Between the enduring drought and the shuttering of the North Bay's only slaughterhouse, Petaluma's cattle ranchers and dairy farmers are watching their production costs skyrocket this year. The only silver lining in sight is Marin Sun Farms, which plans to reopen the local slaughterhouse as a new business at the end of this month.
"The only real hindrance is USDA and the time it takes to get a permit," said Jeff Bordes, spokesman for Marin Sun Farms.
It will mark the end of Rancho Feeding Corp., which has provided meat processing to ranchers across the North Coast for decades. Owned and operated by Petalumans Jesse "Babe" Amaral and Robert Singleton, Rancho Feeding Corp. ceased operation early in February amidst a recall of nearly 9 million pounds of beef products. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Attorney's Office are both investigating claims that the proprietors "circumvented" necessary inspections and processed "diseased and unsound" animals. Those investigations continue, but will not stop Marin Sun Farms from opening its own slaughterhouse on the same site.
Marin Sun Farms' owner, David Evans, was a longtime customer of the Petaluma plant, and quickly made plans to buy it when the business shut down. While the new owners plan to use the same location and some of the same equipment, Marin Sun Farms will operate as a new business, with its own standards and permits. In addition to USDA approved slaughters, the business will also offer custom butchering and meat grinding to customers.
"In linking this with our cut-and-wrap facility in San Francisco, ranchers who want it will have greater access to processing and retail markets," Evans wrote in a letter on his website, where he confirmed the company's intentions to open by March 31.
Once opened, the new slaughterhouse will process beef and pork, but plans to add lamb and goat in the coming months. The business is also working to become certified organic, which it hopes to obtain by year-end.
The news that the new owners are moving quickly to reopen the slaughterhouse came as welcome relief for Petaluma ranchers, who have been footing the bill to truck their cattle to alternative facilities in the Central Valley since Rancho Feeding Corp. shut down.
"It probably cost double what I paid to ship the animals to Rancho," said Mike Gale of Chileno Valley Ranch, one of Petaluma's premium grass-fed beef businesses.
Tim Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, said he's heard anxiety from ranchers who feared the slaughterhouse would close for good.
"It's not so much the cost but the time to get their cattle to another slaughterhouse," Tesconi said. "It's five or six hours on the road; that just doesn't work."
Gale said the slaughterhouse shuttering was the nail in the coffin on an already difficult drought year. The lack of rain has meant a lack of grass, which most ranchers count on to sustain their animals during the winter months.
"We're supplementing them (the cattle) with alfalfa," Gale said.
Many ranchers are turning to alternative feeds such as hay, alfalfa or other grains to ensure their animals are fed. But those crops were also hit hard by drought conditions, which decimated a majority of crops in Sonoma County, meaning supplies are limited and costs are higher. Gale has seen his production expenses increase by thousands of dollars this year, including an $18,000 increase in feed costs alone.