New vision for old abattoir

Following a tumultuous three months tied to its closure from a massive, nationwide meat recall, the Petaluma slaughterhouse formerly run by Rancho Feeding Corp. is about to re-open for business on April 7 under new, and quite different, ownership.

"Welcome to 1522 Petaluma Blvd., the new home of Marin Sun Farms Petaluma, a slaughterhouse of great significance to the California high quality meat supply," said Point Reyes rancher David Evans on Friday, during a press conference held at the newly whitewashed facility. With him was Danny Kramer, chief operating officer of the company. Both men consciously focused on the future of the slaughterhouse and the meat production system, rather than the controversial past and closure of Rancho Feeding.

Evans offers as much a new vision for "creating a more sustainable food system" as new ownership. "This slaughterhouse will link seamlessly to Marin Sun Farms San Francisco," he said, speaking of the Bay Area cut-and-wrap facility he opened last year.

"Anyone within our food-shed now has the opportunity to deliver their livestock, their story, their values, to this Petaluma facility and choose from a suite of services, from slaughter to fabrication and packing to sales and distribution, and everything in between."

The repeated emphasis on values, relationships and story was one sign of what might be termed a new generation of ownership — both Evans and Kramer are not yet 40 years old. The new coat of white paint on the facility's several buildings was another. Gone too are the signature wooden cow and calf straddling the roofline; a new green Marin Sun Farms logo will be painted in the next couple months.

Also known as the Rancho Veal Slaughterhouse, the facility shut down in January after it was forced to recall 8.7 million pounds of meat by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which accused the company of processing "diseased and unsound animals" outside the presence of federal inspectors.

Rather than dwelling on the still-unfolding story of Rancho Feeding, Evans took an intentionally forward-looking stance. "Marin Sun Farms Petaluma is a completely new business and new operator setting up completely new procedures and processes in a facility that was formerly owned by someone else," he said.

The multi-million dollar funding to purchase the property, buildings and equipment of the long-standing slaughterhouse was put together with the help of Ali Partovi, an early investor in Facebook, Zappos and DropBox, reported the San Francisco Business Times. Kramer would only say it was a "significant" investment.

When asked about the condition of the slaughterhouse upon purchase, Evans said, "It's a used car. Some of the systems are better than others. There were new pieces of equipment that we're very blessed to have, but it's a very old facility."

At least initially, production will include about 100 beef and 100 hogs a week, and possibly sheep and goats added in the future. "Anyone who's using this facility has no obligation to use anything but our slaughter services, because that's what this facility is," Evans pointed out.

The new ownership is not entirely a clean sweep — most of the 14 employees formerly worked for Rancho, including slaughter floor personnel, butchers, and workers in tripe-washing, offal, distribution, and loading. Scott Parks, Rancho's quality control manager, has also been retained — not as an employee, but an "advisor," said Kramer, for his "facility specific knowledge."

"The change comes from the top," added Kramer. "We have new leadership and new decision-making structure here."

Local ranchers who have used Rancho in the past are welcoming, but cautious. "A lot of us are taking the wait-and-see," said Doniga Markegard, whose grass-fed beef ranch has pastures in Bodega Bay and Sonoma Mountain. "Hopefully Marin Sun Farms Petaluma will be able to have enough competitive pricing compared to those other slaughterhouses to use their services."

Dairy ranchers earlier expressed concern over whether the facility would continue slaughtering cattle from dairy or beef operations that are no longer productive – "skinny cows," as one local rancher called them. "They're not sick or diseased, they're just not putting on weight," explained Jessica McIsaac of Neil McIsaac & Son Dairy.

"I like Dave (Evans), I think he's doing great things. But if he's not taking skinny cows, he's not really helping dairy people in Sonoma County," she told the Argus-Courier two weeks ago. During last week's press conference, Evans sought to clarify the matter.

"I'll be very clear on this," said Evans. "If an older animal of any breed, whether dairy or beef, is of good condition and good health, our doors are open to that animal getting properly inspected all the way through this facility." Still, he emphasized, "Our main concern here is that we're bringing healthy meat into the food supply and that there are proper evaluations in place."

He and Kramer stressed they would be working closely with USDA inspectors throughout the process, and hope to attain organic certification for the slaughterhouse — the current "break in the chain" of full organic certification for many ranchers.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who attended the press conference as an observer, expressed his support. "I'm really happy that a new owner has stepped up. [The slaughterhouse is] an integral part of agricultural infrastructure, not only for Sonoma County but the whole North Bay.

"It's another feather in the cap of providing farm-to-table production for Sonoma County. People really want to know where their food comes from."

(Contact Christian Kallen at argus@arguscourier.com)