Bay Area ranchers open their own mobile meat processing plant, filling key gap for local industry
Bay Area livestock ranchers, including 24 in Sonoma County, are welcoming this week’s opening of their own slaughterhouse that fills a critical gap created more than two years ago.
The $1.2 million mobile processing plant, with a gleaming white 36-foot-long trailer purchased and set up at an area ranch by the 39-member Bay Area Ranchers Co-op, puts farmers producing beef cattle, pig, goat and sheep meat in control of their industry.
“It’s a big game changer in our food system,” said Duskie Estes, co-owner of the Black Pig Meat Co. and a co-op board member. “We are opening up the business place for small-scale animal husbandry.”
The co-op “exists solely for the benefit of the ranchers themselves who now have a guaranteed place to process their animals,” said Vince Trotter, sustainable ag coordinator at the Marin County UC Cooperative Extension, who helped the co-op get started.
“This is for ranchers who want to sell meat under their own label,” he said, noting that farmers will no longer need to share their revenue with a commercial slaughterhouse.
Sonoma County livestock ranchers produced $26.2 million worth of cattle, sheep and lambs in 2020, with more than 33,000 cattle accounting for 78% of the value, according to the latest county crop report.
The co-op’s members, ranging from Santa Cruz to Mendocino County, raise animals in open pastures rather than factory farms, officially known as confined animal feeding operations.
U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Jenny Lester Moffitt visited the new facility and met with some members Saturday to find out what it took to establish the co-op.
“USDA is working to build a more resilient, more transparent food system rooted in local and regional production where all businesses can compete fairly,” an agency spokesman said in an email.
Moffitt, a fifth-generation California rancher, wants to hear about the roadblocks the co-op faced “so she can bring that information back to the USDA to try to make it easier in other communities,” he said.
“There’s going to be a lot of interest in how we put it together,” said Adam Parks, a co-op board member and co-owner of Victorian Farmstead Meat Co., a Sebastopol meat company and butcher shop.
Inquiries have come from as far away as Oklahoma and North Carolina, he said.
The co-op is reluctant to name the location of its new facility out of concern over protests like the actions that have targeted Petaluma area poultry farms.
The unit, manufactured in Washington, is set up on a covered concrete pad with an adjacent corral, a facility designed to be “super humane” to the animals, Parks said in a video on the BAR-C Facebook page.
Animals are killed outside the trailer and carcasses come in through the back door into a small room where they are eviscerated and skinned one at a time, then moved to an adjacent room for cooling.
Motivation to form the co-op came when Marin Sun Farms, whose Petaluma slaughterhouse is the only USDA-certified facility in the Bay Area, announced in December, 2019 it wold no longer process animals for private rancher-owned labels.
“This puts us out of the business of selling to the retail market,” Pam Torliatt, a former Petaluma mayor and rancher, said at the time.
Marin Sun Farms continues to process animals for its own brands, Estes said. Her bacon company turned to ranches in Oregon and Washington for meat.
Some ranchers quit raising livestock for meat rather than undertaking the alternative of trucking their animals to slaughterhouses in the Central Valley and Eureka, traveling up to 250 miles each way.
In eight months, a dozen Sonoma County ranchers logged 26,150 miles making those trips, the equivalent of driving around the world, Estes said. Those trips combined resulted in 19.6 tons of emitted carbon dioxide, according to the co-op.
The co-op, about two years in the making, “will make sure that never happens again,” Parks said, adding that the cost savings to farmers “ultimately get passed to the consumer.”
Mobile slaughterhouses are cheaper than brick and mortar facilities, Trotter said, noting that two others, both in Petaluma, opened within the past year and operated by ranching entrepreneurs.
Any profits from the operation will be returned to the co-op members, he said.
The only other USDA-inspected mobile slaughterhouse is in the Central Coast, Trotter said.
BAR-C raised $1.2 from investors and is now seeking an additional $400,000 to cover recent cost increases and unexpected expenses.
There’s an environmental payoff, as well, Parks said, from invigorating small-scale, multigenerational ranches that sustain their lands.
“This is the future of regenerative agriculture,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or email@example.com. On Twitter @guykovner.