Just over six years ago, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (bird flu) was discovered on a Minnesota turkey farm. And in a roundabout way, that event led ChopLocal’s co-founder, Katie Olthoff, down the professional - and personal - path she’s on today.
Katie’s passion for helping farmers developed long before bird flu made its way to the midwest. Born and raised in rural Iowa, Katie did not grow up on a farm, but entered farm life as a young newlywed and mom. After getting married and graduating from Iowa State University in 2006, she and her husband, Bart, built a turkey farm and moved to the house where he grew up in 2008.
The farm was a major investment for the couple, who were also expecting their first child that summer. But Bart’s father and grandfather were turkey farmers, and demand for turkey meat was increasing. West Liberty Foods, the farmer-owned turkey processor in eastern Iowa, was looking for new, young farmers to supply the growing demand.
With some help from other local turkey farmers, the Olthoffs built 5 turkey barns - a brooder house for the young poults and 4 finishers for older turkeys. And in August of 2008, the first flock of 20,000 day-old turkeys arrived at the farm.
The Olthoffs were incredibly proud of their state-of-the-art barns, complete with the latest ventilation technology. But it didn’t take long for Katie to realize that other people didn’t hold them in such high esteem.
“When I read parenting blogs or talked to other moms, they were concerned about the food they were feeding their children, and actively tried to avoid food from ‘factory farms,’” Katie says. “I remember the exact moment when I realized that they thought my farm fit the definition of a factory farm. To me, it was a family farm - a 3rd generation turkey farm, where my husband and his father work side-by-side.”
It was then that Katie became passionate about helping people learn about agriculture and find accurate information about how food is raised.
Katie started a blog, sharing information about the Olthoff farm and others. She also began volunteering with Common Ground, a national organization aiming to connect farm women with urban consumers.
Professionally, Katie taught middle school before taking a break to care for her young family. She was working part-time for the Iowa Turkey Federation in 2015 when bird flu rocked the industry.
“I remember that day like it was yesterday. Bird flu had been spreading on the west coast, and we were all kind of holding our breath, waiting to see if it would end up in the midwest,” she says.
In early March, bird flu was discovered in Minnesota. By mid-April, it had spread to Iowa.
“Working for the Iowa Turkey Federation, we would hear from farmers every day who had been hit by bird flu. They were checking on their turkeys twice a day, and the flock would be fine in the evening. And the next morning, most of the birds in the barn would have died without warning,” Katie says. “It was absolutely devastating.”
At the same time, the Olthoffs were terrified their farm would be the next hit.
“I only worked 10 hours a week. The vast majority of our income came from our turkey farm. We don’t have any land or raise any row crops, so we didn’t even have those to fall back on,” she says.
If bird flu hit, the farm buildings would sit empty for months to make sure the virus was eliminated. Then, it would take about a year to get them all full again. Katie and Bart were still paying for the construction of the barns, and there was no way they could make their loan payments without turkeys on the farm.
And so, in the midst of this crisis, Katie began a new career at the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association. As communications director for Iowa’s 2nd largest agriculture membership organization, she met farmers all over the state and became really familiar with their challenges and dreams.
The bird flu pandemic subsided and the Olthoffs escaped without being infected. Katie continued to work on behalf of Iowa’s cattlemen and women, spending quite a bit of time on the market challenges faced by Iowa’s farmers.
“There are four major packers in the beef industry, and farmers have very little leverage when it comes to negotiating the price they receive for their cattle,” she says. “Farmers in the midwest consistently raise the highest quality beef, based on the USDA grading system, but they’re not being rewarded for it.”
Iowa’s cattle producers have strongly advocated for more competition in the meatpacking industry, in order to provide more marketing opportunities for farmers. And the issues caused by consolidation were never more obvious than in the spring of 2020, when COVID outbreaks in packing plants caused huge backlogs in market-ready cattle and pigs that were unable to be harvested.
“For most of my adult life and career, I have focused on helping family farms like ours, no matter the size,” Katie says. “When ChopLocal’s founder, Jared Achen, told me about his idea to create an online marketplace for farmers, I knew this was something I wanted to be part of.”
Achen founded the company in the summer of 2020, and after wrapping up her time at the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, Olthoff joined ChopLocal full time in the fall.
“My focus here has been on reaching out to farmers who are looking for help selling their meat directly to consumers, and helping them set up their own ChopLocal microstore. My goal is to help them be more profitable and bring value back to their rural communities,” Katie says.
ChopLocal also serves small butcher shops and lockers, who are well-known for their great meats.
“At the end of the day,” Katie says, “the highest quality meat comes from the farmer who raised it or the butcher who cut it, and we want to get those meats onto the plates of consumers across the country.”
Katie is also the author of the My Family’s Farm book series. Eight of her children’s books are available online through the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation and her newest book can be purchased online as well.
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