Greener Pastures: A Tour of Marin Sun Farms

May 24, 2013

By Janet McGarry

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On May 10, I was part of a group of curious adventurers who visited Marin Sun Farms’ operations to learn how pasture-raised meat is brought from the ranch to the market. The day-long tour, organized by CUESA, included stops at Rogers Ranch in Point Reyes, Marin Sun’s butcher shop and restaurant in Point Reyes Station, and their processing facility in San Francisco.

David Evans, a fourth-generation rancher and owner of Marin Sun Farms, has spent the last decade raising animals for meat and eggs while helping to build a vertically integrated network of farms and food processors to provide local, sustainably produced beef, lamb, pork, goat, poultry, and eggs to the Bay Area.

In a food system where meat production is typically hidden from the public’s view, Marin Sun aims to shed light on all the steps from pasture to plate. “Transparency is an incredibly important part of this process,” said Danny Kramer, one of our tour guides and Marin Sun’s Chief Operations Officer.

A Grass-Based Food System

When Point Reyes National Seashore was established in 1962, the federal government purchased the land from ranchers and then leased it back to them, granting special use permits for cattle grazing. Evans’ family leased H, M, L, and Rogers Ranches, the latter of which they operated as a dairy until they switched to beef cattle in the 1970s. When Evans took over his uncle’s lease, he added pastured chickens.

When I learned that Rogers Ranch is located in foggy Point Reyes, I wondered, “Why the sunny name and logo?” It began to make sense when Kramer explained that the farm raises its animals on grass, which requires only solar energy, instead of in feedlots on a diet of corn (generally grown using pesticides and fossil-fuel-based fertilizers).

As Evans led us around his property, he explained his methods for keeping his pastures and animals healthy. Cattle are rotated to fresh pasture every 2 to 3 days, allowing time for the grass to grow deep, strong roots before being regrazed. In order to control erosion and protect wildlife habitat, Evans avoids putting cattle on hillside slopes or along streams.

His chickens also spend their days on pasture, except during the rainy winter, when they are moved to a barn for warmth and to prevent damage to wet fields. Large mobile chicken houses placed in the fields allow chickens to lay their eggs inside and escape predators at night. Every three days, the houses are moved with a tractor to provide access to fresh pasture. This arrangement works well both for the hens and for the fields: as they forage, the hens eat pests, and their manure fertilizes the grass. Evans is currently experimenting with raising ducks, which are thriving, and may try guinea fowl and quail during the summer months.

Evans designs his pasture rotation schedules to promote and protect biodiversity, taking care to avoid disturbing the habitat of red-legged frogs, a species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. His plan to promote biodiversity seems to be working. During our short hike, I spotted numerous native species: a flock of quail, blue-eyed grass, California poppies, lupine, salmonberry, and Douglas irises. As we followed Evans through the pasture, the tall, lush grass felt thick and springy under my feet.

Growing a Regional Meatshed

But pastures do not remain lush and green throughout the year, which means meat and poultry have their seasons. In 2003, shortly after Marin Sun Farms started bringing their product to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, Evans realized his ranch alone could not meet his customers’ year-round demand for beef, eggs, and other animal products, like meat birds and pork. According to Evans, Point Reyes is “fantastic cattle country,” but hogs need shade and woodland areas to thrive.

Evans began to form relationships with other ranchers throughout the regional foodshed, creating a network of co-producers, as he calls them. During the dry summer months, when the grass turns brown in Point Reyes, Marin Sun relies on beef co-producers in Humboldt and Sierra Valley, where the grass is greener. For heritage pork, Marin Sun works with farms in Fairfield and Manteca, where the environment is better for raising pigs.

Marin Sun’s strict production protocols for ruminants, poultry, and pork require that animals be free of antibiotics and hormones, treated humanely, and never raised in confinement. The protocols also require ecological monitoring. The company only enters into contracts with ranchers who adhere to these standards. At the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, the names of the co-producers can be found printed on the label.

The Cutting Room

Each Thursday afternoon, cattle from Rogers Ranch are transported to Rancho slaughterhouse in Petaluma, one of the few remaining in the region. The animals are slaughtered on Friday morning, then hung in freezers over the weekend. On Monday morning, the carcasses are shipped to Marin Sun’s processing facility in the Dogpatch district of San Francisco. The space is subletted from F. Uri Meat Company, one of the longest continually operating meat operations in the city.

Fifteen butchers and five drivers work at Marin Sun’s USDA-inspected facility, where they cut, package, and deliver meat for wholesale. Danny led our group through the cutting room, where butchers break down whole carcasses into primal cuts, then into the chilly freezer, where sides of meat are hung and cuts are stacked.

Evans and his crew are proud of the facility, and enjoy showing customers this less-seen but essential part of a local meat infrastructure. “Having your own processing facility is a rarity,” he said. “Many things happen between the pasture and the plate. The whole processing part is often hidden from customers. We want to show you that.”

Last Stop: The Butcher Shop

In addition to delivering meat to restaurants, stores, and farmers markets, Marin Sun sells through two fo its own retail locations. We stopped for lunch at the Marin Sun Farm restaurant and butcher shop in Point Reyes Station, where primal cuts are broken down for retail. A heaven for meat lovers, the shop sells a large variety of cuts, sausages, and stocks—even sweatshirts that boldly display the word “Carnivore” on the back.

After tour members stocked up on meat to take home, we sampled some of the products of Marin Sun’s vertically integrated foodshed: delicious sandwiches loaded up with ham and roast beef. I discovered that Marin Sun’s hard work not only has environmental benefits—it also produces amazing flavor.

Main Sun Farms can be found at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.

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