Farm Aid’s Fired-Up Grass-Roots Advocacy – Farmer Greg Gunthorp sets strong agenda during panel discussion.

Bob Benenson

Sep 26, 2023

Straight Talk on Fixing the Food System

Greg Gunthorp, a leader in regenerative livestock production at Gunthorp Farms in northeast Indiana, spoke out powerfully on the need to support small farms during a panel discussion at the Farm Aid Festival in Noblesville, Indiana on September 23. Photo by Bob Benenson.

There were so many strong advocates for local food, small farmers and a better food system at the Farm Aid Festival, held in Noblesville, Indiana (near Indianapolis) on Saturday (September 23). One of the nice things about my second career in Good Food advocacy is that I get to listen to some people I know and admire.

One of these is Greg Gunthorp, owner/operator of Gunthorp Farms in LaGrange, Indiana, near Fort Wayne in the northeast part of the state. Greg, who I got to know through my work at the Family Farmed non-profit, is both a pioneer in our region’s regenerative livestock farming sector and a nationally recognized advocate for pasture raising and humane treatment of food animals.

Gunthorp Farms’ high-quality products, values and long relationship as a supplier with Chef Rick Bayless’ Chicago-based Frontera Restaurant Group have made Greg a success story, enough so that he is one of a small percentage of pastured-livestock farmers to build his own on-farm, USDA-inspected meat processing plant, thus avoiding the bottlenecks many producers face because of a shortage of local processing facilities.

But Greg remains well aware of the challenges producers of better meat face in a nation where most meat that consumer purchase comes from Big Food companies and much of that comes from animals raised on factory farms. And the panel provided him with a platform to call for sweeping transformational change.

The following are key passages from Greg’s comments about what is needed in the upcoming five-year revision of the federal Farm Bill and beyond.

I think there’s four issues, as a local food producer and as a small farmer, that I think need to be addressed.

The first one is subsidy reform. We have both direct, indirect, as well as government procurement that is directed entirely towards the largest of farms and the largest of industrial agriculture. That needs to change.

We have antitrust enforcement. We have laws on the books, the Clayton Act, Sherman Act, Packers and Stockyards. In my opinion, the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission and the USDA have been on vacation since the 1970s. Time they go back to work.

We have labeling reform. Truth in labeling is a serious problem in this country. And we need to fix that. The farmers that have created niche markets, those have largely been co-opted by the largest of the multinational corporations. And that takes away opportunities for farmers.

And then the final thing is that we need to look at is some regulatory reform, some technical resources for both farmers and small processors so that they can easily fit into these USDA systems.

We largely in this country support feed and fuel as far as subsidies. The industry has done a very good job of getting us as taxpayers and consumers to take the risk, to burden all of that risk, rather than the industry to burden that risk.

And we also need to be progressive if we’re going to spend money… We have a food supply where Americans, 60 percent of our calories is ultra-processed food. At the same time, we have 100 million Americans that are pre-diabetic. Yet we as Americans, the USDA, our congressmen, we cannot see the connection between raising healthy food and having healthy Americans, and not being able to afford our health care costs. It’s time that we think a little bit further outside of the box.

And it’s time that we have some transformational change. And that starts probably with some serious shifts on those subsidy dollars. I see three things that I would like to see you guys help to support that strengthen local processing. Rafi [Rural Agriculture Foundation International] has been pushing that. We really should get that. Government then would be required that 20 percent of its purchases would come from small farmers, small processors. This would be a huge boost to local and regional foods.

I think that y’all ought to take a look at the [proposed] OFF [Opportunities for Fairness in Farming] Act. We should strongly support the OFF Act. We need some reform. Under the checkoff programs, small family farms are forced to pay for contrary to their business interest in checkoffs to support industrial agriculture. [Read more about the OFF Act.]

And then the other thing and I think it’s monumental, we got that win on Proposition 12 for the California gestation crate rule, and [opponents are] trying to outdo that with the EATS [Ending Agricultural Trade Suppression] Act [proposed]. We need to make sure that the EATS Act does not make it into this next farm bill so that individual states can choose how food is raised and how food is consumed within their states. [Read more about the EATS Act.]

I’m from northeast Indiana. When I was little, down every road, the farms had dairy cows or they had sows. Those are virtually all gone. I’m here to tell you that there’s hope, but there’s also a lot of despair.

This agricultural system has economically gutted rural America. And if we continue what we’re doing now down this path of concentration and consolidation, there are going to be no independent family farms left. Most of the protein, the red meat and the poultry, is already a feudal serf system. If the farmers do not own animals on their land, they own the manure, the mortgage and the mortalities. They don’t own any of the other stuff. We cannot continue this. There’s no egg producers left, there’s no independent chicken farmers left, the cattle feeders are virtually gone. The only thing that’s really left is corn and the cow-calf guys, and those guys are on the ropes.

Something needs to change. We’ve been doing Farm Aid for 38 years now. We’re still kicking the can down the road. It’s time we actually fix the problem.

I think we need to quit talking about a farm bill and we need to talk about food bill. Indiana is an excellent example. We talk about our wonderful Indiana heritage. And I think the last numbers I’ve seen, [we produce] $17 million worth of agricultural products. Only about 10 percent of the food in Indiana is actually grown in Indiana. We’re in one of the five breadbaskets to the world and we don’t produce our own food. We should change that.

And we should talk to our legislators. We want support for farmers, not support for agribusiness. Our current system indirectly supports agribusiness because it’s a feed and a fuel system, not a food system. And we need to change that.

That message is really simple to legislators, if we had enough people telling them that. They’ve already started to get it. People got to see behind the curtain with COVID. People realize we do not have a resilient food supply. People realize that now. All it takes is you tell your congressman, your senator that we want to actually support farmers growing food. We don’t want to support these multinational corporations.

And it is slightly dire. When this started, this was a domestic problem. This is very quickly becoming a global problem. These same corporations that we’re fighting here are also dominating agriculture across the globe. We need to do something about it soon, because it will be out of our hands very quickly.

Greg is not only a friend of many years but one of my Good Food heroes. Hopefully his fiery commentary here underscores why… and why Greg was honored by Farm Aid with a lifetime all-access pass to the annual festivals at a ceremony held Friday night.