BAR-C: Breaking the Bottleneck

By: Kathy Webster

Kathy Webster - TomKat RanchA Cooperative of Community Ranchers with a Processing Solution.

As beef harvesting goes, California lacks enough USDA certified processing facilities to serve small local producers. The COVID-19 crisis has made that shortage more striking. That’s why, in order to create a more resilient local food system, a group of Bay Area ranchers came together to form an agricultural cooperative–by ranchers, for ranchers– called BAR-C (Bay Area Ranchers Cooperative). 

The need for this effort started in 2019 when the local ranching community lost access to the only multi-species (beef, pork, lamb, and goat) USDA processing facility within 150 miles of the San Francisco Bay Area. With only a handful of facilities in California, the loss of one more facility further reduced options for local ranches to provide their communities healthy, grass-fed meat without driving hundreds of miles for processing. To add to the bottleneck, the pandemic led to the closure of a number of big meat processing plants forcing large cattle operations to look for alternative processors and adding to competition for access to processing facilities.

In December of 2019, TomKat Ranch and a small group of ranchers and other stakeholders met to assess the viability of developing a cooperatively-owned USDA mobile processing unit to address the situation. After six months of market research, a list of 80+ direct-to-consumer ranchers representing more than 10,000 head of livestock in Northern California was assembled. Research showed that demand for locally produced and harvested proteins by these ranchers might be twice what a new facility could handle and 60 percent of the animals would be transported from less than 50 miles away. This data suggested a lowered carbon footprint for producers, a less stressful trip for livestock, and that the BAR-C processing model might be cash-flow-positive in just 10 months!

A star is born

In July 2020, BAR-C Cooperative was officially incorporated. Its stated mission: to provide a processing resource for the greater Bay Area community of ranchers and farmers dedicated to transparency and honesty throughout the business. In a broader context, the goal of this agricultural cooperative ‘by ranchers, for ranchers’, is to provide a regional, humane, no stress harvest solution that creates jobs, supports rural economies, and offers a viable model for other regions to build from.

BAR-C members will pay to harvest and process their animals and then can sell their products directly to their customers. Any profit generated from processing fees will go to the owners of the co-op — the ranchers themselves. It’s a virtuous circle that anchors the local food system, builds processing resilience, financially benefits ranchers, and builds consumer assurances.

On the move

BAR-C is currently working with Ag  + Open Space Sonoma on a site for the mobile processing unit and a cut-and-wrap facility and hope to have the mobile unit in place by May 2021. To close the deal, coop members need to raise $1.2 million by year’s end. So far they have $181,200 raised and $250,000 committed. The effort has led to inquiries from several other states looking to create similar cooperative models including Ohio, Kansas, Oregon, and Oklahoma, exactly what we hoped would happen! 

For more information, visit BAR-C’s website and check out these two articles in the Point Reyes  Light, Regional Ranchers Plan Local Option for Slaughter and Civil Eats, Ranchers Form Co-Op too  Address Meat  Processing Bottleneck. Or watch a recent presentation to investors at the Food Funded Entrepreneurship & Investor Fair.