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Gunthorp’s pigs are lean, handsome animals, with rusty-red hair like an Irish setter’s
A Gunthorp Farms Sampler >>
Though it probably escapes the notice of many sophisticated diners and even some chefs, there’s a contradiction inherent in the idea of locally raised pastured meat in Chicago in January. Gunthorp’s Duroc pigs are hardy enough (and have enough fat) to make it through the Midwestern winter outdoors, but they’re certainly not eating pasture grass and acorns. His chickens might survive, but they wouldn’t like it and they probably wouldn’t do well. But restaurants want their supplies year-round. Though no chef worth the title would expect to buy a fresh local strawberry in October, there are many who want their local pasture-raised chicken even when the pasture in question is covered with snow.
Gunthorp thinks the answer to this contradiction is freezing. Most chefs hate the idea and insist on fresh, but that will have to change, Gunthorp says, if they want locally, sustainably raised meat. “There’s a time, you know? All products should be raised seasonal. Animals should be raised when grass is green; baby pigs should be born in late spring or early summer. I’m convinced nowadays that we have the technology to put all this stuff up—you take something, put it in a vacuum machine, seal it, freeze it right away—it’s gonna come out of the freezer as nice as it went in.”
Bayless stands with him on that. “I think the freezer is a really good tool,” he says. “We went through this period back in the seventies, eighties, when people would say if you had anything frozen in your place, you were an awful restaurant. And if you’re talking about frozen prepared foods, or choosing frozen ingredients when you could get the best stuff fresh, then, yeah, that is awful. But we have huge freezers. We buy fruit all summer long and we freeze tons of it so we can use it in ice creams and dessert sauces. We just put on our menu [in January] this Michigan apple and blueberry tart that is to die for. It’s all local fruit. What else would we be doing, shipping in underripe stuff from halfway across the world? If you know how to use a freezer, and you understand that you can only freeze certain things, and you know how to defrost slowly at the right temperature, you can serve great local food year-round.” It’s not a matter of compromising for the sake of sustainability, Bayless insists. It’s a matter of serving the best stuff available at your given time and place. He’d rather buy a correctly frozen chicken breast from a farmer he knows than a “fresh” one killed two weeks ago and shipped from who-knows-where.
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Today Gunthorp sells pork, chicken, duck, and the occasional rabbit to about 40 restaurants in Chicago and Indianapolis. The name “Gunthorp Farms” appears on the menu at Frontera Grill, Bistro Campagne, Crofton on Wells, Nacional 27, Custom House, Lula Café, Carnivale, and Atwood Cafe, among others. Chefs pay extra for Gunthorp’s meat: $3.59 a pound for pork shoulder, for example, which can be had elsewhere for less than $1.50. What’s more important, probably, is that Gunthorp’s best customers will pay his prices no matter what happens on the commodity market. Bayless says, “We’re not gonna tell Greg, ‘Oh, you know what, the Amish chicken just dropped a dollar a pound on the market, so we’re not gonna need any of your chicken this week.’ He knows he can count on us as a partner in this whole project.” This year Gunthorp hopes to break a million dollars in sales, a phenomenal amount for a 65-acre farm. He’s just added a small retail store behind the house where he can sell hams, sausages, and other pig parts the restaurateurs don’t buy. (See A Gunthorp Farms Sampler.)
It’s more than he dreamed when he started phoning restaurants and grocery stores back in 1998: not only more success but also more work, more headaches, and more debt than he ever thought he’d take on to build that highly unusual processing plant—which, now that he has it, he really ought to operate at full capacity, which means more customers, more employees, more equipment . . . just the kind of treadmill he and his father avoided when they resisted the lures of confinement feeding. The irony isn’t lost on him, but he doesn’t see a better way. This is what he has to do if he wants to raise pigs the way they ought to be raised—and that’s what he wants more than anything.
On a bitter cold day last winter, with about five inches of fresh snow on the ground—the kind of day that drove many pig farmers into CAFOs—Gunthorp is bombing around his farm taking feed to his pigs. His little Kawasaki Mule is stuck in two-wheel drive, so he gets caught in the snow occasionally, but the day is bright, his crazy little dog is chasing the Mule and nipping at its tires, and the pigs come to greet him when they see supper coming. What person in his right mind wouldn’t rather be out here than choking on the dust and stink of a confinement barn?
He climbs a wire fence to walk among his pigs, as he must have done with his grandfather more than 30 years ago. They don’t look much like “pigs.” They are lean, handsome animals, with rusty-red hair like an Irish setter’s. Smart, too, Gunthorp says—smarter than dogs, and each one has its own personality. A few little ones come over to nip at his boots. He pats a couple of the mature sows on the shoulder; some tolerate the attention for a second and then walk away. One snaps at his hand.
“This sow here, number 14, she’s the meanest pig I ever saw when she has babies.” He points to a shelter about 30 yards away. “She won’t let you get any closer than that when her babies are one day old. If you approached, she’d walk out this far to meet you. You can’t get a look at her babies until they’re two, three days old.”
In a confinement operation, he says, she’d spend most of her life in a gestation crate just a few inches longer and wider than she is. “She can’t move, can’t turn around—all she can do is stand up and lie down.” To give birth she’d be moved to a farrowing crate, which would give her just enough room to nurse her babies for 10 or 14 days. Then she’d be sent back to the gestation crate to turn out another litter of artificially inseminated piglets.
“That’s no way for an animal to live,” says the pig farmer. “I mean, I know we’re just gonna eat ’em someday, but still, an animal deserves a better life than that.”
Photograph: Kevin Banna