Building a Brand — Gunthorp Farms, “… we’re going to build an agriculture in Indiana that people are actual ly proud of …”
“The largest beef processor in the U.S. is now owned by Brazil. But I’m not going to fight with them about that because we’re going to build an agriculture in Indiana that people are actually proud of because they know where their food is coming from.”
A conversation with Greg Gunthorp
By David Hoppe
“Rock star.” It’s our era’s shorthand for someone at the top of their game, someone who has broken barriers and found an original way of doing something most other people thought was settled.
If there can be such a thing as a rock star farmer, Greg Gunthorp is probably your man. For almost 20 years, Gunthorp has been building a pasture-based livestock brand on his farm outside LaGrange, built around quality, consistency and a mind-bending work ethic. Gunthorp, who took the audacious step of setting up his own, USDA-approved processing facility — the better to control the quality of his products, has become the purveyor of choice for leading chefs from Chicago to Indianapolis, including Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill fame. Gunthorp’s pork and poultry have even found their ways into the Chicago Cubs’ clubhouse; pitcher Jake Arrieta is a documented fan.
Gunthorp grew up on his family’s farm, raising pastured pigs, some cattle and a variety of crops: corn, soybeans, alfalfa, wheat. “I always enjoyed farming,” he says. “I think farming’s one of those things that gets in your blood.”
After graduating from high school in 1988, Gunthorp spent three months in Great Britain as part of a Future Farmers of America exchange program. He stayed on 11 different family farms and spent a week at the Royal Highland Fair, a massive annual show of all things agricultural in Scotland.
His time spent in the UK served as Gunthorp’s introduction to local, sustainable agriculture. He saw vibrant farmers markets and how farmers were able to skip the middleman and sell directly to consumers. He witnessed farming practices that drew a direct link between animal welfare and superior culinary experiences, and how farmers were making a living and supporting families on acreages and with numbers of animals that were practically unheard of in the United States.
Gunthorp and his wife, Lei, purchased his parents’ farm in 1994. Since then, he has become an outspoken advocate for small and sustainable farming; he was a member of the 1998 USDA Commission on Small Farms and contributed to its report, “A Time To Act.” He took time recently to share a bag of his turkey jerky and to talk about his work.
Looking back on your experience in Great Britain, what would you say you learned and how did it affect you? There was much more thought given to whole systems and how that impacted the animal, the environment, the worker and the consumer. I guess it was my introduction to the concept of holistic farming, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Looking back, I see that had I not had that experience I’m not sure I would have been willing to jump off the cliff and say, hey, we’re going to get into processing, and we’re going to sell directly to consumers.
What happened when you returned to the States? I spent two years at Purdue, getting an associate degree in agricultural economics. Then I started farming with my parents, and one of those black swan events happened in our lives. I was selling live pigs on the commodity market in 1998 for less than my grandpa sold them for in the Great Depression. I sold pigs for pennies per pound. At the same time, pork in the grocery store went from an average retail price of $2.59 a pound to $2.61 a pound. The price to the consumer went up, while the price to the farmer went basically to zero. Now I’m an extremely stubborn person. If I say I’m going to do something, or the world says this can’t be done, then I’m going to figure out how to do it. I told myself I wasn’t going to be the last Gunthorp to raise pigs.
Weren’t you told you would have to grow yourself out of that hole? In the late ’80s, early ’90s, the only message at Purdue was get big or get out. The hog industry was expanding and consolidating like crazy. Everybody was putting up buildings, going from the typical family farm with 100 sows, raising a little more than 1,500 pigs per year, to operations with 1,200 to 4,000 sows in confinement. You spent a fortune, millions of dollars to raise pigs, and the commodity pig market has not really been good since then. I would have gone broke if I’d listened to Purdue and put up a bunch of buildings to raise pigs. Not that I want to put a pig in a building anyway. They’re supposed to be outside; it’s where they get to be pigs.
How are you going to feed the world? If you look at the math, Americans consume roughly 80 pounds of chicken, 70 pounds of beef and 60 pounds of pork a year. There’s about 7 billion people on the planet. If we put everybody on a diet like that, we’ll environmentally and economically bankrupt the planet. I don’t know who in their right mind would think that was a good idea. We should follow Michael Pollan’s thought — you don’t generally hear this from a livestock producer — but we produce too much livestock. We should eat plants, not things produced in plants. We should eat less meat, but it should be produced better. And all farmers, from the biggest to the littlest, should get paid better for what they do.
It’s interesting that now you have so many people coming back to the land, or changing how they farm, or the scale. Are these folks getting institutional support? My daughter just graduated from Purdue University. They have a small farm and sustainable agriculture program there now. If anyone had told me in 1988 that they’d have a program like that, I would have told them they were nuts, and Purdue would have told them they were nuts. So the land grant universities are coming on board. Farm Bureau, especially once you get out of the corn belt, is coming on board. An excellent example: Go to the western portion of Michigan’s lower peninsula. Farm Bureau was really instrumental in getting a processing plant for fruits and vegetables up there. It’s mostly small farmers producing more product than they can sell through farmers markets during the season. They’re freezing it and selling it through the winter. That project wouldn’t have happened without the Farm Bureau.
Have we reached a tipping point? I think we reached a tipping point three to five years ago. Before that, we were the granola-crunching hippie farmers. That’s changed, and as it changes, it’s like a big snowball rolling downhill. People can change its direction a little bit, but step in front of it and you’ll get rolled over.
You’ve been an inspiration and mentor for farmers in terms of building a market for your food before these markets were obvious. What do you tell new farmers or farmers who want to change their business model? With livestock, the two biggest challenges, which are the same today as when we started, are you have to match the number of animals you have with what you are going to market. Then you have to figure out how you’re going to market every single one of the pieces. You can sell loins or bacon all day long, but you still have to figure out what to do with the hams and shoulders. It doesn’t do you any good to go out and get a market for 35 pigs a week if you only have 20 pigs a week. It doesn’t matter if it’s a restaurant or a retailer, if you short them they’re not happy. But if you overproduce, you’re going to kill yourself. That’s a fine line.
Long term, I think people have to remember what we’re trying to do is develop a brand. And you do that by consistent quality. What we really sell is the ability of our customers to create an ultimate dining experience. Frontera Grill has been our largest customer over the years, and the products we send to them help them to bring people into their restaurants. That’s something a person really has to keep in mind. You’re not just selling an animal that is based on the price per pound. You’re selling a product that is of the utmost quality at all times.
I can barely imagine the kind of risk you took on when you determined to process your own meat. We knew we wanted to sell to 3-, 4-, 5-star restaurants, and they are extremely particular about how they want things processed. They want it handled correctly; they want everything as fresh as possible. So it came down to my stubbornness. If you are going to get into selling to white tablecloth restaurants, you either have to have a really good relationship with a processer, or you probably have to own a processing plant. I don’t think there’s another option. I don’t think you can cold call a processer and say, “I want to sell to restaurants and am going to bring you a varied number of beef every week, and I need them cut up the day after, and it’s going to be different every week.” If the processer was really into that, they would probably be selling to restaurants themselves.
When we became part owners of a plant 37 miles from here, I couldn’t manage it. I was either at the farm when I should have been at the processing plant, or at the plant when I should have been selling in Chicago. But I knew I could make it work if we built a plant on the farm. At the time, access to capital was a huge problem. We had to be creative. But we built a processing plant on a shoestring, and we made it work.
I get the chance to speak to a lot of classes through Junior Achievement, and I tell people I’m 100 percent convinced that you make your own luck. There’s a lot of no-sleep nights, a lot of standing 17 to 18 hours. But that’s what business owners do. You put your name on the wall, and somehow, at the end of the day, the work has to get done.
Is it worth it? I love it. I couldn’t think of doing anything else. There’s times when it’s way, way too much work. But it’s very, very rewarding. The most rewarding thing about what we do is that we sell directly to the customer, and they are extremely appreciative.
What do you see happening in the future? The fact consumers are on board with buying directly from farmers, cutting out the middleman, and there being transparency in the market to the point where consumers can buy products produced, processed and handled the way they want them, creates endless opportunities. … I personally believe there’s three kinds of farmers in this country. There’s the small hobby farmer, there’s the sustainable or niche operator, and there’s commodity agriculture. My sincere hope is that we get the state and federal governments to realize their role is to be helpful to all three. We have an awful lot of people in Indiana that want to be small farmers. I think the universities, the state department of ag, the board of health, all have a role in helping these people. They’ve done a good job over the years being helpful to industrial agriculture: They’re promoting Smithfield, which is owned by the Chinese. The largest beef processor in the U.S. is now owned by Brazil. But I’m not going to fight with them about that because we’re going to build an agriculture in Indiana that people are actually proud of because they know where their food is coming from.
435 N. Road 850E, LaGrange, gunthorpfarms.com