Pork Star: Gunthorp Farms
As he walks across his LaGrange County farm in the northeast corner of Indiana, Greg Gunthorp says all he ever wanted to be was a pig farmer, just like his father and grandfather before him. He never expected to be called a rock star.
"No," Gunthorp says, stopping to run his hand through his thick dark hair. "I don't know about that."
"Don't listen to him," said Jamie Staton, who helps Gunthorp run the family farm that has become an icon in the Slow Food and local food movements. "He doesn't like to talk about it, but he's a big deal."
Chefs in Indianapolis, Chicago and Fort Wayne place his name on their restaurant menus as a selling point. Gunthorp's pastureraised farming practices have made the news, from the front page of the Indianapolis Star to the BBC. And this summer, a Chicago magazine named him as one of the most influential people in that city's food scene, even though he lives more than 150 miles to the east.
Today, Gunthorp's farm–situated on 65 acres that he owns, plus another 82 that he rents from family and neighbors–generates nearly $1 million in sales annually. The flavorful, heavily marbled pork from his freerange Duroc pigs, a heritage breed known for its ability to withstand the harsh Midwest winters, now receives rave reviews from renowned chefs like Chicago's Rick Bayless.
In Indiana, Gunthorp Farms' line of meats, including pastured-raised chickens, ducks and turkeys, which are delivered the same week they are butchered in his on-farm processing plant, can be found in more than a dozen resturants.
At Goose the Market, owner Christopher Eley has helped to propel Gunthorp Farms' fame in the city by tucking its fresh pork loins and chickens into the meat case. Eley cures Gunthorp's pork shoulder to make capocollo and charcuterie, too.
Gunthorp's name also dots the menus of Indianapolis restaurants such as Dunaway's Palazzo Ossigeno, Black Market, 14 West, Mesh and R bistro.
"Never in my wildest imagination did I ever see any of this happening," said Gunthorp, 41, who runs his farm and processing plant with his wife, Lei, and their three teenage children. "I was just looking for a way to keep farming."
To hear Gunthorp tell it, his story really begins in 1998, as a young farmer just starting out on his own, with a small farm a mile down the road from his parents. Nationally, large-scale confined hog operations were flooding the market with pork, driving down the price and pushing small farmers out of the market.
"I was selling pigs for the same price my grandfather did during the Great Depression," Gunthorp said.
Fed up trying to compete with the big producers–and afraid he would be the last generation of his family to raise pigs–Gunthorp began exploring the burgeoning market for organic, free-range and locally grown food. Because his family had never expanded into mega-farming, Gunthorp said he still raised pigs the natural way, allowing them to pasture on his crop fields, never confining the animal indoors like the large-scale pig producers do.
Finding a market for his naturally raised pork wasn't easy, Gunthorp said. But a chance phone call to the upscale restaurant Charlie Trotter's in Chicago opened a door into a world Gunthorp said he barely knew existed. Soon, other chefs were asking if he could provide naturally raised chicken, turkeys and ducks. With each new animal, each new order, there came new challenges.
To meet the demand, Gunthorp developed his own on-farm processing plant, one of only 33 "very small" (meaning fewer than 10 employees) USDA-certified meat processing plants in the country. Gunthorp said he built the plant from parts bought on eBay and by memorizing the thick textbooks of regulations the government requires processors to abide by.
To get his freshly processed meats to market, Gunthorp started his own distribution business, driving a delivery truck weekly to Indianapolis and Chicago, where he also had to work as his own salesman, convincing restaurants that his locally grown options were worth the higher cost.
Today, after more than a decade as a leader in the sustainable food movement, Gunthorp said all that work–learning how to raise chickens and turkeys, building a processing plant, selling and delivering his product– has allowed him to continue what he's always wanted to do: raise pigs.
And touring his farm is almost like stepping back in time.
Gunthorp's chickens and turkeys spend almost their entire lives outdoors and they are allowed to wander in pastures where their manure acts as fertilize. His Duroc pigs glean corn and soybeans from his fields after harvest, and sows raise their young in the protective confines of a woodlot, where the pigs can feed on acorns and other nuts in the fall.
Although conventional confined growing operations can produce a full-grown hog in five months, Gunthorp's hogs take as long as eight months to reach maturity, producing a product unlike anything a "conventional" farmer can.
"They call pork the 'other white meat,'" said Staton, who works in Gunthorp's processing plant and oversees his distribution routes. "But real pork isn't white, it's red."
Today, Gunthorp continues to innovate ways to keep his family farm competing with the mega producers. Last year, he built his own commercial smokehouse from a plan he drew up in his head, so that he could provide smoked hams, bacon and chicken legs.
The challenge, Gunthorp said, is to continue to find markets for his products, including making his meat accessible to the general public. Toward that goal, he recently began supplying pork to a Bloomington food cart called Happy Pig, which sells $6 pork belly sandwiches to Indiana University students.
"If my goal was just to produce meals that only a few people in high-end restaurants can eat, then I wouldn't be doing this," Gunthorp said.
Instead, Gunthorp hopes that more small farmers, and even large producers, will begin looking at practices that develop better products in a more sustainable way.
"The demand for locally, sustainably grown food is going through the roof," Gunthorp said. "If more farmers want to survive and compete against the big boys, this is the way to go."
Gunthorp's name dots the menus of Indianapolis restaurants such as Dunaway's Palazzo Ossigeno, Black Market, 14 West, Mesh, R bistro, Goose the Market, and in Bloomington the food cart called Happy Pig, which sells $6 pork belly sandwiches to IU students.