As we are all well aware of, there will be big changes in January no matter which side of the ticket proves to be victorious in the November election. With a new President comes a new Secretary of Agriculture. Ferd Hoefner, the Policy Director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, saw an opportunity to gather valuable information to be included in the transition documents that will be given to the new Secretary of Agriculture. Yesterday, a group of some of the most well-known individuals in the sustainable agriculture and small processing industry, as well as representatives from the USDA/FSIS (Food Safety & Inspection Service) gathered at Gunthorp Farms to discuss what information shall be included in the report.
The day was scheduled to begin at 10 am with tours of our processing facility and then of our farm. Unfortunately the USDA representatives could not make it to the tour, but that did not stop all of us "industry representatives" from watching pig slaughter and hiking across the farm. All of the attendees were farmers and processors themselves, so the conversations throughout the day were so valuable to listen to. We broke at noon for lunch and anxiously awaited the USDA representatives arrival so we could begin the meeting that would be focusing on issues that small & very small processors face. Thankfully they arrived at 1 and our meeting was shortly brought to order.
The meeting was set up rather informally, with all of us sitting in a large circle in the basement of my parents' house. As the FSIS representatives took the floor first, I began wondering how beneficial this meeting was actually going to be. Did these people have any idea what a small plant even looks like, let alone what struggles they go through? After their 30 minute introduction regarding the resources and opportunities USDA has for us, I was feeling as if they were not interested in hearing what any of us industry representatives had to say at all.
Finally, Mike Callicrate took the floor. When I was growing up, many conversations centered around Mike and the challenges he was facing (and overcoming) and I have always held his name as that of a celebrity. Being able to finally meet him this week was an honor (and probably the topic of a different blog post). Anyways, Mike took the floor and laid it all on the table.
"Listen, what it comes down to is we are afraid of you all. You intimidate us. I know the USDA has a job to do and I know you are not supposed to be intimidating, but this is the reality right now." I felt the urge to stand up and clap when he finished what I would consider the description of why we all were gathered. I scribbled into my notes, "thank you Mike for saying what we are all sitting here thinking!"
There are definite issues that small plants face when obtaining and maintaining USDA inspection. We came to a consensus that intimidation/fear of retaliation is definitely one of the barriers to building the local food market. There has to be some sort of process that can verify small plants are still producing safe food without being a burden that prevents them from succeeding.
Pete Eshelman of Joseph Decuis Restaurant & Farm pointed out that Indiana alone spends $18 million on food. Shockingly 90% of that is imported from other states or even other countries. Think of how many food dollars could be brought back to the state if more processors were able to stay in business? How many more jobs would be created in the state if even a fraction of those food dollars could come from in the state and not imports? What if we applied that thinking nation wide and created more food for Americans here in America?
The USDA realizes that creating regional food markets will be beneficial to local communities, rural development, and national food security. "In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative (KYF2) to better support the farmers, ranchers, food businesses and communities engaged in local and regional food systems." (Copied directly from a handout at the meeting yesterday.) Industry estimates show that the $1 billion that USDA has invested into local food systems have helped local food sales grow from $5 billion in 2008 to $12 billion in 2014 and it is expected to hit $20 billion by 2019. This is great news, but without reforming small processing regulation, the initiative will miss the bar. Access to legal processing is the bottleneck in this local food movement. Small processors are not asking for "easier" regulations, we are just asking for scale appropriate regulations that plants without bountiful human, financial, and capital resources can comply with.
Did we solve the whole problem during the course of the meeting yesterday? Of course not. Many issues were brought to the table and many were discussed, but many were only touched on and I know there are many more that should be brought up as well. However, there is hope. The most successful thing that came from the meeting yesterday was a plan for more meetings. Quarterly meetings, even, with the FSIS representatives and industry representatives to continue this dialogue until change happens.
Maybe someday, the local food movement and small processors will not need their own "initiatives". Maybe someday the "A" in USDA will stand for all agriculture and there will not need to be special committees to make sure that the little guys are not walked on or pushed out. We might not be there yet, but events like yesterday's meeting and the individuals who were in attendance are pushing us in the right direction.
Three months ago, I walked across the stage at Purdue, took my diploma, and began my adventure as a full-time employee at Gunthorp Farms. Over three months, I have learned more, both about the business and about myself personally, than I could ever fit into a blog post. (And to think, I thought I was done with my education when I took that piece of paper in May!)
This blog post is not to tell you what all I’ve learned, but instead to give credit where credit is due. (And believe me, this is long overdue!) So here I am, citing my source for all of my accomplishments and knowledge thus far.
Greg Gunthorp is a pioneer in the sustainable agriculture movement. He broke free of the industrial chains that were tightening on American farmers. In 1998, when some hog farmers were choosing to shoot and bury their hogs instead of selling them for 5 cents a pound (or less if you had to transport them very far), Greg found a way to keep his hogs. No matter what problems he faced, he took it upon himself to create a solution.
Lack of federal processing facilities? He built his own. Lack of industry and government support for “little guys”? He became their voice everywhere he went, whether that be by sitting on President Clinton’s Small Farm Commission on a national level or fighting for small processors’ ability to slaughter chickens here in Indiana . Lack of finances? He did not cry out for subsidies or government assistance, but instead devoted every hour of every day into the business.
There are a lot of farmers and individuals in the ag industry who do not like Greg before they have even met him. (This became apparent to me throughout my time at Purdue, from small remarks at the dinner table and in classes to almost full-blown arguments at the bar.) What most do not realize is that the biggest things Greg stands for are rural development and paying farmers what they deserve. I do not see how anyone can be upset with that, no matter what your production practices may be.
Greg Gunthorp is my mentor, role model, and also my dad. I might be biased, but how could I not be extremely proud of him? He built a company (actually 3 companies) from the ground up, centered around his morals and values, during a time when no one in their right mind believed what he was setting out to do was possible. He built a company that not only is self sustaining, so neither of my parents have to work off the farm to pay for the farm or support our family, but also is now employing myself, my brother, twenty other full time employees, and at least ten part time employees. This is rural development!
I have attended numerous events with Greg in my lifetime. After every event, I have people approach me and tell me, “your dad is so amazing.” Yes, he definitely is. He has a passion for what he does that is unmatched by anyone I’ve ever met. Many people will search their whole life for a mentor who is as passionate, knowledgable, and willing to teach as Greg is and yet here I am, lucky enough to have met him twenty-two years ago.
I am so excited to dive deeper into my journey with Greg and with Gunthorp Farms and with sustainable agriculture as a whole. I hope that with the help of Greg, I can become a voice for the small farmer and for rural advocacy like he has become. I also hope I can help share Greg’s knowledge that would otherwise be wasted on just me as the only member of his audience on our drives to Indy and Chicago.
More posts to come in the near future. I already have some topics in mind, but feel free to leave topics or questions in the comments below.
What is your favorite story? Is it about a princess locked away in a tower? A troll who lives under a bridge? A fire breathing dragon? I am as big of a fan of fairytales as the next person, but my favorite story does not have any of these mythical elements in it. My favorite story is one I have heard so many times I could recite it for you by heart. Even to this day, when I hear it I get goosebumps. Let me tell you my favorite story...
The young man thought long and hard about the choice that stood ahead of him. "I am a fourth generation pig farmer. Yes, I am selling pigs for less than my grandfather did, but I am still raising pigs just like Grandpa showed me how to." At the end of the day, he knew he could not give up this family tradition.
Around this same time, the young man was asked to speak at Ron Macher's Small Farm Today Conference. Realistically, it was too farm from the farm. He knew he should not leave the farm unattended... but for some reason, he went anyways. After he gave his presentation at the conference, he was talking to a group of farmers in the back of the room. One of the farmers said that his friend raised milk-fed pigs and was selling them to Chicago, but his friend was about to get out of the business. The farmer handed the young man a business card and said "Give this guy a call. Maybe you could sell him a pig." And that is just what the young man did.
If you have not figured this out by now, the young man is my father, Greg Gunthorp. He made that phone call to none other than Matthias Merges at Charlie Trotter's. Rumor has it that this Merges never answers his phone. But for some reason when Greg called, he answered. Merges talked to Greg for about 15 minutes, asking him all sorts of questions about how the hogs were raised, what breed of pig they were, even what the pigs ate. Greg was astonished that he was so knowledgable on pigs but was even more shocked when he said, "Yeah, can you bring me one next week?"
Greg had one hog butchered and loaded it up in a Brute tank in the back of their little Suzuki Swift. Greg and Lei headed off to Chicago for the first time, not knowing what to expect. This pig farmer from a small town in LaGrange, Indiana was white-knuckled the whole drive in. Greg still did not know anything about the restaurant he was delivering to. He did not know Charlie Trotter from Adam. When he pulled up to the back door of the restaurant and helped them unload the pig, they offered to give him a tour of the restaurant. As they walked through the restaurant and saw extravagant paintings on the walls and hundred dollar bottles of wine as the cheapest wines on the wine rack, Greg realized he wasn't in rural Indiana anymore.
That first trip to Chicago gave Greg the little taste of the foodie world that he was about to dive into headfirst. After that first pig, Charlie Trotter's began taking a pig every couple of weeks. When your first customer in the fine dining world is Matthias Merges and Charlie Trotter, advertising is the least of your concerns. Once everyone found out that Charlie Trotter was getting his pork from a small farmer in Indiana, everyone wanted some of this prized pork. You could say the rest is history.
Goosebumps. Every single time I talk about it. But what is this story missing that every good story has? That's right, a happily ever after. Since Greg entered the meat distribution business in 1998, Gunthorp Farms has changed quite drastically. We built a USDA-inspected processing plant to do all of our own slaughter and processing. We have added chickens, ducks, and turkeys. We built a smokehouse and smoke more bacon than we could have ever imagined (and it is not even close to capacity yet). Expansion has not been a problem for us... so where does the happily ever after come in?
If you ask Greg why he did not throw in the towel seventeen years ago, he will tell you, "My family has always raised pigs. I am the fourth generation and I surely do not want to be the last." That is the key to our happily ever after. When I was home this past weekend over fall break, my dad pulled my brother Evan and I into the living room for a "family meeting" as he likes to call any of our gatherings/discussions of important matters. My dad is on a committee through Pew Meridian that is rewriting the Poultry Modernization Act. It is an honor for him to be on this committee and it is extremely important for small processors and farmers everywhere that he gets to be their voice. The committee had a meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday this past week. With that being said, this past Monday was a government holiday so our slaughter day was moved to Tuesday. Long story short, Dad was torn because he really needed to go to Washington, D.C. for his committee meeting but how could he miss a slaughter day?
Cue me and my brother. We got him on his way and told him to have a safe trip. Then Tuesday morning when it came time to slaughter, I took over final house inspection and Evan took over.. basically everything else. We made it through slaughter without any major hiccups, complied with all of our HACCP tasks, ensured the antimicrobial interventions were correct at each stage of the process, and dealt with any problems thrown our way. Not once did we have to call Dad during slaughter. We just... handled it. That night the truck got loaded for Indianapolis. The next day, the truck got loaded for Chicago. All of this was done without Dad being there. Evan really proved that this fifth generation of Gunthorps is capable of carrying on the family business!
My father is the most intelligent man I know, hands down. He is my constant reminder that no matter what life throws at me, I can push through it and overcome any obstacle just like he has done repeatedly over the course of this business. My dad has made an amazing company and for that I will always be grateful. What is so exciting to me though is that my brother and I can help create the perfect ending to this fairytale my parents started. Evan is an amazing plant manager already at the young age of 18 and well on his way of following in my dad's footsteps. I am hoping to take over sales and marketing and really help with quality assurance and human resources as soon as I graduate in May. My mom does a fantastic job of keeping all of our finances in line. We are such a team with different skill sets, it just amazes me.
Gunthorp Farms will see a lot of growth and change in upcoming years. Each year we will add to this story and work closer to the "happily ever after" we have in mind. For now, this is a story about a fourth generation pig farmer who took a struggling farm and turned it into a successful business that is changing the food supply. In twenty years, what impact will Evan and I have on the story?
It was scorching hot in Indianapolis on Sunday, but that did not stop the huge crowd from filling White River State Park. Dig IN is an event that shows off the best of the best of Indiana's farmers and culinary experts. Indiana chefs represent Indiana restaurants and prepare dishes made from Indiana farmers' products. Indiana wineries and breweries join in the action. Consumers from all over this great state purchase their tickets and take their food passports to the over 40 booths to get their hands on a sample of each chef's dish. For those who are of age, they can then go and wash down all of the food with samples from over 30 wineries and breweries. Dig IN is a yearly event you do not want to miss!
On Sunday, the whole Gunthorp family was able to attend Dig IN. Greg was able to run around like the social butterfly that he is and catch up with our chefs. Lei, Evan, and I were excited to finally put some faces with the names of chefs who we work with on a weekly basis but have only met through phone calls, emails, and texts. Cassidy's favorite part was probably getting popsicles and collecting as many sweets as she could. The whole family really enjoyed themselves. Getting the opportunity to taste products that we harvested and delivered not even a week ago is always a mind-blowing experience!
The Indiana food scene is full of incredible talent. I challenge you to branch out the next time you are looking for somewhere to eat. You do not have to travel all the way to the Windy City for a taste of culinary excellence! There are many amazing restaurants, wineries, and breweries right here under our noses. Unsure of where to start? Check out this year's Dig IN lineup and comment below other places you would recommend. There are locations in every corner of the state.
Allow your passion to become your purpose and it will one day become your profession.
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