The Leading Voices in Food
E72: Will Harris on White Oak Pastures Success with Regenerative Ag
Imagine being a fourth-generation owner of a business and deciding to completely change things to upend tried-and-traditional ways of doing things in favor of something brand new, untraditional, and potentially pretty risky. Such is the story of our guest today, farmer Will Harris.
Will Harris is a fourth-generation cattleman from White Oak Pastures Farm in Bluffton, Georgia, the same land his great-grandfather settled in 1866. Born and raised on this farm, Will left to attend the University of Georgia School of Agriculture, where he was trained in the industrial farming methods that had taken hold after World War II. He returned to Bluffton after, where he and his father used traditional practices, but later, Will changed things in a very big way. He’s been recognized around the world for his pioneering work. Will is past president of the board of directors of Georgia Organics, is the beef director of the American Grassfed Association, and was named Businessperson of the Year for Georgia by the Small Business Administration.
Will, I’m really pleased to have you join us and would like to begin by asking this question: what was it that made you believe things needed to be done differently?
First, Kelly, thank you for having me on your show today and it’s an honor to be here. I was a very industrial cattleman for 20 years, and for the most part really enjoyed it. It was high-input agriculture, confinement feeding, lot of hormone implants, sub-therapeutic antibiotic high-concentrated grain feed. I really liked it. It was sort of like a contest for me to see if I could do better next year than I did last year. But you know, along the line, I became increasingly aware of the unintended consequences of that kind of farming, because I didn’t like what it was doing for my land and my animals and my community. So I started rethinking through this, and we got where we are pretty gradually. It took 25 years to get here, and we’re still changing.
I’d like to ask you in a moment about what your model to farming is, but first, could you paint a picture of your farm for us? How big is it, and what do you raise? And then we can talk about your approach.
One of the pastures is 3,200 acres, currently. We’re multi-generational. I’m the fourth generation. My children are here, two of my children and their spouses. They’re the fourth. They have had three grandchildren that are the fifth and the sixth generation on the farm.
We pasture-raise cows, hogs, sheep, goats, and rabbits. And we hand-butcher them at a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse that I built here on the farm. We pasture-raise chickens, turkeys, geese, guineas, and ducks. And we hand-butcher them in a separate slaughter facility. We raise pastured eggs, organic vegetables, honey. We try to operate as a zero-waste facility and farm. We make pet treats out of organs that are not for human consumption, leather products out of our hides.
We currently have 165 employees. We’re the largest employer in the county. We have a store. My farm surrounds the little town of Bluffton, Georgia. We now have six cabins for lodging, a restaurant, and a general store.
Well, it’s pretty amazing to hear the number of things that are being raised on your farm. And I know that’s part of the integrated approach that you take. Can you explain how that works?
We call it stacked enterprises. Nature abhors a monoculture. Nowhere in nature will a monoculture resist. We found it necessary to rethink symbiosis that comes from different species living together, benefiting from the existence of another.
Could you give an example or two, Will, of how the different species interact in positive ways with each other and are necessary?
Yeah, my favorite one is we raise goats and hogs. Very different species but they’re both… I consider them to be forest creatures. One year, I weaned my baby goats and didn’t have a good place to put them, so I put some of them in a forest paddock with the hogs and some of them by themselves in another forest paddock. I noticed that the goats that were in with the hogs looked better, and the goats were doing better than the goats who were not with hogs. Those with the hogs really looked good.
The reason both those species looked better when they were together, the hogs were eating a lot of different plant species out in the woods. There’s a lot of plant species that the hogs just won’t eat. But the goats were eating virtually everything, and they were defecating, and the hogs were eating the goat feces. And I think the hogs looked better because they were getting nutrition out of that goat feces that was lacking in their diet otherwise. Hogs are supposed to do that. But if there’s only hogs out there, they don’t have the opportunity.
So that explained to me why the hogs looked better, but it didn’t explain the goats. What was happening is the hogs, in eating that goat feces, was breaking the lifecycle of the barber’s pole worm, an internal parasite of goats. The way that works is the adult worm is inside the goat in the intestine, sucking blood and spewing eggs. The eggs are evacuated from the system when the goat defecates. The egg pupa climbs up a blade of grass and the goat reinfects itself by eating the neonate. But when the hogs at the goat feces before the worms could hatch, it broke it so the goats were more parasite-free. Beings are not meant to live in isolation from other species.
Well, that’s an impressive example. What about an example of how the animals are interacting with the soil and the land?
So, on our 3,200 acres, it consists of a 1,000 acres of land. It’s been managed holistically with a lot of animal impact for the last 25 years. We farmed like everybody else, but then for 25 years, we’ve been doing, I think, kind of doing it right. Organic matter on that land has gone from less than one half of 1%, 25 years ago when I was farming industrially, to over 5% today. And that was made possible by this animal impact. The other 3,200 are bits of land that’s contiguous to my home farm, and the longer I’ve managed it holistically with livestock, the more the organic matter has increased, again, from a half percent to over 5% in a 20-year window.
Organic matter is not the only thing that matters in the soil. There’s microbial activity and water percolation and other things. But organic matter is a really good indicator of soil health, so that it makes it crystal clear that the longer the soil is managed without chemical fertilizers, without pesticides, without cultivation, but with a lot of animal impact, it just gets better and better and better.
So let’s talk about the cattle for a minute and discuss how the cattle that you raise are different from those raised with traditional feedlot methods.
They’re different in many ways. A happy animal is an animal that is well fed in a reasonable temperature environment and, most important, allowed to express instinctive behavior. In industrial confinement, livestock for production does not allow that. Hogs are meant to root, and walled-up chickens are meant to scratch and peck. Cows were meant to roam and graze. Those are instinctive behaviors, and when the animal is not allowed to do those things, it undergoes a lot of stress.
Our cattle are never fed grain, never given sub-therapeutic antibiotics, hormones, steriod, dot, dot, dot. They grow more slowly. It takes us two years to get an animal up to about 1,100 pounds as opposed to industrial production, where in 16 months you can get them up to 1,300 pounds. Our animal have two tenths of an inch of back fat. They’re very athletic. A confinement feedlot animal may have almost an inch of back fat, and it’s an unnaturally obese creature that would never exist in nature.
If I decided to not slaughter one of my cows which we do the mama cows and the bulls, they would live to be 20-something years old out there in that pasture. The confinement feedlot animal that’s eating corn and soy out of a trough gaining three pounds or four pounds a day would die if they were left in that environment for a prolonged period of time. They would die of all the diseases that kills us. Just obesity, heart failure, dot, dot, dot.
Let’s talk about, if you would, the impact of this approach to farming and raising the animals on the environment. And I’d like to talk about a study that you were involved with. I know that you collaborated with some researchers to test the impact of your farming methods on your land. And I know that study, which has now been published, found some pretty remarkable things. Could you explain?
Yeah, it was really remarkable. I was not surprised at the results, but I was delighted to have those things validated scientifically. I knew that our land was being improved dramatically. I see it every day. I’ve been in the pasture this morning. But my knowledge and understanding was anecdotal “here’s what I see and observe and recognize.”
But to have an environmental engineering group, called Quantis, from Minneapolis come here and scientifically sample and test, validate my observations was really great. It just felt vindicating. And what they found is that my farm sequestered well over 900 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in our soil in 2017. That is to say 900-something tons of greenhouse gases were breathed in by photosynthesizing plants and put into the soil in the form of roots and decaying vegetative matter and animal feces.
That greenhouse gas that was floating around up there, creating global warming or environmental change, was put back where it belongs, in the soil where it does good things. It encourages microbial growth and acts as a sponge to hold water. You don’t get flooding; it increases your productivity of my land for my animals. So very, very pleased. By the way, that study is on our website. That’s WhiteOakPastures.com.
Thank you for describing that. Let’s put those numbers in perspective, if you would. So there’s a lot of concern, obviously, in the popular press and also amongst some scientists about the environmental climate change impact of raising animals traditionally. So the amount of carbon sequestered, how does that compare to what would have happened if these animals were raised using traditional methods? And as I understood from the study, the beneficial impact of the sequestration pretty much offset entirely the impact of the animals that they would have been having otherwise. Am I right with that?
Yeah, yeah. In fact, our cattle sequestered 3.5 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent for every pound of beef that I produced. The same environmental engineering outfit, Quantis, that did our lifecycle analysis, that’s what you call that test I was referring to, did a lifecycle analysis on a production system on one of the vegetable-meat substitutes. In both cases, they were paid to do disinterested third-party research. They found that we sequester 3.5 pounds and they actually emit 3.5 pounds. So you would have to eat a pound of my beef to offset the damage from eating one pound of Impossible Burger. That’s pretty incredible.
It is pretty incredible. And one thing that I was really happy about when I saw that study is that with all this speculation about the benefits of this approach to farming, somebody came in and did an objective test, which was really nice. And, boy, those results were very impressive. Thank you for letting the scientists come in and do those kinds of tests, because then that really creates credibility for what you’ve and others have observed anecdotally. That was very forward thinking. Thank you for doing that.
One of our customers, a big food company, offered to pay for it because they wanted to see if we were doing the things that we allege we were doing. And the deal was they would pay for the study and I’d cooperate, provide the land, and we’d both own the data. And I agreed to do it, but I had a little bit of consternation, a little concern. I don’t understand scientific method. I’m a farmer, not a scientist. But I did agree to do it because I felt a little bit challenged. It came out with the compelling results that we just discussed. Really glad I did it, but I was really concerned about it going in.
You’re courageous to have done that. Not everybody would. So do you see the regenerative, holistic approach becoming more widespread, and what do you think the future might bring?
I hope so. But to be honest, I’m not real optimistic about it. It should, it’s the right thing to do. I don’t know where we’ll wind up if it doesn’t. But that decision will be made by consumers. Farmers will not be able to afford to choose to do this and then sell their product into conventional markets, commodity markets. I don’t think that our government has the will/courage to require it. And so it’s in the hands of the consumer, the consumer will decide.
Wendell Berry says something to the effect that the consumer votes with his dollars every day on how they want the world to be. This is a prime example of that. The people that buy product from me and people like me…in “product” I mean beef, pork, poultry, eggs, vegetables and so on. The people that do are sophisticated consumers that have studied the food production system and made some choices about the land management system they want to support, the sort of rural America they want to see reinvigorated, and the welfare of the animals that go to make the food.
And they choose to pay a little more for the source, the production system, which satisfies these decisions that they feel strongly about. I don’t know how many of those people there are out there. I go to Walmart and I see a lot of people that I don’t think care too much about those things. I think there’s a lot more of them than there are my customers. So consumers will make that decision, not farmers.
So while I think you might’ve just answered my last question, but let me go ahead and ask it anyway. How can people go about supporting this work?
If people want to see farms like White Oak Pastures survive and prosper and be replicated, then they got to buy from farms like White Oak Pastures. And I’m not just asking for the business for me. There are people all over the country doing good work. But this kind of farming is not highly scalable. White Oak Pastures will never be a Fortune 500 company. It’ll never be a scale like Tyson or Cargill or JBS, but it is highly replicable. There can be a White Oak Pastures in every county, every agricultural county, in every state in the union. So it just depends on what customers want. If consumers want high animal welfare, regenerative land management, building wealth in rural communities to be a thing, they need to find a person that’s doing it and support them.