Rancher rides grass-fed boom
Family background in ranching leads to vertically integrated distribution system
By JULIA HOLLISTER
For the Capital Press
POINT REYES STATION, Calif. -- David Evans, founder of Marin Sun Farms, seems to have a knack for anticipating business trends and pouncing at the right time.
"I grew up on my grandfather's ranch on the peninsula here," he said. "My parents started a commercial beef, cow and calf operation so I grew up learning about the industry. I think I always had a passion, but in college at Cal Poly I had to make a decision about a career."
He took small-business management classes, human-resource and supervisory courses and decided to concentrate on a business major.
After graduation he returned to the family ranch and assisted in the operations of the commercial beef operation but wanted to pursue grass finishing and direct marketing.
"I guess I needed to break away from the family to pursue my own course," he said. "I had ambition but was conflicted about not having land, capital or animals. So, I started a fence construction and contracting firm that proved to be successful."
After three years he saved some money and found credit was cheap and easy to get, so he purchased and ran some stocker cattle. The goal was to fatten the cows, finish them on grass and have a salable product.
He didn't anticipate the enormous demand for grass-fed beef that was building in the Bay Area. This was when food activist Michael Pollan wrote an article in the New York Times called "Power Steer" that opened the eyes of readers to how most beef is finished on feedlots.
"I placed an ad for Marin Sun Farms grass-fed beef and my phone was ringing off the hook. Everyone wanted the meat," Evans said. "I instantly realized the demand potential and it was very exhilarating."
But there was a problem, he said.
"I had live animals but no finished product and no way to get it to the public," he said.
He embarked on a steep learning curve to meet the requirements of getting the product to the marketplace. He found a processor in San Francisco with freezer storage. After several years he opened a restaurant and butcher shop in Point Reyes.
"I hired butchers and started processing meat there," he said. "I was selling directly to the consumer and looking at other creative avenues with an emphasis on local, sustainable food systems."
Bolinas rancher Bill Niman, himself a leader in the sustainable beef movement, praised Evans and his vision.
"I've known David and his family for many years now," he said. "Shortly before launching Marin Sun Farms he worked for me for a while and we had lots of good conversations about the state of farming and ranching and our ideas for the future.
"It's been amazing to watch him put his energy and willpower into creating Marin Sun Farms," he said. "What he's put together is an impressive organization that's really moving forward the issue of returning animals to grass, where they belong."
Today Evans handles animals from farm to plate with no outside distributors. He has outgrown what he can produce alone and began using co-producers to bring beef, lamb, goat, pork, poultry and eggs to market.
Over 10 years, sales have grown 50 to 100 percent every year. Recently, he opened a new market in the upscale Rockridge area of Oakland.
"There is nothing more rewarding than seeing your product all the way to the end," he said. "If I had to give advice to anyone I would say, 'If you want more money for your animals you have to know what you want, take the risk and go for it.'"
Hometown: Point Reyes, Calif.
Occupation: Ranchers and entrepreneur
Education: Bachelor's degree in ag business, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
Quote: "There are so many opportunities in agriculture and food right now that allow a producer more options than they have ever had before. Anytime an ag producer has more options and more markets it's a good thing. They should feel good that they have the choices."