Grass-fed boots? Other Half Processing works to source identity-preserved animal byproducts
Other Half Processing was created after the two brothers realized that animal byproducts from animals raised in regenerative systems were either just not being collected or weren’t kept separate from the commodity stream.
As consumers increasingly seek out food products that match their ideas of how livestock or crops should be raised in an ethical system, so do shoppers look for other goods — think things like boots — that align with their moral compasses.
A Minnesota-based company is working to connect byproducts from what they call regeneratively raised livestock to end-users — including huge, well-known companies — who can then market the products in a way that makes their buyers feel good about their purchases.
Jim and Mark Kleinschmit are brothers and founders of Other Half Processing. Since 2017 when the Specific Benefit Corporation was founded, it has partnered with farmers and ranchers to source and market indentity-preserved byproducts from livestock raised under regenerative and organic systems.
So far, they've been working mostly on selling hides for use in leather goods, but they have their eyes on other markets, including pet foods and snacks.
The brothers were raised on an organic dairy farm in northeast Nebraska, where Mark Kleinschmit said their parents have been using regenerative farming practices for decades.
“In the early '90s, just as Jim and I were going off to college, our parents started exploring managed grazing, and what it could do for their pasture,” he said. “And it's had a dramatic impact on their pasture, and so they've been doing it ever since.”
He said the importance of regenerative agriculture was definitely instilled by their parents, who were honored by the Obama administration in 2015 as Champions of Change for Sustainable and Climate-Smart Agriculture .
“Our parents were very practical, and they saw that you could improve the quality of the soil, which meant you could actually be more productive without adding input costs,” he said. “And they also realized that for a small farm to be more viable, that getting out of the commodity space and getting into this higher attribute was probably a good way to go.”
The brothers followed different paths after leaving their home in Nebraska but eventually met up around the idea to start a company that incorporated the "other half" of the processing industry — the products left over after meat processing.
“A lot of animal byproducts — or virtually all of the animal byproducts from high-attribute animals like grass-fed beef, organic or regenerative — were either just not being collected at all, or were definitely not being kept separate from the commodity stream of byproducts,” Kleinschmit said.
He said at first, the idea was to keep those byproducts separated by identity preserving them.
“And then see if we could find a customer that would care about either the hides, or the other byproducts like tripe, tendons, or other parts,” he said.
The first big partner that OHP began working with was Timberland, after Kleinschmit said the company had an interest in regenerative agriculture and in sourcing hides from animals raised in regenerative systems to make leather boots out of it.
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“We connected with them and said, yes, we think we could help you with this,” he said. “And then with one of their consultants, we came up with select sourcing criteria that would allow them to make the kind of claims they wanted to in the marketplace for a regenerative.”
He said that the first project with Timberland was fairly easy because they already knew where some of the animals were being processed and had a relationship with the slaughterhouse where they were being processed.
“The first 10 or 20 hides we actually picked up ourselves and transported to a tannery with a pickup truck and a trailer,” he said.
Since that collaboration with Timberland when OHP was collecting from just one location, the operation has grown to expand across the country.
“We are collecting in about six locations across the country,” he said. “We're in California, Minnesota, Vermont, Kentucky, South Dakota, and we're trying to get into Texas, Missouri and Colorado.”
However it’s still just the two brothers as the only employees, for now.
“We have a lot of partners that we work with to actually do freight, and hide processing, and we really haven't needed more employees yet,” he said.
When they first started the business they weren’t sure if they were going to jump into leather first, or whether it was going to be pet treats or pet food.
“Leather was the thing that we had the most traction with, from Timberland, so that's the business we built up,” he said. “And it really doesn't require a lot of people.”
Pet food might require a larger operation, he said.
“We're still trying to figure out what our approach is going to be whether we work with processing partners, or whether we're going to have to actually get a facility ourselves.”
The process and players
Kleinschmit said that once byproducts are collected, the first stage for the majority of them is to go to a tannery in Milwaukee. He said the city has about four or five tanneries still operating.
“The number of tanneries plummeted a lot in the '70s and '80s, but there's still a handful of tanneries in Milwaukee,” he said.
OHP works with a number of large brands similar to Timberland, including The North Face, and the designer brand Coach.
“But we are also trying to support smaller manufacturers, whether they're crafters or whether they're just smaller-scale leather goods makers,” he said. “We still get requests for leather from those smaller outfits, probably at least once a month.”
After they are processed, hides are put into a company’s leather supply chain, said Kleinschmit, but the products they are made into are completely up to the companies.
“We just get them into the right tanneries,” he said. “Because mostly, they still make leather the way they used to — they're just changing the hide sourcing with us.”
He said in recent years, larger brands have become more interested in sourcing material from regenerative-raised animals, and would like to see regenerative agriculture used on a larger scale.
“The supply of regenerative hides in the United States is still relatively small compared to their leather needs,” he said of larger companies. “But from a corporate responsibility, and to help them achieve their stated sustainability goals, they're very interested.”
He said they are interested in hearing from more farmers and ranchers along with meat processors and slaughterhouses who deal with regenerative-raised livestock.
“We're getting some pretty good exposure so far, but right now we can collect more and support more producers,” he said.