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Quality Is Key for the Turkeys at Gunthorp Farms

by Courtney Schafer

Published: Friday, November 17, 2017

Gunthorp Farms of LaGrange began its journey in the meat business in 1998 when Greg Gunthorp, fourth-generation hog farmer, sold hogs for less than what his grandfather did during the Great Depression. Needless to say, he knew that five cents per pound for live hogs wasn't going to cut it.

"The decline in hog prices is what encouraged him to search for something different," said Kara Babinec, director of sales and marketing for Gunthorp Farms. "My dad ended up selling an entire hog to Charlie Trotters restaurant, which allowed us to minimize our advertising because of starting with one of the best restaurants in Chicago."

Turkeys became a part of Gunthorp Farms 10 years ago when the Gunthorps were approached by someone who was moving from Chicago to Indianapolis to open a retail meat shop. Babinec said that Chris Eley wanted to sell turkeys for Thanksgiving at his shop, but he needed someone to raise them. That's when they were convinced to get into the turkey business.

During their first year, they raised 300 broad-breasted white turkeys with most of them going to Chris Eley's Goose the Market in Indianapolis. Each year after, they doubled their turkey numbers until they reached 8,000 birds per year.

"We have tried raising heritage birds before, but our customers weren't as happy with the smaller portion of breast meat," she said.

Kara continued to explain that their turkeys are seasonal, meaning every year, they raise two batches of turkeys, a summer group and a fall group. In each group, there are around 5,000 birds. The summer turkeys are primarily used for turkey breasts and ground turkey where the fall group primarily goes to whole turkeys for Thanksgiving feasts.

"Most of our turkeys are sold here in Indiana. The largest customer of our turkeys is Smoking Goose in Indianapolis, who uses our turkey for their smoked turkey breast year-round," said Kara. "They also sell the largest number of whole turkeys from us for Thanksgiving."

The biggest challenge that Kara faces during turkey season is ensuring that the turkeys hit the correct weight range.

"The weather plays a significant role in how well or how poorly our turkeys grow," said Kara. "If the weather is really great, like it has been the past few years, our turkeys have the potential to get really big."

For the processing plant at Gunthorp Farms, the biggest challenge it faces is finding seasonal labor.

"We butcher a majority of our Thanksgiving turkeys the week before Thanksgiving, so we have a huge need for employees, in addition to our normal crew," said Kara.

Challenges for the farm itself are pretty minimal, she said. Turkeys that come to Gunthorp Farms arrive when they are around six weeks old when they are ready to go on pasture. The turkeys come from Tom Otto's Turkey Farm in Middleville, Mich.

"We purchase our turkeys because we don't have enough brooder space to start that many birds out at once. Turkeys are very difficult to get started, but Tom Otto and his team do a great job," said Kara.

She also shared that with pasture-raised turkeys, they get to spend their entire life outside on grass. They have chosen to raise their turkeys, pigs and chickens in this way because of ethical reasons in addition to the taste and quality of the meat.

"The quality is undeniable," said Kara. "The resulting turkeys that are raised on pasture are very juicy and flavorful."

Kara, in addition to the rest of the team at Gunthorp Farms, feels that their turkey operation is very different in quite a few ways. For one, the turkeys are raised on pasture without the use of antibiotics.

Not growing the turkeys inside of a barn is also another difference.

"Our system uses Nature to raise turkeys like turkeys want to be raised," said Kara. "They aren't raised in a barn with a thermostat that helps control the exact temperature and keep it at the ideal temperature for turkey growth," she said.

According to Kara, the way that the turkeys are harvested at the farm is also something that sets their farm apart.

"Almost all of our turkeys are harvested the week before Thanksgiving, so they are fresh on Thanksgiving without ever having to be frozen," she said.

It takes a lot of hands and minds to make Gunthorp Farms successful. The "farmer" or chief executive officer is Greg. He and his wife Lei bought his parents' sow herd in 1994. His main role on the farm is overseeing the entire operation in addition to helping with various day-to-day tasks. Lei handles all of the financials of the business.

"Our farm is made up of three parts: the farm, the processing plant and the sales and distribution," said Kara. "My husband, Ed, manages the farm. My younger brother Evan manages the processing plant and my sister Cassidy, who is still in high school, helps out wherever she is needed."

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