Slaughterhouse 2.0: a new chapter

As federal investigators continue probing the alleged violations leading to the sudden closure of Petaluma's Rancho Feeding slaughterhouse and the unprecedented recall of nearly 9 million pounds of beef harvested there in 2013, the business' pending sale to a well-respected West Marin grass-fed beef producer offers hope that the plant will soon reopen with a renewed vision for expanding market access to naturally raised local meats.

This is not only good news for the dozens of local grass-fed, pasture-raised and organic beef producers who have been harmed by the plant's shutdown, but also to the large and growing number of Petaluma "locavores" who prefer to buy and consume locally produced foods.

Petaluma-area natural beef producers, like Chileno Valley Ranch's Mike Gale, have taken a one-two punch this year, first from the ongoing drought which eliminated most of the green grass which cattle feed on during the winter months. Ranchers were instead forced to buy alternative feed such as hay and alfalfa, but because those crops were also hit hard by drought conditions, supplies are low and costs are high. Gale has seen his production expenses skyrocket by thousands of dollars this year, including an $18,000 increase in feed costs alone.

Gale characterized the recent closure of Rancho Feeding, the North Bay's only slaughterhouse, as the "final nail in the coffin" for his business, since trucking his herd to another slaughterhouse in the central valley essentially doubles his transportation costs. The result: Gale is reducing his herd size by half and raising his prices.

None of this is good news to the thousands of Petaluma residents seeking to buy locally raised grass-fed beef. Many Petalumans are wise to the health impacts and environmental hazards of beef produced at factory farms and feedlots, and prefer to buy sustainably farmed, pasture-raised beef free of antibiotics and hormones. They know that grass-fed beef has far less saturated fat than corn-fed beef, and roughly double the amount of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Purchasing locally produced meat also reduces greenhouse gas emissions and strengthens the local economy, which is why demand for such products continues to soar.

Before it was closed, Rancho Feeding's primary business was slaughtering old dairy cows and selling the beef to meat processors that supplied fast food restaurants and packaged meat producers. That was a worthy enterprise, especially given the importance of the dairy industry to the south county agricultural economy.

While it's unknown whether the plant's new owner, David Evans, founder of Marin Sun Farms, will continue slaughtering dairy cows at the North Petaluma Boulevard facility, it's clear that his vision is far broader than that of former Rancho operators Jesse "Babe" Amaral and Robert Singleton, currently targets of federal investigations that they allegedly "circumvented" necessary inspections and processed "diseased and unsound" animals.

Evans, a longtime Rancho customer, quickly made plans to buy the slaughterhouse shortly after it was shuttered and hopes to open for business in a few weeks pending federal approvals. While the new owner plans 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, meat grinding, livestock hauling, packing, labeling, distribution and even sales services for local meat producers.

Once opened, the new slaughterhouse will process beef and pork, but plans to add lamb and goat in the coming months. Evans says the business will work to become organically certified by year-end.

We, like most of our readers, remain perplexed about the reasons government officials decided to close Rancho Feeding.

At the same time, we're excited to see an agrarian entrepreneur with Evans credentials and a strong focus on creating a more sustainable food model, stepping up to fill the void.