Lone Federally Approved Bay Area Slaughterhouse Shuts Its Doors to Private Ranchers

Marin County ranchers pride themselves on raising their animals from farm to fork. But some say that might get a little harder now with Marin Sun Farms shutting its slaughterhouse to private label producers starting Jan. 1.

The Petaluma slaughterhouse — the only federally approved facility in the Bay Area — has allowed ranchers to grow and sell their meat locally, rather than having to send their animals hours away to be slaughtered and then shipped back to the region. Access to the facility has kept quality high and the carbon footprint low.

That’s partially why it was a hard decision, said Claire Herminjard, co-executive officer of Marin Sun Farms, which processes large animals like cattle, hogs, lambs and goats. A key reason for the change: Several managers experienced in handling compliance with federal meat inspection law and managing livestock for slaughter have left Marin Sun Farms over the last 18 months to pursue other work in a tight job market. That made it harder for Marin Sun Farms to keep the local business running for private ranchers.

“We kept private label services open as a community service because we cared deeply about the local foodshed. We always have,” said Herminjard, who runs the business with her husband, David Evans. “We do not have the resources to manage this program at the time.”

Marin Sun Farms took over the slaughterhouse in 2014 after the previous owner, Rancho Feeding Corp., was forced to recall 8.7 million pounds of diseased beef and shut down. It was the sole beef and hog slaughterhouse in the Bay Area for smaller ranchers who didn’t own their own federally regulated facilities. Marin Sun Farms stepping in with a few other investors was considered a lifeline for local farms.

Sponsored

The move to shutter services will impact less than 10 private ranchers who use the slaughterhouse each week, Herminjard said, noting Marin Sun Farms started informing them of the change at the end of September. About two dozen suppliers under the Marin Sun Farms label will continue to receive the same processing services, she added.

Some ranchers questioned the move, though, accusing Marin Sun Farms of monopolizing the lone facility at the expense of local farmers, The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported. Herminjard said that was “absolutely not” the case.

Pamela Torliatt, co-owner of Progressive Pastures, said she understands the owners of Marin Sun Farms had to make decisions in the best interest of their business — but the next U.S. Agriculture Department-approved slaughterhouse is several hours away. Having to ship their animals farther likely means costs will go up.

“We were able to basically grow our product from inception to the dinner plate. And there’s a lot of satisfaction in doing that,” she said. “We were able to grow, harvest and sell our product within 16 miles. We really thought that it was very unique and we had the ability to have a very small carbon footprint.”

Torliatt said Marin Sun Farms’ decision forced them to ship 27 of their animals to auction a few weeks ago instead of sharing them with the community. They are considering making other changes, too, such as changing the meats they offer.

“Any piece of agricultural infrastructure that is lost in our area is really going to impact the food that we are able to source and eat and provide to our friends and family,” she said. “And I think that this area in particular is very cognizant of how special it is to be able to have a choice like that.”

Herminjard, of Marin Sun Farms, said the company will revisit its decision at the end of the first quarter in 2020. But she is hoping other solutions will arise as well, like a mobile slaughterhouse facility or a permanent one through a cooperative.

That’s what Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, is considering, too, “so that we can create a system that really makes sense for what our county mantra is all about — sustainability and good carbon footprint management.”

“I honestly think the fix is going to be in a public-private partnership,” she said. “I understand that for a private business to try to make it in a typical business model for processing and harvesting animals, it would take a lot more head than we have available on a week in Sonoma County.”

KQED News’ Peter Jon Shuler contributed to this report.