Fourth-generation rancher David Evans remembers the "tidal wave of demand" for pasture-raised meats that followed Michael Pollan's 2006 book on the U.S. food system.
"We got inundated," he recalled of the publication of "The Omnivore's Dilemma."
Evans has spent years building a regional system to serve the small but growing number of Bay Area residents who want an alternative to conventional meat production. As the owner of San Francisco-based Marin Sun Farms, he takes an approach that differs markedly from the mainstream meat industry, which typically relies on antibiotics, cattle feedlots and poultry warehouses.
Evans' recent purchase of a recall-shuttered slaughterhouse in Petaluma has allowed him to add a critical piece to his meat production system. With his plan to reopen the former Rancho Feeding Corporation plant, he seeks to tie together a food chain that includes local ranches, a San Francisco meat cutting plant and two Bay Area butcher shops — essentially moving beef, pork and other meats from pasture to plate.
For North Bay ranchers who feared the region's last slaughterhouse would never reopen, reaction to the plant's purchase is largely positive, albeit some privately worrying how Evans will treat rival businesses.
Evans maintained he will treat everyone fairly and said the plant's reopening will allow beginning and veteran ranchers to take the next step forward in a niche business that can be far more profitable than selling cattle and other animals for commodity meats.
Under his control, he plans to add organic processing to the services he can provide ranchers. However, unlike the former owners, Evans doesn't intend to purchase older dairy cows and other cattle for the conventional meat market. That means dairy farmers and possibly some other ranchers will lose a key buyer of their animals.For Bay Area residents, Evans predicted the plant will provide more healthy, sustainable meat choices and can help transform the nation's food system that often boils down to "bigger, faster, cheaper." He insisted he isn't "anti-conventional" production, but he also told KQED radio</CW> that "the food system is way behind the times, and there's so much room for improvement. Let's make that happen."
For Evans himself, controlling the plant will help him reach a goal of expanding his business to $50 million annually in revenues within six years.
"With risk comes rewards," he said. "There's a lot of risk in this. I'm a risk taker."
Evans, 41 and a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo graduate, belongs to a small group of Marin County entrepreneurs who grew up on family farms but branched out to satisfy a growing demand for niche food products. They include organic dairy and creamery owner Albert Straus, grass-fed beef and lamb rancher Loren Poncia and Evans' sister, Julie Rossotti, a grass-fed veal and goat rancher.
"They really are thinking much differently than their parents or my generation," said Mike Gale, 72, who with his wife Sally owns Chileno Valley Ranch, a grass-fed beef operation west of Petaluma.
For years, Evans has pursued vertical integration in his business — essentially controlling as many steps as possible of meat production, from raising the animals to killing them, cutting up the meat, packaging it and selling it directly to customers.
"Going vertical, as Dave has, has been the smart thing and the very successful thing for him to do," Gale said.