“I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle
Stopping by the outside of Rancho Feeding Corporation, the North Bay's recently shuttered, sole remaining slaughterhouse on an early March morning, an air of morbid dereliction appears to have swallowed whole the scene of unprecedented controversy, speculation and journalistic stabs in the dark.
Only so much fact over conjecture has actually been reported in the near constant coverage in the regional press since Rancho's shut-down in early Feb, 2014. Social media has had a field day, too, of course.
But the real concern, in my opinion is the fact that all the hypothesising has flourished, while some of the best premium beef producers in the West face crippling financial loss following a mass-meat recall of some nine million pounds of beef, through absolute no fault of their own.
The U. S Department of Agriculture's lack of transparency and supremely outdated practices have utterly failed to protect those at the epicenter of sustainable farming, while at the same time, allowing for broad market panic. None of the meat from custom beef ranchers was tainted.
At a time where so many, particularly here in Sonoma County and West Marin, are changing the face of American food and farming, it's supremely ironic and just plain sad that this slaughterhouse stands as a symbol of such fear and loathing. I don't have any more insight than the next person as to what really happened in the closure and recall at Rancho. The point, now, is that what happens next must be well documented and happen soon.
I"m not suggesting that even the most state-of-the-art slaughterhouse might ever be considered a warm and fuzzy facility, given its sole purpose in being, but if we're going to continue to eat meat and encourage our fellow American families to fork out for grass-fed animal products, the local abattoir is a necessary evil.
How's a local food movement to hold its head high when transporting its cattle across multiple county lines for processing? Forget about carbon footprint in your marketing if you're having to schlep meat back from a hundred or more mile round trip. Processing meat within a 30-mile radius not only keeps costs down, it should, if properly overseen, enable a local consortium to maintain highest, regional standards, including humane practice and ultimately, take the guess work out of wondering where a pound of packaged burger meat might have traveled to after leaving the bucolic fields of green depicted on its label.
In Nicolette Hahn Niman's Op Ed article in Sunday's (March 1st, 2014) New York Times, the articulate owner (with husband Bill) of 200-acre grass fed beef farm BN Ranch in Bolinas writes to the entire country of her company's appealing the Agriculture Department’s decision to include them in this mass recall of Rancho-processed meat.
"If allowed to stand, it will be financially devastating for us and for many other farming and ranching families," concludes Nicolette. "But even more abhorrent is the waste. We took the lives of our animals to feed people. Being forced to throw away their meat would be sacrilege."
Having wading through the daily regional media reports, national news coverage exploded on the scene this past weekend in both the Wall Street Journal as well as the NYT op-ed piece. The story continues as long time Rancho customer Marin Sun Farms' CEO David Evans makes a bid to take over the slaughterhouse. "This facility is a critical pieve of infrastructure for all North Bay and many Northern California producers, and I've been worried about its future for some time," said David in the San Francisco Business Times report.
A group of anonymous backers has reportedly rallied around David Evans with the help of tech veteran and angel investor Ali Partovi, an early investor in Zappos, DropBox and Facebook to cobble together a purchase plan, which could have the plant back up and running as a custom sluaghterhouse only, by the end of March.
Hope for a swift resolution for our area's custom beef ranchers, at least in the logistics of returning to Rancho under its new regime. It is likely, if that is the case, that the new and improved Rancho will expand its services to process premium pig, goat and sheep.
What we're not likely to see back in operation at this particular plant is the processing of any more meat from industrial providers.