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Last slaughterhouse closing

Bob Singleton, owner of Rancho Veal Corp. in Petaluma for the last 40 years, has signed an option to sell his 3.46 acres to a home developer for $3 million. Crista Jeremiason / PD

Rancho Veal owner selling land to developer; some fear cost of taking cattle to Sacramento or Stockton could hurt local ranchers


By Jose L Sanchez Jr.
The Press Democrat


The last cattle slaughterhouse in the North Bay is set to pass into history, put down by a decline in the cattle industry and a continuing rise in the value of land for homes.

"I hate to see it go, but it's something that has to happen," said Bob Singleton, owner of Rancho Veal Corp. in Petaluma.

Singleton has signed an option to sell his 3.46 acres to Legacy Partners, a Foster City-based developer that has assembled nearly 12 acres along Petaluma Boulevard North for a proposed 79-home subdivision.

If all goes as planned, Singleton expects to shut down the slaughterhouse by February 2008, leaving local ranchers to take their stock to the Central Valley for slaughter.

The slaughterhouse has sat atop a hill in northern Petaluma for 90 years and is one of the most visible vestiges of the city's agricultural past.

Over the years, the ramshackle collection of holding pens and outbuildings clustered around a big cement box with statues of a cow and a calf on top has become an island of agriculture in the midst of a growing city.

With fewer cattle being brought to his slaughterhouse and the cost of operating the old plant rising, the time seemed right to close it, Singleton said.

He is 69 and none of his children or their spouses is interested in taking over the operation, he said.

After he invests the $3 million he is to receive for his land, Singleton expects to at least double his income, he said. He now nets $100,000 a year from the slaughterhouse.

At its peak in the 1980s, Rancho Veal was slaughtering 1,500 calves and 400 cows a week and employed 48 people. Today, the plant handles 200 to 275 cows a week and employs 21 people.

The decline of Rancho Veal's business mirrors the decline of the Sonoma County cattle industry. In 1999, there were 54,875 head of cattle and calves, valued at $20.7 million, according to the county crop report.

According to the 2004 report, the most recent available, the county had 34,572 head of cattle and calves worth $13.9 million.

Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and a cattle rancher himself, said the decline has been due to multiple factors, including higher costs of production because of the area's higher cost of living and the attractiveness of other uses for land, such as wine grapes.

"People have converted to wine grapes because they are more profitable," he said.

According to county crop reports, the number of acres devoted to wine production increased from 51,467 in 1999 to 60,064 in 2004 and wine revenue increased from $269.3 million to $309.8 million during the same period.

There were 10 slaughterhouses in the North Bay 20 years ago, Singleton said.

With Rancho Veal soon to disappear, McCorvey said he is concerned the higher cost of taking cattle to slaughterhouses in Stockton or Sacramento may drive some of the 1,500 to 2,000 cattle ranchers in the county out of the cattle business altogether.

He himself is going to think long and hard before investing $20,000 in a new cattle trailer to haul his Angus to Stockton.

Bill Kortum, an environmental activist and former county supervisor and veterinarian, said he is worried that the closure of the region's last slaughterhouse will undermine efforts to keep land in agriculture and fuel development in Sonoma and Marin counties.

"If we're going to maintain the pastoral lands of these two counties we better have a slaughterhouse," he said.

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