“I would argue until the day I die that I would much rather have Midwestern dirt than have any quantity of confinement hog barns on the planet.” – Greg Gunthorp
Greg Gunthorp has no second thoughts about raising his livestock on pasture. Neither does Will Harris, although they both admit it’s not an easy proposition in an agribusiness climate. They each talked about their regenerative farms during the JFAN Annual Meeting, Raising Livestock Without CAFOs, on November 2, providing an honest assessment of the challenges regenerative farmers face.
These fourth-generation farmers also offered a roadmap as to what changes could take place to better support traditional independent farmers and shared stories on how they became successful. Dr. John Ikerd, JFAN Board Member kicked off the meeting with a brief introduction, and JFAN Executive Director Diane Rosenberg moderated the panel discussion.
You can watch the entire meeting here. The following are a few excerpts from the captivating and substantive panel discussion.
On the challenges of being profitable:
“We are fortunate, and I guess part of our profitability comes from the fact that …we’re able to connect with a clientele that will pay our prices….On the production side, if that’s all we had to do, we could actually be somewhat competitive, never completely competitive, but somewhat competitive with the industry.” – Greg Gunthorp
“I built this business as a wholesale grocery and food services business. Mostly grocery. I did a little never caught traction in food service, but it did catch traction in grocery, and I had those good years…. Today we’re very break-evenish, break even by the normal accounting standards. I think we’re building equity in what we have….so as we break even, I think we made a little money.” – Will Harris
Gunthorp developed a vibrant business for Gunthorp Farms in LaGrange, Indiana direct marketing to high-end restaurants, retailers, and online consumers and employs up to 30 people. Harris transitioned White Oak Pastures to a regenerative operation beginning in the 1990’s. As a result, he built a thriving business that employs 180 people and revitalized the town of Bluffton, Georgia. These successes don’t come without their challenges, however.
On operating a regenerative farm:
“If you look at my website, WhiteOakPastures.com, under the Environmental Stewardship section, you’ll see a study that was done called the LCA Lifecycle Assessment…and it shows that the organic matter of our soil has moved from a half a percent to five percent. And if you know much about soils, that’s just an incredible movement.” – Will Harris
“So they’re (Gunthorp’s grazing sheep) sequestering carbon by rotational grazing. All of the science in the world shows that you cannot do that with any kind of cropping system, that it takes ruminant animals rotational grazing to sequester carbon.” – Greg Gunthorp
On animal welfare:
“Hogs are meant to root and wallow. Cows are meant to roam and graze. Chickens are meant to scratch and peck…and confinement operations don’t allow that. And not allowing that is a 24 hour a day, seven days a week stress on the animal, so you just got to create that environment.” – Will Harris
On corporate messaging:
“Consumers don’t have enough bandwidth to tell the real deal from the greenwashed product. The big multinational corporations do such a great job greenwashing that the consumer is hopelessly confused.”- Will Harris
On federal policies needed to support small scale, independent farmers:
“The USDA and our federal government directly and indirectly subsidizes the wrong kind of agriculture, and they, by and large, subsidize a handful of very large industrial farms. That’s where almost all the money goes, both direct and indirect. That has to change. It’s not a level playing field.“ – Greg Gunthorp
On how states can make funding for regenerative farms more accessible and less risky:
“I think the biggest thing that any state could do is … to strongly consider diverting a small portion of their food purchases to small lockers that are locally slaughtered, inspected pork…not at exorbitant prices but prices that justify the production. . ….This could provide some simple safety nets that would provide some true resiliency and some true food security. I think that’s the first thing they could do.” – Greg Gunthorp
“I don’t think [state and federal government] are incentivized to do it….I think if that happens, it will be consumer driven. Like I said earlier about change, very little brings about change other than pain. And I think that if enough consumers feel enough pain then there will be a movement in this direction.” – Will Harris
All these areas were explored in depth as well as their commitment to optimal animal welfare, operating their processing plants, maintaining herd health (including a really cool story Harris told of beating off avian flu), advice for students, and more.
Rosenberg concluded by urging consumers to vote with their food dollars. “Every time you purchase meat, dairy or eggs, you’re either supporting the CAFO industry or you’re supporting traditional, independent farms like Greg’s and Will’s. I urge you to search out sources of locally produced foods in your communities.”
It’s clear we have a long way to go to restore traditional, independent farming but Gunthorp and Harris show it can be done and offer solid ideas on how to get there.
The recording is posted on the JFAN YouTube Channel and can be viewed here.
Check out JFAN’s list of traditional, independent produces in the southeast Iowa area here.