by Aly Beveridge
Greg Gunthorp was born to raise pigs. In fact, he says “it’s in his blood.” Greg is a leading mid-scale, heritage hog farmer from Northeastern Indiana and this year’s winner of the 2018 Slow Food USA Snailblazer Family Farming Award. Distinguishing himself as one of the premier meat providers to some of Chicago and Indiana’s best restaurants, as well as to members of his own community, Greg raises pigs in the same way his family has been for four generations. However, it wasn’t always easy finding a path to sustainability for Gunthorp Farms. In 1998, after taking over the sow herd from his father, Greg was selling pigs for less than his grandfather was during the Great Depression at around 5¢/lb. However, that same year, Greg sold his first whole hog to a restaurant in Chicago. Moving from the commodity market, where pasture-raised and confinement hogs are valued equally, to slaughtering the pigs himself was a radical move at the time.
“Everyone thought we were crazy because farmers didn’t get their animals processed. That just wasn’t something farmers thought was normal,” Greg says.
Since then Greg has learned a lot about marketing himself to the “foodie world,” as he calls it, and has diversified to include ducks, turkeys, and chickens on his farm to support his operation. His own transition away from the commodity market underscored the lack of support for many small-scale farmers in the US.
“There’s a definite shortage of processing space for small farmers in the US. It’s very hard to get an animal processed and ready for market here” Greg acknowledges.
Despite these challenges, Greg stands out as a farmer who has forged his own path defiantly in the face of big agra’s encroachment on his community and even on his way of life. His operation, which employs 30 people, not only provides access to good, fair jobs in his community, but is also training the next generation of small-scale farmers. We were delighted and grateful to speak to Greg during the height of his preparations for the Thanksgiving season and for Slow Food’s Thank a Farmer Month.
What effect has big agra and factory farming had on your community?
When I was younger, we were surrounded by farms, 400 acre farms, either they had sows, cows, or both, and they supported a family. Today, if you drive up and down the roads of my community, 90% of them are gone. They disappeared because big agra consolidated them. We lost a core part of our community. We’ve seen just how hard it’s hit our community in the past few months because of a new school tax referendum that is trying to keep the local school district alive. Classes at our local high school have about 30 fewer students in them and we have significantly fewer farms, so we have fewer students with a lower tax base. Rural communities are dying. As [rural farm community advocate] Mike Callicrate says, “It’s a mining and extraction process. Big agra is stripping the wealth out of rural America.” But maybe there is some hope that America is waking up to it.
Do you see any evidence of America waking up?
I think individually we are winning a lot of battles, but collectively we are losing the war. Operations like ours are extremely fortunate to have found a customer base that appreciates its product. Most farmers are not that lucky. There are a handful of operations around the country that have been able to capitalize and fit in to the trend of local and sustainable.
The big disadvantage that I see that’s happening now, the big guys are starting to co-opt our message. They are starting to steal our market. You can walk into Walmart now and buy organic chicken. That label was never supposed to be about buying chicken from a national big-box store. We got destroyed before as commodity producers, when the big guys woke up and ran over us, and I think that they’re doing that same thing now. We’ve become mainstream enough that they’ve started greenwashing their product. Examples would be cage free eggs, antibiotic free chicken, and grass-fed and domestic beef.
We’ve made a lot of progress on a lot of fronts. I’ve put in a lot of advocacy for access to processing for small farmers. I’ve made efforts with USDA. I’ve even got to meet with the Federal Trade Commissioner back in Kansas City to speak about the transparency issue. The small guys are waking up.
How does the consumer relate to the success of small scale farmers in the US?
The biggest thing that’s wrong and the biggest thing that Slow Food is against, is that we as Americans don’t like spending our money on food. The typical American spends 7.8 cents of their dollar on food. Europeans spend three times that much. They have more respect for everything involved in the food system. We as a nation have little to no respect for farms, farmers, and farm products, and we need to wake up to the fact that there is huge value to family scale agriculture, for the flavor, diversity, environment, rural America, food security, the list goes on and on. Our national policy around food and farming is broken. If you didn’t know anything about this country, you would swear that we didn’t have a very large amount of farmland and that the goal was to get our food cheaply from somewhere else. The government has thrown farmers away like they are disposable. The mission and point behind Slow Food is so relevant nowadays. There is so much in that statement that we need good, clean, and fair food.
You won the Snailblazer award for family farming, how has family played a role in your farm?
I think that’s one of the big differences between sustainable, community-based agriculture and commercial agriculture is that we provide opportunities to bring the next generation onto the farm. We farm about 270 acres and we bring the next generations right into the operation. We have 30 employees, so we support about 30 families. We have my son, daughter and son in law all working on the farm too. The best thing that we are growing on the farm is the next generation.
Can I just say one thing about the Snailblazer award? I was caught completely off guard. I have a huge amount of respect for Slow Food USA and what they do. To get an award like that made me choked up.
Have you noticed the effects of climate change on your farm?
I think that one thing you find with sustainable agriculture is that we’ve always had to deal with weather variability. The weather didn’t change as fast and as much as it does now, but it always changed. I always tell the employees, 365 days a year we are going to have different weather, and it’s our job to make our animals as comfortable as we can. In lots of ways we are way more prepared than the other guys. Our animals are outside. We expect it. We deal with rainfalls, dry weather, floods, heat, cold, without bringing in fans or heaters because our animals have always been outside. I think it’s going to be much tougher on big agriculture to deal with a changing climate than it will be for us because they don’t have the institutional knowledge. We deal with this every single day.
That’s ironic because I think a lot of the big companies sort of market themselves as being necessary for a future of extreme climate, that we will have to rely on their technologies to be able to feed ourselves.
That’s their narrative on everything, their narrative on everything. Industrial agriculture is about convenience and about the money. It takes a lot less management and thought process to raise crops, fruits, and animals that way and the animals, land, and people pay the cost. Farmers keep importing technology on their farms, it comes from seeds, blueprints for their confinement buildings, chemicals so they don’t have to control weeds or pests. Everything they’re buying is information from someone else. In sustainable agriculture it comes from the stuff between our ears. We have to cooperate with nature. We have to build systems that still work. We have to use our own brain.
So in some ways it all comes back to institutional knowledge and family farming? If you lose that generational knowledge from smaller scale farms you have to rely on big corporations and their technologies?
Their whole message is opposite of family farming. We need a lot more knowledge and understanding of science and nature and animals. They just throw the seed and chemicals out there. There’s a lot more husbandry, care, and knowledge in what we do. That’s why I get so wound up on this subject.