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Petaluma ranchers beefing about slaughterhouse access

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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But that welcome mat was withdrawn in the October announcement to discontinue private label processing, local ranchers say, accusing Marin Sun Farms of seeking to drive out local competition.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.

Monopolizing production

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.”

Stemple Creek Ranch, a Tomales meat producer, used to work with Marin Sun Farms but hasn’t sent its grass-fed cows there in three years.

Co-owner Lisa Poncia said she was going to help other small producers figure out logistics of harvesting their meat now that access to the Petaluma slaughterhouse has been curtailed.

“This is very unfortunate for the local agricultural community,” she said. “Being a rancher is not for the faint of heart. It’s a tough business to be in.”

Alternative options

The root of the problem is a lack of local harvesting facilities, agriculture officials say. The Sonoma County Farm Bureau has been leading a discussion with area ranchers to come up with alternatives to using the Marin Sun Farms slaughterhouse.

Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Farm Bureau, said another option would be a mobile harvesting facility that would visit area ranches to slaughter animals and send the meat back to a USDA-inspected cut-and-wrap facility.

A longer-term plan would be to open a cooperative slaughterhouse in Sonoma County that is owned by local ranchers, with government subsidies.

She said she doesn’t fault Marin Sun Farms for changing policies, but said that it will hurt the cattle industry.

“Marin Sun Farms is a business, and they need to make decisions that guarantee their success,” Tesconi said. “This decision is really going to hit our beef cattle producers.”

The Farm Bureau and the University of California Cooperative Extension this past week held a workshop for local ranchers on whole-beef animal sales for custom processing, including a working lunch to “discuss strategies for developing more local USDA-inspected facilities for livestock, poultry and rabbit processing.”

“If we want to continue to enjoy our locally raised products, we need to find other options,” Tesconi said.

End of private label meat

For Torliatt, the decision to cut off local ranchers means a shift in business models.

She will send her last cow to the Marin Sun Farms slaughterhouse on Dec. 27. After that, she still plans to continue raising beef cows, her passion, but she will have to either sell them to other ranchers or practice on-site harvest, selling a whole cow to another party and processing at the ranch.

She said she won’t send her animals five hours away to the next closest slaughterhouse, and, without access to a local USDA-inspected facility, her days of selling her own meat label to consumers are likely over.

“One of the things we took great pride in, we were cradle to dinner plate,” she said. “There was a lot of satisfaction in that.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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