If Greg Gunthorp of Gunthorp Farms had taken pig-raising advice from his Purdue professors, the fourth-generation farmer would have put up hog barns, continued to sell pigs on the commodity market, and lost the family farm. “And if I didn’t go bankrupt, I would have been sick to my stomach thinking about what my job was for the rest of my life,” says Gunthorp, one of the most successful pasture livestock farmers in the U.S. (making $2.5 million in sales in 2011).
Instead, Gunthorp, now 41, dropped out of the agriculture economics program and joined a circuit of small farmers nationwide who were pasture-raising animals, keeping them clear of chemicals and antibiotics. At a conference in Missouri, he learned that a pig farmer in Oregon who had been shipping pigs to a Chicago restaurant was getting out of the business, and the kitchen was in the market for a new farmer. “I called, and though the kitchen rarely picks up, they did that day,” says Gunthorp. The restaurant, Charlie Trotter’s (considered one of the finest restaurants in the world), asked him to provide a pig. A few days later, Gunthorp and his wife, Lei, took their first butchered pig to Chicago. They loaded up their little Suzuki hatchback. They put the pig in a plastic tank in the back, covered it up with ice and plastic, and headed for the big city. By the time they got to the restaurant, Gunthorp was white-knuckled. “Being from rural LaGrange, Indiana, I’d never driven in anything like that in my life,” he says.
Charlie Trotter’s came on as a client and started ordering a whole pig every three weeks. From there, the restaurant calls for pork started coming in. On a sales call, Gunthorp asked Rick Bayless to buy his pigs. “Bayless’s chef told us they already had a pig farmer, but he loved what we did with our pigs and asked us to do chicken the same way we did pork,” says Gunthorp. Gunthorp Farms is now the largest pastured-poultry farmer in the country—with one of only about a half-dozen on-farm USDA-inspected slaughter plants.
When asked about the Indiana scene, Gunthorp says Indianapolis is taking the sustainable trend to new levels. “It’s going gangbusters,” he says. Chicago’s Rick Bayless is his biggest customer, but Chris Eley from Smoking Goose is a close second.
>> BONUS: Get more info on Gunthorp and learn about his favorite things: Pick up the May 2012 issue of Indianapolis Monthly, on newsstands now and available online in full for just $1.99. You can also read the article here.