Come January, Marin Sun Farms will no longer process meat at its Petaluma slaughterhouse—the last remaining slaughterhouse in the Bay Area—from producers who do not sell to its two labels. The move leaves some West Marin ranchers scrambling for far-away alternatives or closing up shop altogether; the closest beef processing facility is in Modesto.
Co-owners David Evans, a fourth-generation rancher on Point Reyes, and Claire Herminjard, the founder of Mindful Meats, said customer conduct has threatened the facility’s compliance with the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which holds processing facilities responsible for violations even after a carcass has left its custody.
In his six years of operating the slaughterhouse, Mr. Evans said he has dealt with difficult and hostile customers who violated federal meat laws. That risk to his business—on top of his struggle to retain enough managers experienced in compliance—led him to prioritize the dozens of farms that sell under his labels.
“Week in and week out, we did our part,” Mr. Evans told the Light. “Even when it wasn’t convenient, even when we were at risk. This last year, with reduced management and more pressure on us, and the increasing risk and the unwillingness of any of [our customers] after six years to show interest in compliance with [the Federal Meat Inspection Act], our hands are thrown up.”
Ms. Herminjard added, “We just can’t do it anymore.”
Mr. Evans bought the slaughterhouse in 2014 from Rancho Feeding Corporation after a massive recall of 8.7 million pounds of beef. The United States Department of Agriculture shut down Rancho for intentionally selling meat from cancer-afflicted cows; the owner and two employees later pled guilty to a conspiracy to distribute adulterated, misbranded and uninspected meat.
When Mr. Evans rallied investors to buy the facility, local ranchers celebrated him for stepping up to fill the gap in critical infrastructure for agriculture.
“This facility, Marin Sun Farms Petaluma, is the access to market we all desperately need to continue together in transforming the food system,” Mr. Evans said at a press conference in 2014. “Marin Sun Farms is no longer only a competitor in the diverse niche meat market of California; Marin Sun Farms is a partner in the success of all niche meat producers in California.”
But six years later, the relationship has soured between the company and the private-label ranchers who use its slaughterhouse. “We really were doing private-label services as a community benefit so we could foster the diversity of our local foodshed,” Ms. Herminjard said. “But what we have come to realize is that…it has done nothing but damage our relationship with the community.”
Mr. Evans said he has fielded repeated and ongoing inquiries from U.S.D.A. investigators regarding his private-label customers. At the same time, he said he has observed—and taken action to correct—countless occasions of non-compliance. Ranchers might distribute meat in non-refrigerated vehicles, or pick up their meat from the facility in ice chests or in a personal vehicle with a pet inside, he said.
When Marin Sun Farms enforced a policy to prohibit customers from picking up their meat themselves—instead requiring meat to be delivered to U.S.D.A.-inspected cut-and-wrap facilities—they learned of more violations. “We then heard that those facilities were potentially allowing people to pick up in their cars and distribute meat in the same manner, and we were like, ‘We can’t be in this chain,’” Mr. Evans said.
He said he learned about a customer who was receiving his livestock carcass and cutting it up in his garage without inspection, storing it at home, transforming it into various charcuterie products and selling it at his own restaurant.
Mr. Evans spoke to the customer, but he had no way of ensuring that the practice would change. He worried about a federal indictment.
“When [a carcass] leaves our custody, it leaves our custody with our mark of inspection on it,” Mr. Evans said. “There is no way for us to release liability from that carcass with our mark of inspection. That is a fact. We have looked into it—we cannot do it.”
He added, “It keeps me up at night. I become an anxious mess when I think that some individual producer who slaughters one pig every six months could be putting everything we have worked for at risk.”
Another point of contention has been over how to determine the age of cattle. Animals that are deemed to be over 30 months old are required to have their spinal columns removed, because the tissue carries a heightened risk of mad cow disease. Marin Sun Farms made a policy that it would conduct a dental analysis rather than rely on birth records to determine age.
If the analysis showed a cow to be older than 30 months, customers would have to pay to remove the spinal column. But Mr. Evans said customers pushed back, arguing the findings or providing unregistered birth records.
Additional rules about the treatment of animals have changed the way the slaughterhouse operates since the company took over from Rancho. Marin Sun Farms Petaluma became certified organic, verified by the non-G.M.O. project, certified for the Animal Welfare Approved label, and approved for childhood nutrition labeling so that it could sell to public schools.
Customers complained about new rules for horned cattle, Mr. Evans said. Because of the size of the chute leading to the knock box, the company does not accept cattle with horns longer than 24 inches.
“What we got back from folks countless times was hostility, a sense of entitlement—like we had to do this for them—a fair amount of disrespect, and, if I sum it up, I would say an utter disregard for the efforts we were putting in to maintaining these services, and to help them become compliant with the law,” Mr. Evans said.
Last year, the company added a clause to its customer agreement that would allow it to inspect downstream compliance issues. The intent was to ensure compliance by having customers share information, but Mr. Evans said that no one he approached was willing to participate. An employee could inspect farms when something came up, but the cost and effort of doing so was too much.
On top of the issues with customers, Marin Sun Farms struggled to retain high-level management staff experienced in the meat industry. The slaughterhouse is operating with three managers, when before it had seven. Ms. Herminjard attributes the shortage to demand for workers in the tech and cannabis industries, and to a lack of management experience in the highly regulated meat industry.
The relative infrequency and low volume of private-label customers also created scheduling challenges for the slaughterhouse’s 50 employees. Some customers slaughtered as few as two animals a year, and none were weekly customers, making labor hard to plan. Last year the facility moved to require two weeks’ advance booking and added fees for showing up with fewer animals than scheduled. Customers were upset.
The impact on ranchers
For ranchers and farming advocates, the change by Marin Sun Farms is disappointing, but out of their control.
“I think we, and the producers in the region, were hoping for a different outcome,” said Jamison Watts, the executive director of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. “If we want to support a thriving agriculture community that is environmentally sustainable and economically viable, then clean, local slaughter facilities are essential.”
For Pamela Torliatt, a co-founder of Progressive Pastures, a small cattle ranch in Tomales, the move to cut outside producers is a heartbreaker. She and her partner, Leo Ghirardelli, pride themselves in selling high-quality, organic beef to customers at the Petaluma farmers’ market. The business grew, harvested and sold its Wagyu-cross beef within a 16-mile radius, harvesting around 30 cows a year at Marin Sun Farms Petaluma. Now that it has no access to a local slaughterhouse, Progressive Pastures is closing its retail business.
“We’re not going to haul our animals another five hours away,” said Ms. Torliatt, who already sold her animals at auction. “We’re not going to put that kind of stress on our animals, particularly before they are harvested, because we believe that lowers the quality of the meat.”
She added, “The bottom line of what is going on here is the community is going to lose. They are not going to have the quality and variety that they have come to enjoy. And it’s not just Progressive Pastures, it’s all of the local ranchers who have their niche.”
Mark Pasternak, owner of Devil’s Gulch Ranch in Nicasio, sees Mr. Evans’s move as turning his back on those who have supported him in an attempt to stifle competition. He and his partners have processed pigs at the slaughterhouse since Rancho added that service about a year before closing. Now, they will ship their animals to a facility near Chico.
“I understand it’s a business decision, but I also don’t think they are behaving in a real transparent and ethical manner,” he said. “The fear was, and it’s basically come to pass, that the owner of the slaughter plant could make things challenging for the other farmers—scheduling-wise, which he did, price-wise, which he did, or being confusing and changing the rules, which he did. It wreaked havoc on my business.”
A local solution
Marin is challenged by the relative size of its farms, Mr. Watts said. “For those folks to be viable, or profitable, it’s a different business model that depends on a local slaughter facility that is both U.S.D.A.-certified and is able to process these smaller slaughters in a timely fashion at a reasonable price,” he said.
Without the Petaluma facility, ranchers will have to consider coordinating transportation, or even building another brick-and-mortar facility.
Another option already in use by small ranchers is to work within a state law passed last year that allows on-farm harvesting by registered slaughterers. The law, which limits slaughter to five heads of cattle a month, requires that the animal is sold before processing.
In 2017, Marin amended its land use-code to allow for commercial animal slaughter. That made way for another alternative to a traditional slaughterhouse: a mobile slaughter facility—a truck with a trailer that goes from farm to farm with a U.S.D.A. inspector. In that scenario, each farm would have to build some infrastructure for harvesting, and the unit would face the same regulations as fixed slaughter facilities. Coordination between an inspector, cut-and-wrap facilities, and each ranch is essential. About a dozen mobile facilities exist nationwide; the closest is a cooperative on the Central Coast.
Supervisor Dennis Rodoni said he was frustrated that Marin hadn’t developed a mobile facility since his board approved local slaughter two years ago. “I plan on reaching out to Marin producers, our Sonoma and Marin agriculture departments and Supervisor [Lynda] Hopkins [of west Sonoma County] to see if we can work on a solution together.”
David Lewis, the director of the University of California Cooperative Extension for Marin County, believes that although there is enough local volume for a mobile unit, it would require everyone buying in. “It’s going to take the right kind of business acumen and the right kind of capital to make it work,” he said, adding, “Sometimes there come moments where the infrastructure to support the working landscape is strained or challenged. We’re at one of those moments.”