Declining agriculture in San Mateo County driving up cost of meat 

When they launched a grass-fed beef farm in 2006, Pescadero couple Doniga and Erik Markegard wanted to do everything right.

He was a sixth-generation cattle rancher, she was an environmentalist from a dynasty of Northwestern beef and dairy farmers. Both wanted to lower their carbon footprint, provide their neighbors with sustainably raised meat and offer affordable bulk rates for families so all their friends could stock up for winter.

They created Markegard Family Farms with all those goals in mind, raising their cattle on homegrown pasture and feeding their hogs with waste from local restaurants. Aside from the occasional shipments of non-GMO alfalfa that they'd order each year from the San Joaquin Valley, everything came from the same plot.

But when the time came to slaughter their first cattle, the Markegards weren't able to stick to a pure efficiency model.

Agricultural laws would only allow them to slaughter livestock at a USDA-inspected abattoir and then process it at a USDA-approved butcher. The closest slaughterhouse that would accept livestock from a family-run farm was two hours north in Petaluma, and the closest butchery lay two hours east in Esparto.

Turning each cow into meat required a costly eight-hour, carbon-emitting drive, which partially negated the family's hard-won ecofriendly practices. It also forced them to raise prices.

"Transportation costs and the cost of processing is so high, it puts us in a financial place where we have to charge a premium for our product," Doniga Markegard said.

The Markegards' plight isn't unique. Rising property values and changing demographics have made it much harder for young farmers to purchase their own land on the cusp of Silicon Valley, and as a result, agriculture has declined about 40 percent in San Mateo County over the past 20 years. Pescadero, in particular, is suffering for lack of farm infrastructure, and the small farmers who do everything right are still forced to drive many miles to kill their livestock.

Kevin Watt, who runs Early Bird Ranch with his wife, ShaeLynn, currently has to drive out to Petaluma or Modesto to his hogs and poultry. Absent a reliable local chicken feed producer, he orders that from far away, too — it comes from King City in Monterey County.

Watt blames a combination of land prices, zoning restrictions and Coastal Commission rules for inhibiting local infrastructure — including the possibility of a full-service slaughterhouse.

But Doniga Markegard says such things may be a long time coming.

"With only a handful of locally produced meat ranches in Pescadero, it wouldn't make sense," she said, adding that most USDA-approved plants have contracts with large factory farms in order to remain profitable.

Changing the current situation would require a multifaceted solution.

"You'd have to get young farmers on the land ... and then work with those that are doing commercial operations to switch to grass-fed meat," she said. "Frankly, many of them are not that interested."

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