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.
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.