"I believe it's the start of monumental change in USDA," said Greg Gunthorp, Indiana farmer and host of the USDA/small processing plant operator meeting on October 8, 2016 in LaGrange. "Ten years ago, even five years ago, they would have never come to the table to listen to our concerns."
Each of the fifteen members of the farmer/processor group from Georgia to western Kansas expressed their concerns and suggestions, the central theme being that the current regulatory system is heavily biased against the small operation. Stories of intimidation and aggravation crescendoed with Mike Callicrate's St. Francis KS plant closing and Leigh Gunthorp's tearful declaration that she can no longer enter her own plant.
After a couple of defensive government responses, "Nothing can be done until you file a complaint," and, "The USDA does not set policy, it only regulates it," it looked like the talks might derail. One had to wonder about the contrast of their usual meetings back in DC with soft chairs, large tables, central air conditioning, and no flies or muddy farm dogs working the crowd.
Fortunately, through the course of the three hour meeting, the AC caught up, the dogs were petted, the flies ignored, and a productive course of action was agreed upon. That the USDA took this meeting seriously from the outset may be measured by the Who’s Who of attendees.
Dan Engeljohn is head of the Office of Policy and Program Development. Bill Smith is the head of the Office of Field Operations. Patty Bennet is the head of Humane Handling Enforcement. Carmen Rottenburg is Deputy Administrator of the Office of Administration, and Jeff Canavan is Deputy Director of Labeling and Program Delivery.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack's agreement to this pre-election meeting can be viewed as either an easy and inconsequential act on his part or as acknowledgement that now is the right place and right time for such a talk. Or both.
The Secretary of Ag’s office was ably represented by Sara Eckhouse and, with a family twist, her father Herb of La Quercia Cured Meats in Norwalk, Iowa, was also present.
Ferd Hoefner, Policy Director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, who conceived the meeting and gained Vilsack's approval for it, acted as both coordinator and moderator of the discussion. For a while he had his hands full, but despite passionate outpourings, civility prevailed. Ferd also made sure he walked out with solid recommendations for Vilsack's transition team.
Hold regular discussions like these
Create small plant-specific training
Create an ombudsman for processors to express concerns without fear of retaliation
Carrie Balkcom, American Grassfed Association, Denver, Colorado
Patty Bennet, FSIS Humane Handling Enforcement Coordinator
Mike Callicrate, Callicrate Cattle Company, St. Francis, Kansas, and Ranch Foods Direct, Colorado Springs, Colorado
Jeff Canavan, FSIS Labeling Program Staff
Peter Cook, Cooks Bison Ranch, Wolcottville, Indiana; National Bison Association representative
Herb Eckhouse, La Quercia Cured Meats, Norwalk, Iowa
Sara Eckhouse, Office of the Secretary, USDA
Dan Engeljohn, FSIS Assistant Administrator, Office of Policy and Program Development
Pete Eshelman, International Wagyu Association, and Joseph Decuis Restaurant and Farm, Roanoke, Indiana
Greg Gunthorp, Gunthorp Farms, LaGrange, Indiana
Leigh Gunthorp, Gunthorp Farms, LaGrange, Indiana
Kara Gunthorp, Gunthorp Farms, LaGrange, Indiana
Ferd Hoefner, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Washington, DC
Cody Hopkins, Falling Sky Farm and Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative, Leslie, Arkansas; American Pastured Poultry Producers Association
Barbara Patterson, National Farmers Union, Washington, DC
Carmen Rottenberg, FSIS Deputy Administrator
Brian Sapp, White Oak Pastures, Blufton, Georgia
David Schafer, Featherman Equipment LLC, Kansas City, Missouri; American Pastured Poultry Producers Association
Andy Shaw, Owner, Cypress Valley Meat Company, Meat Director, Romance, Arkansas
Bill Smith, FSIS Assistant Administrator, Office of Field Operations