Last week, just as the sun was peeking through the smoke-tinted morning light in Petaluma, California, Kevin Maloney loaded his cattle, sheep, and hogs onto his truck and headed north to Eureka. The Tomales-based rancher drives five hours each way, every other week, to harvest his livestock. Every minute counts for the animals, but this time, the journey took even longer, since Maloney drove up the winding coastal route to avoid road closures from raging wildfires.
Small to mid-size ranchers in the Bay Area are used to driving long distances to one of just a handful of USDA-approved slaughtering facilities in the state. They have learned to manage the logistical acrobatics required to keep their businesses running. They book time slots to harvest months ahead of time—without fully knowing demand or what state their livestock will be in—and make the long drive every time.
But that won’t be the case any longer, at least for ranchers who are part of the newly established Bay Area Ranchers Co-Operative (BAR-C). Once up and running, the cooperative will alleviate a bottleneck that’s been narrowing in the industry for years, giving Bay Area ranchers an option to process their meat locally.
The 16 founding members, who incorporated as a cooperative in July, plan to acquire a mobile slaughter unit and neighboring cut-and-wrap facility to be stationed in Sonoma County, eventually offering services to the nearly 80 ranchers in the Bay Area. Under the co-op’s management, the facility will provide a much more flexible and autonomous solution for small ranchers with varied harvesting schedules. Ranchers say it’s an approach that’s both more environmentally responsible and more humane.
“This is a wonderful model for the ag community to take care of its own destiny,” says Corey Goodman, a seed investor for the cooperative and co-owner of Barinaga Ranch in Marshall, California. “All of the [ranchers] want to have local ways to butcher their animals while keeping their own labor, their own distinctive quality, and their own customers. And this is a perfect way to do it,” says Goodman.
Until recently, ranchers have relied on Marin Sun Farms in Petaluma, the only USDA-approved slaughterhouse in the North Bay, to harvest their livestock. Last October, Marin Sun Farms—which bought the facility in 2014 after the previous ownership came to a scandalous end—announced it would no longer process livestock from ranchers outside the company’s own label beginning in January of 2020.
Since then, ranchers have either had to sell their animals to Marin Sun Farms or switch to the existing facilities as far away as Orland, some 200 miles northeast, or Modesto, close to 150 miles inland. Many of these ranchers pride themselves in catering to a niche market under their own label, meaning they had no choice but to drive the distance.
Now, BAR-C will help ranchers take matters into their own hands. The cooperative is in the midst of a fundraising push, hoping to attract $500,000 by the end of October, and another $200,000 by year’s end. The cooperative has already secured $400,000 in funding, which only covers the cost of the land for the mobile processing unit to occupy. The group predicts that the operation will be profitable within two to three years, and that there’s enough local demand to keep the unit running full time year-round. If enough members join and local ranchers use the facility, the co-op could even scale up, first hiring an inspector for overtime shifts and eventually buying a second unit.
“You always hope to have your animals slaughtered right on your own property—you’d like the end of their life to be as respectful as the rest of their life.”
“This is the first true attempt at a sustainable slaughter arrangement for local producers that does not have the potential to become a brand,” says Adam Parks, a BAR-C board member and the owner of Victorian Farmstead Meat Company. As a cooperative, ranchers will collectively own the facility and have authority over how it runs.
“What you always hope for, in an ideal world, is to have your animals slaughtered right on your own property,” adds Goodman. “You’d like the end of their life to be as respectful as the rest of their life.”
But that’s not possible under the current system, when a long day’s drive causes acute stress for the animals. Sending their animals to far-flung slaughterhouses means planning the harvest schedule months out because there’s no flexibility built into the system.
“If it’s 110 degrees and your time slot is on this day, who cares? You’ve got to go,” says Duskie Estes, an award-winning chef and owner of Black Pig Meat Company, which specializes in sourcing bacon from pigs raised on family farms.
The single day of driving often compromises the quality that ranchers have cultivated for months. “I will speak from the chef side. [The animals] shoot adrenaline into their muscles and all the meat gets almost cooked and slimy,” says Estes. “We spend all this money raising this ideal meat and then in the last day it turns to crap.”
Many ranchers are also happy to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions by keeping the process local. “The amount of carbon that will be saved by us not having to truck our animals all the way up to Eureka is pretty remarkable,” says Parks. By the group’s own estimates, localizing the harvesting facility will save 19.6 tons of carbon dioxide from just 11 of the 16 members, or 26,150 miles driven in just eight months. For many of these ranchers, who already practice regenerative farming and work to sequester carbon in the soil, the saved miles will further reduce their carbon footprint.
Creating truly local meat economies has been a challenge for decades, after national policies allowed for consolidation in the meatpacking industry and the accompanying processing infrastructure. Today, four corporations slaughter 80 percent of the cattle in the U.S., and just six companies control the bulk of the global meat industry.
Estimates from Parks and others suggest that California has fewer than 20 USDA-approved slaughter facilities—which are necessary for farmers who want to sell directly to consumers—to serve the entire state; but many states don’t have a single facility. The lack of processing infrastructure has been met with a growing movement for on-farm slaughter, though mobile units are often too expensive for small ranchers with modest cash flow.
For the nation’s existing slaughterhouses, legislators are hoping to expand the exemption of custom slaughtering from federal inspection requirements under the PRIME Act, introduced earlier this year by two U.S. representatives.
Critics have long warned of the national meat industry’s vulnerabilities, which have only become more exposed since the pandemic began. At some of the nation’s largest meat processing plants, the close working quarters created a hotbed for coronavirus infections, killing more than 200 meat plant workers and infecting at least 42,000 workers since March. Temporary plant closures from meat producing giants like Smithfield Foods and JBS Pork triggered shortages throughout the country.
This spring, while grocery store meat sections sat empty, some small producers experienced growth in demand, highlighting the resilience of local food systems and the importance of smaller, local facilities that are removed from national distribution networks.
“Our distribution system in America is extremely efficient,” says Parks. “The problem is, it’s extremely fragile.”
While the slaughter bottlenecks forced farmers and ranchers across the U.S. to euthanize millions of animals, Parks used his farmers’ market vans to help fulfill increasing home deliveries.
“Our distribution system in America is extremely efficient. The problem is, it’s [also] extremely fragile.”
If there’s any upside to the pandemic, it’s that some consumers are more aware that local processing facilities are needed, according to Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “I think that people are starting to understand that when they see a steer out in the field, it takes a lot to get that on their table,” she says.
In the coming weeks, the cooperative hopes to find a location for the mobile slaughter unit that meets stringent wastewater disposal and corralling space requirements. Unlike a brick-and-mortar slaughterhouse, the mobile slaughter unit would bypass a number of permitting challenges that come with choosing a fixed location—and the inevitable NIMBYism.
“Everybody wants low cost, healthy local meat, but nobody wants a slaughtering unit in their backyard,” says Parks. Even in Marin County, which has long championed local and organic food movements, the decision in 2017 to allow mobile slaughter units was met with resistance. Some residents worry about the commercial smells and sounds of a slaughtering facility. BAR-C is scouting a location with those considerations in mind, looking for a rural site removed from residential areas.
With a mobile unit, co-op members and local ranchers can flexibly book and trade slots for the entire eight hours a USDA inspector is onsite, keeping the operation cost-efficient. “I think this idea really fills the short-term gap,” says Tesconi.
Goodman sees BAR-C as a model that could be scaled up across the state, providing an achievable solution to a problem long in the making. “You’re so careful in how you’ve raised them: the genetics, the care of them, their health, the way they’re fed, the restaurants—and then you come up in the bottleneck in this whole local food movement, which is where in the heck are you going to get them slaughtered?”
Starting soon, the answer for many Bay Area ranchers will be: Just up the road.
This article was updated to include a new estimate of the number of processing facilities in California.