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Grain Place Foods president David Vetter poses in front of Grain Place Foods' grain bins.
Imagine a 13-year-old on the farm near Marquette, Nebraska, cracking open the works of organic pioneers like Sir Albert Howard and Ehrenfried Pfeiffer.
“I was probably the only junior high kid who read ‘Bio Dynamics Quarterly,’” said Grain Place Foods, Inc. President David Vetter.
David’s father Don Vetter questioned the science and ethics of typical farming practices in the early 50s and began farming organically in 1953. They were one of the first families in Nebraska to start organic farming.
It was the influence of the family farm and books that happened to be lying around that lead to what is now a USDA Certified Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, and Kosher whole food producer that ships products all over the world.
Grain Place Foods, Inc. (GPF) has a staff of two dozen people who produce, package and develop grains, popcorn, high-end specialty ingredients for pet food and a variety of other organic products.
GPF was one of the first companies in the country to produce and distribute organic popcorn in the 1990s, which they still produce today.
But their journey started two decades earlier. David Vetter left the farm to become a doctor— that was his plan anyway.
“Experiences in college and graduate school really pushed me back to the family farm, rather than going the direction I had in the back of my mind when I went off to school,” he said.
David started his collegiate journey at Westmar College in La Mars, Iowa. As most college students do, he changed majors.
“After a semester or so I realized that pre-med wasn't the course for me, but I stayed in the same program. I still went double majors in biology and chemistry and shifted that work more toward ecology, plant anatomy, microbiology,” he recalls.
He transferred to UNL where he graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Agronomy and Soil Science. During undergrad, Vetter applied to an experimental program at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He was accepted to the Dual Career Training (DCT) Program, which was a worker-priest model.
“They wanted to push skills and competency at that level in two areas, one of them being ministry and the other being some other field of expertise. In my case that was agronomy, crop production and soil management. We had people in there in special education. There was another student in there who was a truck driver," Vetter said. “It was my advisor in the program, Fred Kirschenmann, that really helped me see that strength. He was a really big part of my life as it was all taking shape.”
Dr. Kirschenmann, sees it differently. In 1969, Kirschenmann was directing a new consortium for higher education religious studies.
He said that after the Vietnam War, “young college students were upset. They wanted to do something to make a difference, but didn’t trust traditional organizations.”
So, he started the DCT and that is where he met Vetter.
David applied to the program with, as Kirschenmann recalls, a paper titled, ‘Ministry to the Soil.’ As a former farm boy from North Dakota, Kirschenmann said, “I wanted to meet this guy.”
As the two grew to know one another, their influences merged. Vetter helped Kirschenmann understand organic farming practices and Vetter found a lifelong friend and mentor.
“He got into organic agriculture because of my participation in his class and went back to the family farm. We kind of found our careers— callings— together,” Vetter said.
In September 2014, Kirschenmann, a Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University was awarded the One World Award for Lifetime Achievement. The international honor was developed in 2008 to recognize individuals, projects and innovative ideas that promote ecological, economic and social improvement.
Vetter’s path also brought him back to the family farm, but it was through the DCT in Dayton he found his upbringing would soon become his vocation. He started an organic community garden in Dayton.
“I got a lot of questions about organic gardening, but I got a lot of questions also about where people could buy organic grains and seeds for their family. I really got the feeling in my conversations with the young families that there were two things really driving them: they were interested in good food and were willing to make extra efforts to get it,” Vetter said.
So he asked himself, if there is a group of young families who are willing to drive 20 minutes to go garden twice a week, how many more would be interested in that food source, but they neither have the ability nor time to get it?
This is where Vetter’s entrepreneurial instinct kicked in. He returned to central Nebraska in 1975. The farm was certified organic in 1978 and they established The Grain Place, Inc. in 1979.
From 1979 to 1980, Vetter said he and his family had confidence in what they were seeing for a potential market. "We thought we'd rather try it and fail than always wonder if we could have made it work."
For many years, The Grain Place’s significant distribution was with cities, usually near the West or East Coasts.
They supplied 2,000 to 3,00 pounds of grain to, what was then, “two men in a pickup truck in Grass Valley, California,” Vetter said. Those two men would go on to start United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI). Today, UNFI is North America’s leading organic distributor.
Now UNFI picks up two to five semi loads of a combination of eight different products at Grain Place Foods weekly.
“We've gone from manufacturing 45-50,000 pounds of product that first year to now doing about 1.8 million a year. It's changed a little bit,” Vetter said.
In 1987, Grain Place Foods, Inc. assumed the grain processing business of The Grain Place in order to take advantage manufacturing opportunities. Over
the years GPF has helped many businesses develop their products when everyone else said it was impossible.
They have partnered with other companies, shared projects and have taken on “stuff that no
one else wanted to do.” For that, we have named him this issue’s Entrepreneur Extraordinaire.
This ingenuity is ingrained in David Vetter and his team. From coming up with unique funding opportunities— they once talked a company into leasing them processing equipment on an as-used basis rather than a monthly basis— to taking on custom projects.
They still do some specialty contract manufacturing for customers.
They also work with a number of companies on product development and ingredient development for specialty products.
“If somebody's got a new idea we always try to help,” Vetter said.
Currently, most of GPF’s product process development has been for Harrison's Pet Products, a Canadian high-end specialty pet food supplier. GPF cleans, blends and packages mostly their bird diets. They have been working with Harrison’s for 25 years.
“We basically ended up with that job because everyone else they talked to told them it couldn't be done,” he said. “I told them I didn't know how to do it, but we didn’t know why it couldn't be done. We figured it out from there.”
It is that attitude that allows Vetter and Grain Place Foods to impact the organic grain industry. They have helped numerous small businesses get started and when the companies they help outgrow GPF’s capacity, they move on or in some cases, continue to use the raw grains.
Quinn Popcorn out of Boulder, Colorado, is one of the startups that partnered with GPF. Quinn couldn’t find any company that met their goals of being a certified organic popcorn producer who was also family owned.
Quinn Co-Founder and CEO Kristy Lewis it took her seven months to find Dave. She said she found GPF by simply Googling Organic Grain Producer, when all that time she had been searching for popcorn.
“We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for [GPF],” she said. “It had been very hard to find a family owned, run and operated farm. We’re all about working with, and supporting, American agriculture.”
She is thankful her browser lead her to Marquette.
“This is their life, and soul, and heart. That’s what we wanted to support. I think [Dave’s] heart is in it for the right reasons. He’s been working at this for so long. He’s supported so many small vendors from the get-go. He sees it before people see it themselves.”
That “it” for Quinn Popcorn was having a completely compostable microwave popcorn bag.
“Dave was the only one who really believed in getting the bag compostable. He saw that we were able to take all the chemicals out and he reconfigured the line to do so,” Lewis said.
Quinn Popcorn is gaining popularity and with the small operation at Grain Place Foods, Lewis said, “It’s been challenging for both of us. They’ve had to reconfigure their line. They’re small and we’re growing. We’re so thankful to be able to work with them.”
That growth is something Vetter and GPF are proud of. Bringing their mantra, “How your food is produced does matter” to the Midwest, specifically Nebraska, has taken a little longer but is starting to catch on.
Nikki Greenough is the Compliance and Quality Assurance Manager at GPF. She said she loves being on the cusp of the organic food movement in the Midwest.
“The growing field of non-GMO and organic products is exciting to me. The fact that people in the Midwest are becoming more interested in our products is interesting,” she said.
Bakers, restaurants and grocers across the state have been carrying GPF products for years, but the recent assimilation of the whole food movement has become exciting.
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