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The taste of success

Article from The Journal Gazette

by Jenni Glenn

ThumbnailPhotos by Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gazette

Greg Gunthorp feeds pigs at Gunthorp Farms in LaGrange County. He raises meats for restaurants.

Greg Gunthorp contributes to thousands of meals served in white-tablecloth restaurants each year, but he rarely has the time to enjoy one himself.

The LaGrange County farmer is too busy raising pigs, chickens, ducks and turkeys.

Gunthorp Farms expects to raise as many as 50,000 chickens and thousands of other animals this year, Gunthorp said. The LaGrange farm’s meat will be served at elegant restaurants including Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago.

The farm had nearly $1 million in sales last year.

It’s a marketing niche Gunthorp built through persistent networking. When pork prices plunged below Great Depression levels a decade ago, he started looking for ways to sell meat at a premium.

"I basically decided I wasn’t going to be the last Gunthorp to raise pigs," the fourth-generation farmer said.

Gunthorp raised free-range pigs the way his father and grandfather had, and he suspected growing consumer interest in organic and free-range foods would make restaurants value that meat. He called restaurants in Fort Wayne, New York, Toledo and Chicago looking for potential buyers.

When he spoke at a small-farm conference in Missouri, one of the attendees mentioned that Charlie Trotter’s bought pork from small farms.

Gunthorp managed to get the five-star restaurant’s chef on the phone, a conversation that launched an ongoing business relationship.

Supplying Charlie Trotter’s helped Gunthorp establish a reputation. Gunthorp Farms now supplies 35 to 40 restaurants and retailers in Chicago as well as Indianapolis and Detroit.

Locally, the farm’s meat is served at the Summit Club, Joseph Decuis and J.K. O’Donnell’s.

Restaurants clearly display their connection to Gunthorp Farms, said Steve Engleking, Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service educator in LaGrange County. Joseph Decuis, the Roanoke restaurant, includes Gunthorp Farms in the names of its pork tenderloin and chicken breast dishes to pay tribute to its supplier. Many Chicago restaurants also credit Gunthorp Farms this way.

"His name is actually listed on the menus," said Engleking, who is co-chairman of the Purdue Small Farms and Sustainable Agriculture Team.

When J.K. O’Donnell’s serves a pork or duck special, the meat comes from Gunthorp Farms, said Kim Jacobs, the proprietor of the Irish pub in downtown Fort Wayne. Jacobs was familiar with Gunthorp Farms’ products from her days as general manager at Trotter’s To Go, Charlie Trotter’s gourmet food store.

J.K. O’Donnell’s began serving Gunthorp Farms’ meats about a month after its August 2007 opening, Jacobs said. Regular customers have asked to be notified when certain specials such as the Gunthorp Farms’ pork chop are served.

"It’s really tender," she said. "It’s very flavorful."

Gunthorp Farms raises chicken and hog breeds that went out of fashion as farmers started raising larger numbers of animals indoors. The meat is darker, and the pork has more marbling, qualities appreciated by high-end restaurants, Gunthorp said.

Sales have steadily increased since Gunthorp Farms started supplying restaurants in 1998. The farm has enough business to support four full-time and two part-time workers besides Gunthorp and his wife, Lei. Their three children care for the baby chickens and ducklings.

Restaurants such as J.K. O’Donnell’s like the idea they are supporting a local farm. Gunthorp Farms’ products are also reasonably priced and fresh, Jacobs said.

The meat arrives at restaurant kitchens within weeks because Gunthorp Farms operates its own U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected processing plant.

That makes the product fresher than other available meats, Gunthorp said.

Building a processing plant allowed Gunthorp to add value to the meat, Engleking said. By butchering his own livestock, Gunthorp can charge more than if he sold animals to a processing plant.

Value-added products help small operations like Gunthorp Farms function in an economically sustainable way, Engleking said.

Farmers need an entrepreneurial spirit to set up a small, sustainable farm, Engleking said.

Entrepreneurs must devote a lot of time to their operations and make sacrifices to get startup businesses running. Gunthorp’s commitment to his farm made it successful, Engleking said.

Gunthorp offers similar advice to young farmers venturing into the industry. It took him seven to eight years to see significant returns on the time and money he spent setting up the farm’s processing plant and establishing customers.

"It takes an awful lot of perseverance and an awful lot of hard work and time," he said.

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