Ranchers herald Rancho rebirth

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.

"We are in the process of reducing our herd size by about half," Gale said, explaining that it's just became too costly to care for the cows.

"We're also raising our prices this year for the first time in four years," he said.

Petaluma area dairies are also paying more to produce milk this year. McIsaac & Son Dairy has to truck 20,000 gallons of water every day to their rural ranch. It's a chore that only Neil McIsaac Jr. is certified to do, so he spends five hours a day, seven days a week driving back and forth from the ranch to obtain water.

"There's no other choice; that's what we have to do," said his wife, Jessica McIsaac. "My father-in-law has kept cows on this ranch for 40 years, and he said it's the worst (conditions) he's ever seen."

Like the Gales, the McIsaacs' pastures don't have the green grass that normally brightens the fields this time of year, and have taken to trucking in feed as well. It's another cost in a long list of unexpected expenses this year.

"We're having to bring in a lot more hay, plus the cost of water, plus the cost of gas running the truck all the time for water, plus the cost of maintaining the truck, which is thousands of dollars — it's a lot," said an exhausted Jessica McIsaac.

Tesconi said the Farm Bureau is helping ranchers connect with grants and assistance programs offered by USDA and the California Department of Food and Agriculture to offset some of the production costs associated with the drought.

"The stress is what's worst," Jessica McIsaac said. "Not knowing how long this will go on for."

(Contact Emily Charrier at emily.charrier@arguscourier.com)