Petaluma ranchers beefing about slaughterhouse access
Last month, Pam Torliatt loaded 25 grass-fed black Angus beef cows onto trucks and shipped them off for sale. The mass exodus represented a quarter of the herd she raised with partner Leo Ghirardelli on organic pastures in Tomales and Pepper Road west of Petaluma.
Since starting the Progressive Pastures label in 2006, Torliatt has peddled beef at Petaluma Market, giving local customers the satisfaction that their food was raised, harvested and sold within a 16-mile radius.
But all that is coming to an end after this year.
Marin Sun Farms, which owns the slaughterhouse on Petaluma Boulevard North - the only USDA-certified meat processing plant in the Bay Area - has informed ranchers that, starting in January, it will no longer process animals for private labels such as Progressive Pastures.
“This puts us out of the business of selling to the retail market,” said Torliatt, a former Petaluma mayor. “Knowing that our community is losing the ability to harvest locally, it's going to have a tremendous impact on agricultural infrastructure. It's going to have a negative affect on local agriculture.”
A promising takeover
Marin Sun Farms' move is a departure from the company's original goal of providing a value-added service for local ranchers, a pledge it made when the company took over the slaughterhouse from the beleaguered Rancho Feeding Corp., in 2014.
Rancho halted operations in February 2014 after several beef recalls. The USDA alleged that Rancho had processed diseased animals and skirted inspections. Two former owners and two employees were convicted on federal charges in a case that led to millions in losses for distributors and ranchers and shook public confidence in food safety.
When Marin Sun Farms, a Point Reyes meat company, reopened the slaughterhouse in April 2014, owner David Evans said at a press conference that local ranchers would be welcome at the facility.
“Anyone within our foodshed 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,” he said at the time.
But that welcome mat was withdrawn in the October announcement to discontinue private label processing, local ranchers say, accusing Marin Sun Farms of seeking to drive out local competition.
The company will continue to process animals for its own brands, including Mindful Meats.
‘A hard decision to make'
But Marin Sun Farms owners said the change is driven by a labor shortage and rising costs, which has forced the company to cut back shifts at the slaughterhouse.
Claire Herminjard, Mindful Meats founder and co-owner of Marin Sun Farms, said the facility will still process animals from independent ranchers selling under the Marin Sun Farms label. She said the company is still relatively small compared to large agribusiness conglomerates that dominate the animal processing sector.
“We are a small company,” said Herminjard, who married Evans in 2016. “We seem like we aren't because we own a production facility. But we're not an evil company trying to take out the little guy. It hurts to hear that feedback when we have been supporting local farmers. People are pointing a finger at us because they are frustrated.”
Herminjard said the cannabis industry has siphoned off employees and caused labor costs to increase. Marin Sun Farms employs 60 people.
Herminjard said the company has reached out to other slaughterhouses to see if they can take animals from local ranches. The next closest USDA-inspected slaughterhouse is in Humboldt County.
“We just don't have the bandwidth to make it work,” she said. “We do care about the integrity and fabric of the local agricultural community. We had a hard decision to make.”
She said Marin Sun Farms would “reevaluate” the decision after the first quarter of next year. But the ripple effects have already rocked the tight-knit local ranching community.
Mark Pasternak, who has raised pigs on his Nicasio Ranch for more than 30 years, said he will either have to ship his animals to processing facilities in Orland and Modesto or go out of business.
He said hauling animals out of the area adds cost and increases the carbon footprint of the products, something environmentally conscious consumers increasingly reject.
He accused Marin Sun Farms of monopolizing the local production facility at the expense of smaller farmers.
“The owner said he wanted to help small farmers, but quite frankly I, and others, didn't ever believe him,” he said. “This is not unexpected. I think he's trying to be the only game in town. I'm very disappointed but I'm not surprised.”