Small Plant Operators Meet with USDA Officials at Gunthorp Farm

Author: Kara Gunthorp, Gunthorp Farms, Indiana

Publish Date: Winter 2017

Kara Gunthorp is a second-generation processor working closely with her father, Greg, at Gunthrop Farms, a small, USDA-inspected slaughter and processing facility – one of the few handling poultry and red meat under inspection – in Indiana. Both are active members of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, and we are pleased to share this blog post from Kara, originally published in October 2016, after a meeting with USDA-FSIS.

As we are all well aware of, there will be big changes in January no matter which side of the ticket proves to be victorious in the November election. With a new President comes a new Secretary of Agriculture. Ferd Hoefner, the Policy Director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, saw an opportunity to gather valuable information to be included in the transition documents that will be given to the new Secretary of Agriculture. Yesterday, a group of some of the most well-known individuals in the sustainable agriculture and small processing industry, as well as representatives from the USDA/FSIS (Food Safety & Inspection Service) gathered at Gunthorp Farms to discuss what information shall be included in the report.

The day was scheduled to begin at 10 am with tours of our processing facility and then of our farm. Unfortunately the USDA representatives could not make it to the tour, but that did not stop all of us “industry representatives” from watching pig slaughter and hiking across the farm. All of the attendees were farmers and processors themselves, so the conversations throughout the day were so valuable to listen to. We broke at noon for lunch and anxiously awaited the USDA representatives’ arrival so we could begin the meeting that would be focusing on issues that small & very small processors face. Thankfully they arrived at 1 and our meeting was shortly brought to order. 

The meeting was set up rather informally, with all of us sitting in a large circle in the basement of my parents’ house. As the FSIS representatives took the floor first, I began wondering how beneficial this meeting was actually going to be. Did these people have any idea what a small plant even looks like, let alone what struggles they go through? After their 30-minute introduction regarding the resources and opportunities USDA has for us, I was feeling as if they were not interested in hearing what any of us industry representatives had to say at all. 

Finally, Mike Callicrate took the floor. When I was growing up, many conversations centered around Mike and the challenges he was facing (and overcoming) and I have always held his name as that of a celebrity. Being able to finally meet him this week was an honor (and probably the topic of a different blog post). Anyways, Mike took the floor and laid it all on the table. “Listen, what it comes down to is we are afraid of you all. You intimidate us. I know the USDA has a job to do and I know you are not supposed to be intimidating, but this is the reality right now.” I felt the urge to stand up and clap when he finished what I would consider the description of why we all were gathered. I scribbled into my notes, “thank you Mike for saying what we are all sitting here thinking!”

There are definite issues that small plants face when obtaining and maintaining USDA inspection. We came to a consensus that intimidation/fear of retaliation is definitely one of the barriers to building the local food market. There has to be some sort of process that can verify small plants are still producing safe food without being a burden that prevents them from succeeding.

Pete Eshelman of Joseph Decuis Restaurant & Farm pointed out that Indiana alone spends $18 million on food. Shockingly 90% of that is imported from other states or even other countries. Think of how many food dollars could be brought back to the state if more processors were able to stay in business? How many more jobs would be created in the state if even a fraction of those food dollars could come from in the state and not imports? What if we applied that thinking nationwide and created more food for Americans here in America?

The USDA realizes that creating regional food markets will be beneficial to local communities, rural development, and national food security. “In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative (KYF2) to better support the farmers, ranchers, food businesses and communities engaged in local and regional food systems.” (Copied directly from a handout at the meeting yesterday.) Industry estimates show that the $1 billion that USDA has invested into local food systems have helped local food sales grow from $5 billion in 2008 to $12 billion in 2014 and it is expected to hit $20 billion by 2019. This is great news, but without reforming small  processing  regulation, the initiative will miss the bar. Access to legal processing is the bottleneck in this local food movement. Small processors are not asking for “easier” regulations, we are just asking for scale appropriate regulations that plants without bountiful human, financial, and capital resources can comply with.

Did we solve the whole problem during the course of the meeting yesterday? Of course not. Many issues were brought to the table and many were discussed, but many were only touched on and I know there are many more that should be brought up as well. However, there is hope. The most successful thing that came from the meeting yesterday was a plan for more meetings. Quarterly meetings, even, with the FSIS representatives and industry representatives to continue this dialogue until change happens.

Maybe someday, the local food movement and small processors will not need their own “initiatives”. Maybe someday the “A” in USDA will stand for all agriculture and there will not need to be special committees to make sure that the little guys are not walked on or pushed out. We might not be there yet, but events like yesterday’s meeting and the individuals who were in attendance are pushing us in the right direction.

NMPAN note: To add a different perspective to this discussion, please also check out this blog post by David Schafer of Featherman Equipment LLC and American Pastured Poultry Producers Association who was also present at this meeting.