One Santa Cruz County farmer’s quest to grow sustainable, locally raised meat
Fresh, well-raised local meat is an oddity within Santa Cruz County’s agricultural cornucopia — just 1% of our local production. Pajaro Pastures’ Ryan Abelson is among those trying to change that amid long-standing slaughterhouse laws that favor big farmers over local, smaller ones.
The winter sun shines brightly off of fresh grass dotted with fluorescent oxalis flowers as farmer Ryan Abelson guides me down a dirt road to his chicken coops. Just three days before, he purchased 400 laying hens, and they’re still a little bewildered by their new surroundings at Pajaro Pastures, his 12-acre farm in Corralitos. Despite their spacious 2-acre enclosure, the cautious birds are clustered around four moveable henhouses, each about the size of a large RV. Once they relax, they have plenty of room to roam — 250 square feet per chicken, or more than a hundred times the 2 square feet required for the “free range” designation.
Abelson takes me through the gentle, dust-colored chickens, who avoid us as we pass. This breed is called a golden sex link, and they’re excellent layers. He explains that in the next few weeks they’ll become more comfortable and start laying about an egg a day. Sure enough, I look down to see a small egg already laid and forgotten in the dirt. Archie, Abelson’s large white Anatolian shepherd — the chickens’ sentry — observes us suspiciously from afar. The chicken coop is his domain, and he protects the flock from attacks by hawks, raccoons and coyotes around the clock.
Abelson founded Pajaro Pastures in 2011 and began selling fresh eggs at local farmers markets. About five years ago, he also started raising heritage pigs, and they’re the real reason for my visit.
We leave the chicken enclosure and walk a short distance to their pen. Nestled against a hillside covered in California scrub oak, 20 or so heritage-breed pigs roam in a semi-wooded area. The knee-high animals line up along the electric fence with friendly curiosity, while in the adjacent pen Abelson’s enormous boar and two breeding sows lounge lazily in the midday sun.
As pigs go, they live like kings. Woods are a pig’s natural habitat, Abelson tells me, and a far cry from the cages many live in. In addition to a diet of nutritionally balanced organic feed, Abelson adds variety with apples and other unsellable fruits and vegetables from local farms like Prevedelli Farms in Corralitos and Tomatero Farm in Watsonville.
“The nice thing about pigs is that you don’t have to really look very far to find something that they can eat,” he says. “Whether it’s food banks, grocery stores, or all these food manufacturers that are around us, there’s so much excess food material that’s definitely animal-edible.”
The pigs don’t know it, but in Santa Cruz County, they’re exceptional. In a few months, Abelson will take them to a slaughterhouse in the Central Valley for their “one bad day.” After a trip to a U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified slaughtering facility in Fresno and then on to a butchering house in Paso Robles, they’ll return to Pajaro Pastures packaged by the pound for individual sale as bacon, pork shoulder, rib, loin and sirloin chops. They are the only pigs in Santa Cruz County that will make this journey. If you want to buy locally raised pork, Pajaro Pastures is your only option.
The loneliest ‘crop’ in Santa Cruz County
Santa Cruz County is a huge agricultural community. The total value of its crops was over $636 million in 2020. But livestock and animal products account for a small fraction, just 1%. In 2020, the total value of Santa Cruz County livestock came in at $7 million, a reduction of $500,000 from 2019. Strawberries, raspberries and blackberries, by comparison, raked in almost $400 million.
Farmers in the area I spoke to said it’s difficult to raise animals in Santa Cruz County because land is expensive, and, increasingly, so is water. But the biggest barriers are the confusing snare of USDA regulations that seem to favor large farms over small ones, they say. The toughest rule: To sell meat, the animal must be slaughtered in a USDA-certified and -inspected facility. However, there are only four in the state of California — two for swine in Turlock and Stockton, one for cattle in Fresno, and Marin Sun Farms in Petaluma, the last remaining USDA-inspected slaughterhouse in the San Francisco Bay Area.
This reality coincides with a time when the public is more conscientious than ever about buying local. Even the USDA promoted a “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative in 2020. But, ironically, it’s USDA regulations that make it increasingly difficult for small livestock farmers to exist, let alone make a living. As this Grist article puts it, in order to have local meat, you need a local slaughterhouse.
These rules exist for a reason, and that is to keep the food supply and animals safe. A slaughterhouse in Watsonville was closed in 2009 after reports of animal abuse. One in Petaluma was shuttered in 2014 and 8.7 million pounds of beef recalled after it was revealed that it slaughtered animals that suffered from optical cancer, a contaminant that is not known to make people sick. Another in the Central Valley was closed after a video surfaced showing unnecessary cruelty to the animals.
But as a result, with only a handful of slaughterhouses left in the state, just getting the animals to a slaughterhouse can be a difficult, time-consuming and costly task for a farmer like Abelson.
A few years ago, he did things differently. Like a handful of small farms through Santa Cruz County, Ableson raised pigs and sold shares of the whole animal, usually a quarter or a half. Selling animal shares exists in a legal gray area within California Department of Food and Agriculture regulations. Technically, the farmers aren’t selling the meat, which would be illegal since the animals aren’t slaughtered in a USDA-certified facility. Instead, they sell the live animal to their customer, who then pays to have the animal slaughtered privately and processed at a local butcher like Freedom Meat Lockers in Freedom or Corralitos Market & Sausage Company in Corralitos.
“The USDA doesn’t care if you eat your own animal,” explains Abelson. “If you raised it, you hunted it, or you dragged it out of the ocean, it’s not the USDA’s responsibility. Even if you give it away, even if you gave it away and it got people sick, it’s not their responsibility. [The consumers] just can’t be paying.”
This route is less expensive for the farmer because the customer shoulders the processing fees. But what is gained in potential profit is limited by the smaller number of customers interested in the upfront investment. While buying in bulk can decrease the price to $10 or $11 dollars per pound, whole pigs have 150 to 200 pounds of meat on them, so the purchase of even just a quarter of a pig can, depending on the size of the animal, be $400 to $600.
“It’s obviously a bigger financial investment,” Abelson says, “and not a lot of people want to do that.” He saw the potential to expand his customer base by offering pork by the cut.
Making the move to the USDA
To do that, Abelson moved outside the realm of the CDFA and into the jurisdiction of the USDA, and began trucking his pigs 150 miles to Fresno to be slaughtered. From there, they are picked up by a “cut and wrap” business and brought to Paso Robles, where they are butchered and packaged. Finally, Abelson drives down to pick up his vacuum-sealed and USDA-labeled pork to sell in Santa Cruz County.
“It’s a huge financial and logistical undertaking to take pigs to USDA slaughter. It’s way easier to say, ‘Hey, do you want to share this live animal and then have a mobile butcher come out and do the whole thing and then drive it a mile down the road to the butcher shop?’” says Abelson. “Probably half the value of the meat is the production of it. And then half of it is the harvest, and then the post-harvest processing. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for profit.”
To help offset costs, Abelson plans to move his butchering in-house. To do that, he will rent space in a commercial kitchen in nearby Watsonville. But this move will cost him. Since he won’t be using a USDA-certified cut-and-wrap facility anymore, he will be required to sell at least 75% of his meat on the retail market, and just 25% wholesale. Abelson currently sells about 50% wholesale and 50% retail, and would actually prefer to increase his wholesale accounts because they’re more dependable. Farmers markets, he says, are inconsistent.
Caleb Barron raises chickens at Fogline Farm, an ecological farm that lies just over the northern border of Santa Cruz County in San Mateo County. Every week, Barron drives 1,200 chickens to a poultry slaughterhouse in Modesto and returns them to Santa Cruz to process them at the commercial kitchen inside the Santa Cruz Food Lounge, with the goal of offering fresh, never-frozen meat at farmers markets and stores throughout the Central Coast.
While the state of California permits up to 1,000 chickens a year to be slaughtered on site, anything more than that must move to a USDA facility. Barron increased the size of his operation to make room for these additional costs, and as a result became one of the only small poultry farmers in California to offer fresh meat. “I just knew that in order to make it work, I had to do more birds,” says Barron. “At the slaughterhouse we use in Modesto, I’m the only small farm that shows up every week. I’m there with Foster Farms and some of the other big farms.”
Recently, Barron explored the possibility of opening a slaughterhouse in Santa Cruz County, but the pursuit eventually fizzled out. Among the regulations, the infrastructure and investment, the idea wasn’t feasible. Plus, he doubted the community would support such an endeavor: “Who’s gonna show up at our public hearing for a slaughterhouse?”
But he does believe it’s possible to open a USDA-certified cut-and-wrap facility for local farmers, and he is actively searching for a site. Barron says it’s his dream to open a legal commercial kitchen and warehouse, which would allow local and small farms, even homesteaders, to sell their animals at local farmers markets. Barron recently looked at the building that had been occupied by Marianne’s Ice Cream on the Westside as such a site, but he says the landlord isn’t ready to rent yet.
Opening such a facility wouldn’t help farmers just financially — it would help support one of the fundamental goals of farmers like Barron and Abelson. They both began their ecological farmer endeavors to offer a sustainable, cruelty-free, earth-friendly option for people who want to eat meat.
“My goal is to grow the best possible grass in order to create the best possible soil structure to hold the most water, the most microbes and biological activity and heal the land,” says Barron. “I want to support my family and my employees. I want to provide food to a community. And I want to heal the land and treat the land responsibly, and there’s really no order.”
Abelson recognizes that driving animals around the state for slaughter is antithesis to their environmental goals. “We’ve made our laws so strange that it’s impossible,” he says. “A small farmer has to transport their meat around 500 miles just to be able to sell it at a farmers market down the road.”
Last year, the USDA recognized that agricultural markets have become more concentrated and less competitive, and announced that it will invest $500 million to expand meat and poultry processing to “make agricultural markets more accessible, fair, competitive, and resilient for American farmers and ranchers.” The ills it hopes to address and the ways in which it hopes to relieve them are expansive, with the overarching goal to build a more resilient and equitable food system. The funding will help support new meat and poultry processing facilities to relieve bottlenecks. That could create competitive opportunities for farmers to receive better prices for their animals. The USDA says it will invest $55 million to specifically strengthen “existing small and very small meat processing capacity, benefitting smaller producers and processing plants.”
Right now, it’s unclear if any of this money will trickle down to help area farmers. Regardless, farmers like Barron and Abelson say they will stay the course to keep offering their high-quality products to the Central Coast.
I leave Pajaro Pastures with a pound of bacon, some ground pork and a beautiful pork shoulder on the bone. Back home in my kitchen, the bacon fries up beautifully on a Sunday morning. The ground pork became Chinese-style meatballs, and were so tender and delicious I was almost ashamed I added as many spices as I did. That weekend, I slowly simmered the pork shoulder until it fell apart, and had my family over for dinner. The delicious, sweet taste stunned everyone at the table, and we all agreed it was the best pork we had ever had. One family member even remarked, “You can almost taste the apples.”
Pajaro Pastures pork is available for purchase at pajaropastures.com and the Corralitos farmers market. Find Pajaro Pastures eggs at the Fogline Farm booth at the Live Oak, Cabrillo, downtown Santa Cruz and Monterey markets. Purchase Fogline Farm chicken at foglinefarm.com, Shoppers Corner in Santa Cruz, and the downtown Santa Cruz, Westside and Live Oak farmers markets, as well as other markets throughout the Bay Area.