In a move aimed at self-preservation as much as offering a service to local ranchers, Rancho Veal, a Petaluma cattle broker, and Rancho Feeding, the Bay Area’s last slaughterhouse, are expanding their operations to include hogs.
The diversification began earlier this spring as a way to stabilize both businesses at a time when fewer cattle are being sent to slaughter.
“We have to go out of the county, even out of the state to get enough cattle to stay in business, so we figured the hogs would help us keep production,” said Babe Amaral, owner of Rancho Feeding on Petaluma Boulevard North.
About 60 percent of Rancho’s cattle business is from outside Sonoma County, but the supply chain is not steady throughout the year, with a slowdown from January to April. That, says Amaral, prompted both companies to consider what it could do to bolster operations and in March, Rancho Veal began purchasing pigs from Sonoma County farms.
The slaughterhouse processes about 400 cows and 60 hogs a week, although Amaral expects the hog operation to grow with time.
Amaral has owned Rancho Feeding since 1971 and like many ranchers bemoans the loss of local grazing lands to vineyards, which are more profitable. The loss of both beef and daily cattle means less product for his slaughterhouse, which is now operating at about 75 percent capacity.
“We’re still OK, but it’s going down,” Amaral said. “Our biggest competitor is the U.S. government because of all the regulations. It’s getting more costly and it doesn’t make the product taste any better.”
A U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector is present whenever animals are slaughtered.
Although the slaughterhouse is often a target for animal rights groups, who have staged protests outside the facility, many in the agricultural sector say it’s providing a crucial service for local farms.
Having a slaughterhouse in the area means better access for ranchers, shorter truck trips between the slaughterhouse and retailers, and lower prices and fresher meat for consumers.
It’s also better for the animals, say some.
“Say you’ve got a cow that has a bad leg or is injured, you can take it to Rancho Veal right away, “ said Scott Gerber, a beef cattle rancher on Sonoma Mountain. “It’s a great service for local farms.”
The only other slaughterhouses are located in Los Banos and Fresno, 150 and 230 miles away, respectively.
Amaral and Bob Singleton, who owns Rancho Veal, have been approached numerous times to sell the slaughterhouse, but the men have held on to their operation.
Last year Marin Sun Farms, a grass-fed cattle operation in Point Reyes made an offer and in 2008 the slaughterhouse entered negotiations with a developer who wanted to build 79 new homes on the plot of land as well as behind the slaughterhouse.
The talks fell through because of jittery nerves brought on by the housing market crash, although not before leaving Amaral and Singleton with a deposit that enabled them to make an investment in hogs.