Gunthorp Farms Survives and Thrives on Creativity
July 20, 2011 | Jenny Frech
In 1998, the bottom fell out of the hog market. There was a surplus in supply. Pork was selling as low as 14 cents per pound. It was also only the fourth year that Greg and Lei Gunthorp had been managing their hog operation in LaGrange, Indiana.
The pressure was on. While 90% of hog farmers have gone out of business since 1980, Gunthorp Farms has added land, expanded markets, and hired help. They’ve been able to do so because Greg Gunthorp farms differently.
This year, Gunthorp will sell 1,500 hogs, 70,000 chickens, 15,000 ducks, and a small number of turkeys. As a vertically integrated operation, Gunthorp oversees every part of the process, from field to plate. This includes raising the animals, growing feed, processing and cutting meats, and direct marketing to restaurants, retail establishments, and customers.
Pasture Based Farming Without A Map
Those familiar with traditional industrial farms would be surprised by a tour of Gunthorp Farms.
There are no confinement hog or chicken buildings anywhere on the approximately 100-acre farm. The sows farrow on pasture in individual sheds. Gunthorp’s pigs have space to roam and wallow, a large pen, and access to trees, mud holes, and grasses.
Gunthorp also raises his own feed. His animals eat non-certified, but organically grown grains in addition to the feed acquired from grazing. Gunthorp even started growing mulberry trees for the pigs, while most farmers would be cutting them out of the fencerows. According to Gunthorp, “mulberries are one of the most nutritionally complete foods for pigs and chickens. The pigs will sit under the trees waiting for the berries to drop.”
Gunthorp is able to farm creatively, but finds one obstacle to starting a similar business is the ability to find funding. “I am lucky to have started when I did,” he says.
Although getting a traditional farm loan was difficult because of the nontraditional nature of his business, he was able to lease equipment to get started. Not being able to find “funding outside of the norm puts the marketer at a severe disadvantage,” says Gunthorp.
To be successful in this type of business Gunthorp says, “It takes management, animal husbandry, and people skills to do the direct marketing.”
Sustainable Farming Practices and Technology
Gunthorp uses sustainable practices where practical; many of these include homemade technologies.
“I like (to solve) engineering problems,” he says.
Bringing properly pressurized water to pastured chickens provides a challenge. To solve the problem, Gunthorp has above-ground, ½” black plastic pipe to water the chickens in their 28 acre pasture. This saves an extraordinary amount of time and labor that would be wasted hauling water daily.
Several years ago, he built a constructed wetland, modeled after natural wetlands, capable of reclaiming and cleaning one million gallons per year of wastewater from his processing plant before returning it to the water table.
Gunthorp’s crew is building solar water heaters to provide heat to the brooder house, where the chicks spend the first three weeks of life, and to heat the water for his processing plant. The new system should be ready to be used by fall of 2011.
Naturally, Gunthorp raises his animals without the use of hormones or genetically modified grains. He uses intensive grazing, rotating pastures using portable quonset huts and electric netting fence for protection. He also uses on-farm composting and cover crops. Many of the practices are not really new, but rather, remnants from past farming generations.
“Some people think that since we’re in the 21st-century, we need to use 21st-century technology to raise pigs,” says Gunthorp. He and his pigs prefer the old ways.
Meat Processing Plants: A Missing Link to Small-Scale Success
One of the keys to the success of Gunthorp Farms is its small scale, on-farm, USDA processing plant. All livestock is processed on site, which means their pigs and poultry never have to leave the farm.
There are few options for small-scale producers to process their livestock and those that are available can be cost-prohibitive. Small-scale processing costs significantly more compared to large-scale. For example, it costs about $2.20 to $4 per bird to process a chicken at Gunthorp’s facility, while at a larger plant the cost would be around 50 cents per bird.
Sustainably grown livestock is sold at a premium, but most of the premium covers higher processing, feed, and transportation costs. Gunthorp would like to see that premium go directly to the farmer.
“The United States is behind in USDA-approved processing plants,” says Gunthorp. “We need to look to Europe.” Europe has infrastructure in place for small-scale processing.
In the United States it is difficult to find equipment that fits the needs of small-scale, inspected processing plants. According to Gunthorp, there is equipment available for the backyard processor that might process a couple of hundred chickens per year, but it is difficult to find equipment for small to mid-size processing plants like his.
Direct Marketing Another Key to Sustainability of the Family Farm
When asked what practices would make the biggest impact on sustainable agriculture, Gunthorp responded, “I would like to see more farmers doing relationship marketing. But it’s a difficult job to farm and direct market. Both are full-time jobs.”
Three of the 12, Gunthorp Farm employees are part of his sales force, the rest are farm hands. He markets to upscale chefs and high-end retail establishments in Chicago and Indianapolis and the Detroit area.
He suggests to producers that want to direct market, “Find something that the big companies can’t or don’t want to produce.”
Gunthorp’s niche is pork and poultry raised on pasture with ample marbling of fat. Chefs and foodies alike appreciate the quality of the meat that is lacking in other pork and poultry sources. Most of his product is sold fresh rather than frozen, which adds yet another marketable quality to his line.
“I’d love to see more people raising livestock on pasture.” He would also like to see more universities doing research on small-scale, sustainable agriculture.
“Ag is not for dummies,” says Gunthorp. “We need a lot more talented bright minds in agriculture. What we do out here is fun!”