin Sun Farms has slaughtered more than 12,000 cattle, hogs, sheep and goats - the latter two species added after operations resumed under the new company. The plant, recently certified for organic production, now employs 45 people. That includes about 30 brought from the company’s former butcher operations in San Francisco.

The level of activity there “speaks to the fact there is a real demand,” said AnnaRae Grabstein, Marin Sun’s director of operations.

The facility on Petaluma Boulevard North is the sole slaughterhouse for beef and hogs in the Bay Area. Both farmers and local officials consider its continued operation crucial to the growth of pasture-raised meat operations along the North Coast. And Evans said he is determined to make the facility a key link between small ranchers and the consumers who are willing to pay extra in order to eat healthy, pasture-raised meats and to keep family farms viable.

“We have very big growth plans,” he said.

Growth in organics

American consumers have exhibited a growing appetite for alternatives to conventionally raised food.

As one measure, sales of organic food increased 11.4 percent to $32.3 billion in 2013, the most recent data available, according to the Organic Trade Association. That includes a 12 percent jump in sales of organic beef to $160 million.

Pasture-raised beef, pork and lamb remain small niche markets in the U.S. meat industry. But ranchers and farm advisers maintain that such growing segments offer real opportunities for North Coast ranches, if the region has a slaughterhouse. Without such a facility, the cost of transporting animals to facilities in other parts of California no longer make financial sense to some local ranchers.

Farmer gets second chance

The closure of the Rancho plant in February 2014 appeared to be “the nail in the coffin for us,” said rancher Ray Crawford, whose family is building a hog-raising operation at its JDS Farms near west Santa Rosa. The closest remaining hog slaughterhouse in Modesto seemed too far away, he said.

But the takeover by Marin Sun Farms offered his family a second chance. Not only does it mean a closer processing plant, but Crawford plans to eventually sell hogs to Marin Sun Farms and have the pork make its way to consumers via the company’s distribution system.

“David already has that established,” Crawford said of Evans’ distribution efforts. “And frankly, I have enough on my plate anyway.”

Evans said he wants to buy animals from family farmers around California who can meet his standards for raising livestock. In describing the opportunity, he pointed to the success of North Bay dairy farmers who are earning a premium for their milk through such niche markets as organic production and cheese making.

“The same will happen with the meats,” he predicted. “And we’re on the forefront of it.”

The age of the Petaluma slaughterhouse remains a bit of a mystery, though Evans said a city official told him of finding a brief mention of the place in a newspaper from the 1920s.

Huge recall

In contrast, the facility received plenty of media attention in February 2014 after Rancho shut down operations and recalled 8.7 million pounds of beef and veal sold in the United States and Canada.

Roughly 44,000 retail establishments were involved in the recall, which included all the meat processed at the plant in 2013. A good portion of the meat reportedly was destined for fast-food hamburgers and frozen meat sandwiches.

Prosecutors later charged the two owners and two employees with processing and selling meat from an estimated 180 condemned and diseased cattle. All four pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing. No illnesses were ever linked to the tainted meat.

The recall caused financial harm to the small number of North Bay ranchers, including Evans, who used the plant for the custom slaughter of their grass-fed cattle and who were ordered to dispose of any remaining meat.

In the aftermath, “we really had a black eye,” said Stephanie Larson, director of the UC Cooperative Extension program in Sonoma County, which advises local farmers.

The shuttered facility’s future remained in limbo for about three weeks until Evans announced he and a small group of investors had bought for “several million dollars” the former Rancho plant.

“Sonoma County was faced with the real possibility of losing its last major slaughter facility,” said Tim Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “But David Evans rode in to save the day and bolster the county’s growing farm-to-plate livestock industry.”

David Rabbitt, the county supervisor for Petaluma, said the local farm community continues to tell him how much the slaughterhouse is needed.

“The greatest thing of all is that the place is even operating,” Rabbitt said.

A fourth-generation rancher, Evans started raising pasture-finished beef in 1998. He opened a butcher shop and restaurant in Point Reyes Station in 2005, later added an Oakland butcher’s shop and in 2013 opened a cut-and-wrap facility in San Francisco - an operation since closed. Shortly after purchasing the slaughterhouse, Evans said the plant would help him reach a goal of expanding his business to $50 million annually in revenues within six years.

Plant called profitable

As part of its supply system, Marin Sun Farms works with two food distributors in the Bay Area and has its own driver taking meat to Los Angeles and San Diego.

The plant’s weekly schedule includes two days for slaughtering cattle, two days for hogs and one day for sheep and goats.

The facility has a fresh coat of paint and the Marin Sun Farms icon on its exterior. Inside, the company has implemented extra precautions to double tag every carcass in order to better track the meat and ensure accountability.

Evans doesn’t talk much about the Rancho scandal, except to say that he’ll be happy when it’s put to rest.

But Larson maintained progress has been made in Rancho’s aftermath to ensure “that this never happens again.” Local congressmen, regulators, educators, farmers and Evans have talked about how to better work together to provide a safe source of local meat, she said.

“The credibility of the industry’s come back,” Larson said.

Evans didn’t disclose financial details but said the plant is profitable. The company recently added a second shift and his aim now is to bring in enough animals to reach capacity.

Organic certification

He said he is seeking new investment “to fuel that growth.” A small group of investors provided the funds for past expansions, including the purchase of the Petaluma plant, he said.

As part of the growth plans, Marin Sun Farms recently received organic certification for the slaughterhouse. That will allow its meats sold in restaurants and stores to be labeled organic if the animals were raised on similarly certified farms and ranches.

A key part in the certification requires using only those rinses, cleaners, sanitizers and other products that are allowed under the federally approved organic standards. The plant can’t allow any commingling of conventional and organic animals.

As such, Evans said, the plant will slaughter organically raised animals at a different time of day than conventional ones.

While it will take time for more ranchers to gain organic certification, Evans noted that the region already has an untapped opportunity: the North Bay’s dairy ranches. A large majority of those operations already are certified organic. For slaughter, their bull calves and other animals are currently trucked to an organic processing plant in Oregon. Evans hopes to eventually process some of those animals.

“Now we have the ability to do it here,” he said.

On Thursday, the Petaluma facility was visited by Adam Gaska of Mendocino Organics in Redwood Valley. Gaska, who with his wife, Paula, raises pork, lamb and beef, later reflected that North Coast ranchers are “pretty lucky” to have the local slaughterhouse. He keeps reading of ranchers in other regions who want to build a pasture-raised meat operation and “it’s just not possible” due to the lack of an independent processor willing to provide the needed services.

Evans last week provided a reporter and photographer with a tour of much of the Petaluma facility, though not the space known as the “kill floor.”

In contrast, the owners of Rancho declined to even comment for a 2010 story on the need for slaughterhouses in the region. The owners cited the opposition they had received from animal rights activists, including a suspected arson fire at the plant in 2000 for which a group called the Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility.

The protests haven’t gone away with the end of Rancho. A year ago 30 animal rights protesters demonstrated in front of the Petaluma Plant, then under the operation of Marin Sun Farms.

Given such opposition, Evans and ranchers said they must educate the public about how the purchase of their meats can keep a diversity of farming operations alive on the North Coast.

“Animal agriculture isn’t just about hamburger,” said Kyle Farmer of Magruder Ranch in Potter Valley. “It’s about open space. It’s about preserving this land.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit

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