If pigs could, they’d high-five this Georgia farm

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Just a few years ago, Thompson Farms Smokehouse was struggling to find buyers for its humanely raised, top-quality pork.

Today, the Thompsons are pioneers in an animal welfare certification program endorsed by Whole Foods—and they have more demand for their product than they can currently meet.

“Right now we have to turn [customers] away,” says Donna Anderson, sister to Andrew Thompson and daughter to Raymond Thompson, who co-own Thompson Farms Smokehouse in Dixie, 200 miles south of Atlanta. The family-run business sells its pork to Whole Foods, to New Leaf Market co-op in Tallahassee, Fla., to some restaurants and even Walt Disney World.

Last week, the farm passed the final independent audit to certify its facilities at the highest level of the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards. It becomes the first producer to achieve “5-Plus” status—meaning animals at Thompson Farms are not caged or crowded (Step 1); live in an enriched environment (Step 2); have outdoor access/live a pasture-centered life (Steps 3/4); are not physically altered through branding, docking or castration (Step 5); and live their entire lives on the farm, including on-site slaughter (Step 5-Plus).

“In all candor, I thought that it would take years and years for anyone to reach that 5-Plus,” says Miyun Park, executive director of Global Animal Partnership, the nonprofit organization that administers the 2-year-old rating program. “The fact that Andrew and his family have already achieved it in these early days, it’s truly a testament to their leadership.”

The Thompson family was already trying to do right by their hogs and their customers when they approached Whole Foods in 2009.

They had abandoned the concrete slab “finishing” facilities for quickly fattening animals before slaughter, commonly used by factory farms. Instead, they were raising their animals outdoors and allowing them to reach slaughter weight at a more natural rate, adding about two months to the life cycle.

“It sounds so corny, but if you have happier pigs, you have better meat,” Anderson explains.

But the problem was, they were having difficulty finding customers who were willing to pay a price reflective of the more expensive process, despite the higher quality product. Then they heard about Whole Foods.

“When we went before them, we said, ‘What do we need to do’?” Anderson says. “We were very willing to work with them.”

Whole Foods, which helped launch GAP and the Step program, requires all of its beef, pork, chicken and turkey producers to be Step certified. Within four months, Thompson Farms Smokehouse had entered the program at an impressive Step 4 rating and had filled its first order to Whole Foods. To move up to the highest rating, the farm had to find ways around castration of its males (they now slaughter them at a younger age, before testosterone becomes a problem), and then build an on-site slaughter facility—accomplished with the help of a Local Producer Loan from Whole Foods Market.

At the recent completion of an exclusive pilot program with Whole Foods, more than 1,800 producers raising more than 140 million animals a year have been audited and certified to Step standards. Now GAP is looking to extend the standards program to other retailers and restaurants. The organization also plans to develop standards for breeding and slaughter.

“To really affect change, it had to be available to other retailers,” says Darrah Horgan, South region public relations director for Whole Foods. “It gives the customers a level of trust because it’s total transparency, from the time that animal was born to the time that meat got to the case.”

The Thompson family doesn’t regret the investment to achieve the new Step 5-plus ranking—which should be made official any day now. “Becoming partners with Whole Foods has made all the difference in the world, financially,” Anderson says. Otherwise, they couldn’t compete with the mass producers. “Right now I don’t think you could be in the hog business as a small independent and make money.”

Are they rolling in dough? Anderson laughs. “Maybe mud, but not dough,” she says. “But we’re proud of our product.”

Watch a slide show of Thompson Farms Smokehouse produced by Whole Foods here.

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