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PODCAST

The Leading Voices in Food

E222: The Regenerative Ag Legacy of White Oak Pastures

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
December 7, 2023


White Oak Pastures is a sixth generation, 156-year-old family farm in Bluffton, Georgia. It’s also the home of Rancher Will Harris who runs an expansive, zero waste production system with the animals he pasture raises and butchers on the farm. White Oak Pastures produces grass fed beef, lamb, goat, and Heritage pork, and pastured turkeys, chicken, duck, geese, and more. Will is a vocal and passionate champion of radically traditional farming as the path to regenerative land management, humane animal husbandry, and revitalizing rural communities. This is the second time we’ve spoken with Will Harris. The first time came right on the heels of a really interesting national meeting held in Tennessee on regenerative farming, where I became very impressed with Will and the work he’s doing. He was kind enough to join us for a podcast at that time. Our discussion today happens to coincide with the release of a book that Will has written entitled, “A Bold Return to Giving a Damn: One Farm, Six Generations, and the Future of Food.”

Will Harris is a fourth-generation cattleman, who tends the same land that his great-grandfather settled in 1866. Born and raised at White Oak Pastures, Will left home to attend the University of Georgia’s School of Agriculture, where he was trained in the industrial farming methods that had taken hold after World War II. Will graduated in 1976 and returned to Bluffton where he and his father continued to raise cattle using pesticides, herbicides, hormones, and antibiotics. They also fed their herd a high-carbohydrate diet of corn and soy.

These tools did a fantastic job of taking the cost out of the system, but in the mid-1990s Will became disenchanted with the excesses of these industrialized methods. They had created a monoculture for their cattle, and, as Will says, “nature abhors a monoculture.” In 1995, Will made the audacious decision to return to the farming methods his great-grandfather had used 130 years before.

Since Will has successfully implemented these changes, he has been recognized all over the world as a leader in humane animal husbandry and environmental sustainability. Will is the immediate past President of the Board of Directors of Georgia Organics. He is the Beef Director of the American Grassfed Association and was selected 2011 Business Person of the year for Georgia by the Small Business Administration.

Will lives in his family home on the property with his wife Yvonne. He is the proud father of three daughters, Jessi, Jenni, and Jodi. His favorite place in the world to be is out in pastures, where he likes to have a big coffee at sunrise and a 750ml glass of wine at sunset.

Interview Summary

I really would love to dive into the meaning behind the title of your book, and what you wrote about. But let me ask you a few lead-in questions. Many years ago, you made a profound change in the way you approached ranching and farming. What convinced you back then that this kind of change was necessary? And tell us what you did if you would.

My dad ran the farm before me. He was born in 1920, took over the farm post World War II, 1945. He was the generation that really industrialized, commoditized, and centralized the farm. It went from being the really typical 19th century farm under my great-grandfather and grandfather, to being a monocultural cattle operation. My dad was very, very good at it, a great cattleman. He ran the farm profitably. And all I ever wanted to do was come back and run the farm as a monocultural industrial cattle operation. I just loved it. I went to University of Georgia in 1972 and majored in animal science with the intention of coming back, and I did. And I loved it. You know, we weren’t wealthy people, but we made money every year. We paid taxes every single year. And I was happy for a long time. But, in the mid-nineties, the excesses of that industrial monocultural model, became displeasing to me. When it started, it happened fairly quickly, and I decided to change. I did not have a goal to move towards, I just knew what I wanted to move away from. I started moving away from it almost 30 years ago, and I’ve been moving away from it ever since.

I’d love to follow up on one thing that you mentioned, and it’s the generational nature of kind of farming overall, and your farm. Several years ago, I did a tour of farms in Eastern North Carolina, and I was really impressed with how important the family aspect of that was. Could you just tell us a little bit about that? What does that mean to you and six generations? That’s really impressive.

The family aspect of it is a blessing and a curse, but it’s been a blessing for us. This is just the way it is. My dad was an only child, and I am an only child. So, the passing down of the asset, the farm, farmland was very easy for us. I’m reminded that the old European way of all the assets going to the eldest son was certainly not fair, but I think that went a long way towards ensuring that the asset was passed down and kept intact, as opposed to dividing it up equally among the two, three, four, six, seven siblings. I have three daughters, two of which have come back to the farm. And I will leave the farm to those two daughters. So, our farm is unusual. And it’s five, maybe six generations old, but it too will cease to be at some point. That’s the way it is. There are other people that want to start farming, that need the opportunity. So this, it’s just a good healthy, natural business system.

You referred to the farm as an asset, but I have a feeling it’s more than that. I mean you could be passing down to subsequent generations a service station, or a convenience store, or a dry cleaner or something like that. But I have a feeling that the fact that you’re passing along something that is tied to the land, it just has so much more meaning. Tell me if I’m wrong.

No, you’re exactly right. But I put a finer point on it. There are not many non-depreciating assets. Land is a non-depreciating asset. I guess gyms are a non-depreciating asset, probably art. There just aren’t many assets that don’t have a finite life for them. But land is one of them. It’s perpetual. And I would argue that the herds also are perpetual. Certainly, the individual animal in the herd has an expected lifespan, but the herd itself is perpetual. My cattle herd literally goes back genetically to the cattle my great-grandfather brought here 150 years ago. So, when you take that perspective, it turns the asset that you inherit or build up or however that goes, it turns it into something very, very special. And I think it should be treated that way.

So, let’s get back to the farm itself. What have some of the effects been on your land, of the practices that you use on the environment, and also on the food you raise? How do you work to achieve zero waste production? And what do you mean by that?

Well, the impact on the land has been incredible. When I started changing the way I farm, which means principally giving up tillage, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and grazing my animals differently and having a broad spectrum of species of animals on the farm, it changed dramatically. My land went from a half a percent organic model – point five, one half of one percent – to five percent. A 10X increase, okay? It’s incredible. And just to talk about the water holding capacity, I don’t want to go too far down that hole, but 1% organic matter generally holds 27,000 gallons of water per acre. So, when you go from a half percent to 5%, a 10x increase, you can see what that does to the water holding capacity. The change is just as dramatic in terms of microbial life, and other aspects of soil productivity. So, it is incredible what it does. As far as the animals go, I had a monoculture of cattle, but I had a lot of them. And I always believed that our animal welfare was just great. I mean, I thought it was fine until I had my eyes opened and I realized that keeping them well fed, watered, in comfortable temperature range, is not good for the welfare. I thought it was, but it’s not. It’s also incumbent upon the herdsman to give the animals the opportunity to express instinctive behavior. Cattle were born to roam and graze, not stand in a pen and eat out of a trough. Chickens were born to scratch and pick. Hogs were born to root and wallow. And in the industrial model, those species don’t get to do that. So, that’s a beautiful thing to me. And then the environment, you know, I really believe that we’re sequestering a lot of carbon. You mentioned zero waste. And when I say zero waste, I don’t want people to think that there’s never any plastic that’s hauled off from here. Certainly, there is. But we slaughter our animals here on the farm, we’ve got a pretty big slaughter plant for red meat and poultry for private farm abattoir. And it generates about seven tons a day of packing plant waste. That’s the term USDA uses. We compost that and make just wonderful compost that we reapply to the land. And it’s just, it’s just a beautiful thing.

That is beautiful. So, let’s talk about the zero-waste concept. When people hear that, I think some people think that it means you don’t waste any parts of the animal when it’s being turned into food for human consumption. But you’re talking about more than that. And you mentioned the carbon sequestration in the soil. Can you explain what that means and how that fits into the zero-waste idea?

I will but let me also address the fact that it does mean what you said. It does mean using all the animals. We render the fat into the lard and tallow, which we sell or make soap out of. The hides go to make raw hide pet chews, or I send it away to be turned into leather. We have a shop where we make leather goods. I can go on and on about the things we do to not waste. We grind the bones that are not marketable as soup bones. We grind them and apply them to the land as well as a source of calcium and phosphate. So, zero waste takes a lot of different ramifications to achieve that. And as for the carbon, you know, the carbon in our soil, the organic amount I mentioned earlier? Having increased this so dramatically is yet another way of not emitting. A company called Quantis, an environmental engineering company, did a lifecycle assessment on our farm several years ago. It’s called LCA. And it’s actually on my website, https://whiteoakpastures.com. And it shows that we sequester carbon. It’s 3.5 pounds of carbon to sequestered soil for every pound that we put up. So, it’s certainly doing positive things, we believe, for the environment.

That’s so important, because otherwise that carbon would be up there in the atmosphere, creating a lot of damage that people know about. So, the fact that you’re drawing it down, and sequestering it in the soil is doing a really good turn for our environment overall. Tet me say also, I love your website, https://whiteoakpastures.com, because it tells the story of what you do, it provides some history and resources about the farm, but also you have a lot of really pretty amazing products that you sell. And so, it’s nice to know that these things are available to people who might be interested in buying the products for your farm.

It is so interesting and frustrating to me that a certain brand of environmentalist has identified cattle as being the primary culprit in climate change. And of course, it’s simply not true. It is not fair to brand cattle with that claim, that, you know. If you want to blame the cattle feeding industry, confinement feeding industry with that, then I support it. But the way we raise cattle not only does it not contribute negatively, but it’s also part of the cure. And that’s, it’s just so unfair.

Let’s think about the radical change you made in the family’s farming practices. Tell me how risky this was? I mean, how risky was it to you in terms of your reputation, your place in the community with other people that may have been continuing to use all kinds of industrial farming and ranching methods, and financially, how risky was it?

That’s a great question. And when I give the answer, I certainly don’t sound very smart. Because there was a lot of naivety in the decision I made. I really did not understand how much risk I was taking on. I should have, in retrospect. I was just a little reckless. But I always ran the farm, and I’d always made money. I was going to change the way I run the farm, and I assumed it would continue to make money, but it didn’t. I was adding value to the product I was producing, grass fed beef, that I was not able to extract from the market at that time. Partially because I didn’t have processing available, and partly because grass fed beef had not come into its being in the consumer community. So, we had some pretty tough times, but we made it through it. And my timing going in the grass-fed business in that mid-nineties to early two thousands was so, so lucky. And I really, really do mean lucky. Today, I don’t think we would’ve made it. There’s too much imported grass-fed beef. That is labeled as “Product of the USA.” The market has tightened and tougher because of that. We made it then, but I don’t think we would make it today.

What does that say for farmers today who might be considering making the kind of changes that you made many years ago?

Well, I don’t like reporting this, but I’ve gone from really being a recruiter urging people to embrace this kind of agriculture to really warning people, “Be careful.” I don’t recommend people not do it, but I really do focus on them being careful. And we sat up a 501 C3 called Center for Agricultural Resilience to help people learn the things that we’ve learned, so that they won’t make a mistake. I really want people to farm this way. And my goal is not to grow White Oak Pastures. White Oak Pastures is as big as I ever wanted it to be. I never really intended it to be as big as it is. Growth is not important to me and my family. We’ve talked about it, and we’re in agreement on that. But I do want to see regenerative food production grow. The way we farm is very cyclical, as opposed to the industrial food market, which is very linear. The food product system is very linear. And linear systems scale up really well. Cyclical systems, I think they kind of have a maximum level at which they perform well. And I think we’re at it. So, my goal is not to grow White Oak Pastures bigger and bigger. Again, as a family, we’ve talked about it and decided not to. We don’t want a business so big that we’ve got to hire a CEO to run it for us. We sell $25 million worth of products a year. And that’s enough. It’s bigger than we intended it to be.

Given that you said that it’s not risk free to make this kind of change, and that people need to go into it with their eyes open, it seems to me, that there’s a lot more attention now and awareness of regenerative agriculture. People in the general population know about it much more than they did even just a few years ago. And you have, you know, movies about it and television shows, and you have big institutions like the Rockefeller Foundation investing in it. I see that as a positive sign. I don’t know if you do as well. But are there other things that can be done to create more inducements to farmers to make this change? Are there policies, for example, that might be put in place that would be helpful?

Well, and that is opposed to the multinational food corporations. There re only a handful of them, that are feeding the entire planet. And they’re very linear, and there are many, many, many unintended consequences to their production system. It’s really adverse to the environment, the land, the water, the atmosphere, the animals, and rural America. I can go on that on.

So, let’s dive into that just a little bit. What can consumers do? Where do they look for their food? What do they look for? Where can they buy things? What can they do to help?

The things you said are certainly great positive signs. They’re very, very, very good. But unfortunately, big food has focused on this market. And engaged in very, very talented, skillful greenwashing that tricks the public. And that’s the impediment and that’s the problem. I just don’t know how it’s going to come out. I used to believe that I was an early innovator in this new way of producing food that was better for the land, and rural America and the environment, and the animals. I was happy about it, very satisfied in it. And I still hope that’s the case. But new, young, or old, a person who is moving from industrial commodity agriculture into what we do today, has a harder go of it than I had 20 years ago, because of greenwashing. From the consumer perspective, it’s a lot better today. There are a lot more people talking about it, and a lot more general information out there among the public. But the multinational corporations that are tricking people, they’re just very successful. When I called my book “Return to Giving a Damn,” that was what I was referring to. That the consumer has got to educate themselves and see where their food actually comes from.

There are more opportunities to do that, I know. Where I live in North Carolina, there are a number of butcher shops around. And some of them in particular make it very clear that they’re sourcing everything from local farms, and they talk about how the animals are raised, and they’re tied into the kind of thing that you’re talking about. So, it’s nice that there are more such opportunities out there. And butcher shops seem to be one good place to go if you’re a person who consumes meat.

That’s a good question. And I think that the more locally you can shop, the better. We sell food online, and we ship to 48 states. And I don’t want to. Now I appreciate everybody that’s been buying from us. I’m grateful for it. Thank you. But I really want to sell my products to people in my geography. And I want people in the Pacific Northwest and the New England, and the other areas of the country to have producers, that they support, that are local to them, local food systems. I’m happy to sell anybody anywhere, but I’d really rather to help somebody get started. I will just say that.

It’s nice that you offer your foods for sale online, because that does give people the opportunity to buy some of the things that you raise, and be connected with the story of the food that you’ve told us all about.

That is very pleasing to hear.

Say just a little bit more about greenwashing. How does it take place, and how can consumers know that it’s occurring?

The way for consumers to avoid greenwashing, is also to know as much as you can about who you’re buying your food from.

I hope the kind of education that you’re doing, things like joining us, and writing your book will alert consumers to these kind of practices, and hopefully there will then be demand on legislators, change the way they write the laws to prevent this kind of stuff. But boy, it takes time, doesn’t it?

Greenwashing is messaging. Big multinational food companies and Ag companies hire brilliant marketers to convey the message they want to convey to consumers about how the food is produced. And I mean, it can be as simple as industrial milk having these beautiful barns and meadows, and cows on the carton too, some really technical things that are done. But it allows industrial food to be sold under the guise of being very green and humane. Big multinational food companies can import grass fed beef from 20 countries. Uruguay, New Zealand, Australia, being the three biggest or almost prominent. And sell it as American grass-fed beef. Literally and legally label it “American grass-fed beef.” If the animal was born, raised, and slaughtered in one of those other countries, it can be brought into this country and legally labeled by USDA, “Product of the USA.” And that is the epitome of greenwashing, and it’s so very wrong. But it is allowed if any value was added here. And that changed from when I first started selling grass fed beef in the early 2000’s. That’s not the way that rule read, the rule changed, and this was not an accident.

So, let me ask a final question then regarding that. Are you optimistic? If you look at the current generation of young people, do they care more about these things than what used to be the case? And do you think that leads to some optimism about what might occur in the future?

Well, it does, and there’s so much money behind it. I think if the food production system in this country changes, it won’t be changed by Big Ag, it won’t be changed by the Department of Agriculture, it won’t be changed by land grant universities. It’ll be changed by consumers, and what they demand.

You know, it’s so nice to hear that from you. And consistent with my own experience, you know, in the classroom, you know, I’ve been teaching people for many years. The most recent generations of young people seem very motivated around these issues, and informed and passionate. And I see that as a very positive sign for the future. So, I’m glad your opinion on this and mine converge. And there’s reason I think to be hopeful for the future. So, Will listen. It was wonderful speaking to you, and the first time we did a podcast. And equally wonderful today. So I’m really grateful you could join us. And good luck with your work. And it’s clearly inspired.

There is no doubt there’s more enthusiasm and optimism among young people. In fact, we have an intern program. We only take six per quarter four times a year. And we get 20 something applications for the six openings every quarter. And it’s incredible. And we don’t push it, we don’t advertise it, because I just can’t have any more than that. But the number of young, smart, enthusiastic people that come through here, most of them do not come from agricultural backgrounds, is very, very heartening. That part is just great. So, many of our young people that came through here, have gone on to do really, really good things in other places. I’m very proud of them.

 

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