When it comes to transitioning a farm from conventional to regenerative practices, there is likely no better example than White Oak Pastures. Within a single generation, the farm has gone from a monoculture cog in the industrial-agriculture machine to a living, breathing, closed-loop symbiotic ecosystem where multiple types of livestock thrive.
While this farm did pivot while under the leadership of one man, Will Harris III, the change did not take place overnight. And, in fact, there was no master plan set in place by Harris to intentionally make a transition from industrial to regenerative farming - change was gradual and the process was more organic, you might say, than manufactured.
“I never had a business plan to move from ‘this is what I’m doing’ to ‘this is what I’m going to do’,” Harris said of the transition process. “It didn’t work like that. I just moved away from it. It was very gradual … it’s still happening. It’s a journey not a destination - we’re not there yet.”
Harris inherited the family farm which was founded in 1866 by his great, great grandfather in Bluffton, Georgia.
The story of White Oak Pastures is very representative of the broader story of agriculture in America. What started out as a diverse farm consisting of many different species of animals and a variety of crops to meet the needs of the family and local community in its early years shifted toward industrialization following WWII.
Harris’ grandfather was the farm’s custodian during that period. Like nearly every other farmer during that time, he bought into the industrialized model of farming and focused on raising one thing - cattle.
His father continued that model of farming and was a successful cattleman, making use of all the modern conveniences of farming: chemical pesticides and fertilizers, hormones and antibiotics. Cattle was finished in an onsite feedlot with a high carbohydrate diet of corn and soy.
The farm was streamlined, efficient and profitable.
“My father was the best cattleman I’d ever known,” Harris said. “He was good at it. Financially successful.”
Wanting to follow in the family tradition, Harris went to the University of Georgia and majored in Animal Science where he learned industrial animal agriculture. Not exactly welcomed back on the farm by his father, Harris went to work for an agricultural company instead.
Harris returned to the farm in the mid 70’s when his father’s health began to decline. While the two alpha personalities may have clashed over leadership, the industrial model was never in question.
“It was very competitive between me and my daddy … we both wanted to control it. And he was going to control it - make no mistake,” Harris said.
Harris became a successful cattleman in his own right, and for the next twenty years he continued the traditions laid down by his grandfather and father, as well as those instilled in him through his education.
By the mid 90s, however, he began to question aspects of the industrialized farm system in which he was participating and slowly but surely the transition of the farm began.
“I wish I had a better story,” Harris said with a laugh. “I wish I could say I went to a burning bush and God told me what to do.”
“I went from a model I really loved,” he stated matter of factly. “I loved that linear, Western, alpha, more-is-better (model); I was good at that and I loved that for a long time. But I started becoming more aware of the unintended consequences for the animals, the land and later the community; and just kind of moved away from it.”
It started with the idea of animal welfare.
Harris, and his father and grandfather before him, believed they were acting responsibly and working the land and raising animals in a manner that would qualify as good stewardship. Like thousands of other well-meaning farmers, they made choices that made sense in terms of finances and efficiencies. Their animals were not mistreated, basic needs were met - what more was there?
“For me and all of my peers and, still most people in animal agriculture,” Harris explained, “good animal welfare means that you keep them well fed, well watered, in a comfortable temperature range and you don’t intentionally inflict pain and suffering on them. If you do all that - you check the boxes.”
“And that’s really not enough,” he continued. “Beyond all that, you’ve got to provide the animal with an environment in which they can express instinctive behavior.”
I say that cows were born to roam and graze, chickens were born to scratch and peck, hogs were born to root and wallow.
“My cattle feedlot did not allow that. And industrial chicken houses don’t allow that. And hogs on concrete don’t allow that. The industrial agricultural model deprives them of that opportunity. And when you do that, you put them in a low level of stress 24 hours a day, seven days a week for their whole life.”
“And that realization … and when you move to that higher level of animal welfare, you give up that efficiency, but you gain a lot of resilience.”
The earliest changes on the farm included giving up the feedlot and bringing an end to hormone implants and supplemental antibiotics. As Harris focused on the wellbeing of his livestock, he also began seeing the unintended consequences of monoculture on the land itself.
The use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on the fields were next on the list to go, then tillage.
The transition period wasn’t always pretty. New grazing practices were implemented which began to infuse the land with much-needed organic matter (through manure), but the improvements weren’t instantaneous.
“The industrial agricultural system breaks the cycles of nature,” Harris explained. “We were the first species, humans were the first species, that ever became powerful enough to break the cycles of nature and we do that through technology.”
“And the cycles of nature - to name a few - are: the water cycle, the mineral cycle, carbon cycle, energy cycle, microbial cycle … cycles we aren’t smart enough yet to recognize. But the use of technology: chemical fertilizers, pesticides, tillage - broke those cycles and that causes desertification.”
“We’re in Georgia and desert in Georgia - that sounds stupid. But it ain’t,” Harris asserted. “This land is a desert that gets 52 inches of rain a year - it’s still a desert.”
Regenerative agriculture is a system that works to restore those natural cycles by closing as many loops as possible. Where industrial agriculture streamlines, regenerative agriculture diversifies.
Where industrial agriculture creates efficiencies, regenerative agriculture cultivates resilience. Where industrial agriculture requires inputs, regenerative agriculture relies on symbiotic relationships. And where industrial agriculture creates waste, regenerative agriculture makes use of “waste”.
Today, White Oak Pastures is approximately 3,500 acres of rich farmland watered only by rainfall and fertilized by the “waste” of cows, goats, sheep, poultry and rabbits. The ground is tilled by thousands of hooves and claws. Chickens, turkeys and other fowl work tirelessly at pest control and parasite management.
Putting in the hard work to ensure the wellbeing of his livestock, he did not like the idea of shipping them off to be slaughtered elsewhere. In 2008, Harris leveraged the farm in order to build an onsite abattoir. The abattoir, designed by Temple Grandin, ensures the most humane process possible. A few years later, a poultry abattoir was also added to the farm.
Aside from ensuring less stress on the livestock and humane slaughter, the onsite abattoir also means that the farm can reincorporate the “waste” like: blood, feathers and intestines. These byproducts are composted on the farm and eventually go back into the land, feeding the soil and closing the loop (soil feeds plants, plants feed animals, animals feed soil).
As they work toward becoming a zero-waste system, the staff of White Oak Pastures have found many creative and profitable outlets for what was once considered waste.
Hides, depending on their quality, are used for things like: cow hide rugs, leather goods (made onsite but the tanning process is outsourced), and rawhide treats for dogs. Tallow is used for creating soaps and candles. And as mentioned before, all waste that can’t be repurposed in another way becomes valuable compost for keeping the soil healthy.
Another aspect of the farm’s transition has been the addition of women in leadership. In previous generations the farm was passed from father to son, but Harris has no sons. Two of his three daughters have returned to the farm and work alongside their father.
When it comes to working with his daughters, Jenni Harris and Jodi Harris Benoit, Harris admits there’s a stark contrast with how things were between him and his father.
“The family dynamic is different,” Harris stated. “My daddy … He and I struggled to work together. I mentioned earlier, we were both … like two alpha bulls going head to head. And I’ve got these daughters … and when they wanted to come back… (Harris shook his head at the recollection) ... I remembered those bad ol’ days!”
“But it’s very different,” he continued. “it’s different with daughters, they want to please me and I don’t want to hurt their feelings.”
“Very, very different,” he said with a smile.
Though it is very much a family business (not only do two of his daughters work there, but both of their spouses do as well), Harris takes exception to the idea that it is a “family-run” business.
“This is a family owned business, it’s not necessarily a family run business,” Harris said. “Me and my two daughters and two in-laws do run the business, but there’s a lot of other people who help run this business. It wouldn’t be what it is without these non-family members!”
White Oak Pastures currently employs around 180 people, It is pretty much the only employer in Bluffton and is the largest employer in the county. The farm also has an intern program which helps train future farmers who come from all over to learn about regenerative farm practices and humane animal husbandry and to gain the practical skills necessary to farm.
It’s been more than 25 years since Harris began shifting his farm away from the industrial model and during that time he has become a leader in the regenerative farm movement. The farm has also grown considerably in that time.
When it comes to feeding the world through regenerative agriculture, Harris sees it less as an issue of scaling up and more about replication. He also doesn’t view other regenerative farmers as his competitors, he saves that distinction for industrialized ag companies. As he sees it, there is plenty of room for more farms like his serving their own communities.
As a leader in the field, one of the questions Harris gets most is, “at what scale does this type of farming work?”
His answer: it’s entirely situational!
“It could work on a very small scale - if you’ve got a ¼ of an acre yard in one of those zip codes in Massachusetts with a seven-digit annual income, it will work! If you’ve got 12,000 acres of paid-for land in an impoverished area of Georgia,” he says with a shrug “… well, it’s situational.”
“If you’re in the right zip code, it’s easy. If you’re in an impoverished area, it’s not easy.”
Harris suggests instead that farmers keep in mind that there are three key areas which need to stay in sync: production, processing and marketing/ distribution.
“What’s important is there’s three legs on the stool. There’s production out of the pasture or field, which is what we all love and it’s what we tend to focus on. There’s processing, which means taking the production so that you monetize it. Consumers don’t buy cows and hogs and sheep, they buy beef and pork and lamb. And then there’s the marketing/ distribution - you’ve got to get to them.”
“Any scale can work, as long as you keep the three legs on the stool coming up or going down together,” he continued. “It can be very low scale, low volume or it can be high. Keeping those three legs (in balance) is very hard. It’s gotten away from us before and it will get away from anybody … I’ve seen a lot of people a lot smarter than me and with a lot more money than me go broke because they didn’t keep the three legs on the stool coming up together.”
Harris admits that they haven’t always gotten it right as White Oak Pastures has grown over the years. When they decided to add poultry production to the farm, they went all in - assuming that since they had cracked the code with cattle, it would be simple to do it again with poultry.
“I went into the poultry business too big, too quick and it cost me a bunch of money,” Harris said. “We were kind of drunk on success with the cattle, which is what we were good at. I didn’t see why we couldn’t do poultry on the same scale. We wound up not doing good. We’ve figured it out now.”
“I don’t have too many regrets. Of the many things I did, if I had it to do over again … I would probably have taken a more measured approach to that.”
But Harris is not a man to dwell on regrets. From his earliest memories, farming is the one and only thing that he ever wanted to do and after a lifetime of experience, he still gets up every day excited to do the job he loves.
“I LOVE what I do. I’ve got such a good job. I love working with these people - family and just-likefamily. I’ve got a good gig! I wouldn’t change anything. I’ll never retire.”