“White Oak Pastures is one of the very few farms that has spent almost three decades hammering regenerative food production into a working, operating, scalable, and replicable model. Which makes this a tale of not what could happen but what has happened.”
~ Will Harris, A Bold Return to Giving a Damn
By Pete Kennedy, Esq.
One of the more impressive accomplishments in regenerative agriculture has been what fourth-generation cattle farmer Will Harris has done with White Oak Pastures, a farm he owns and operates in Bluffton, Georgia. In A Bold Return to Giving a Damn: One Farm, Six Generations, and the Future of Food, Harris describes the transition he made from industrial to regenerative farming and how that benefited land, animal welfare, human health, and community.
Harris’s great-grandfather and grandfather both ran a diversified farm, producing meat, poultry, vegetables, and other crops; sales were local and direct-to-consumer. During their time, farmers were rewarded for producing quality foods through good land stewardship, animal husbandry, and standards of production. When Harris’s father took over the farm, however, the era of industrial agriculture was well underway, with government subsidies for crops like corn and wheat and the mass production of inputs like chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides. These developments led to the commodification of agriculture and the onset of the monoculture farm. As a result, Harris’s father ran a commodity beef operation and sold most of the cattle he raised to feedlots in the Midwest and the Great Plains, rather than keeping them on the farm from birth to slaughter like his father and grandfather had. That model paid commodity farmers not for quality but only for weight—creating incentives to ply the cattle with drugs, grain, and corn to fatten them up.
A sign of the times was that when Harris went to the University of Georgia in 1972, he elected to major in Animal Husbandry; by the time he graduated in 1976, that major was called Animal Science. Harris took over running the farm in 1990, and like his father, he was successful in the commodity beef business. By 1995, however, he began realizing the damage that the compartmentalized, reductionist system of industrial agriculture was doing to his land and animals. As Harris says, “This new, science-based approach to farming took one of the most necessary cyclical systems—the never-ending cycle of birth, growth, death and decay—and made it a linear factory-line process to achieve plentiful food for the consumer.”
To rehabilitate his land, by now degraded by industrial practices, Harris changed to farming in accordance with the cycles of nature. In A Bold Return to Giving a Damn, he discusses six of those cycles: energy, carbon, microbial, mineral, water, and grazing. He defines regenerative agriculture as an approach that “is restarting the cycles of nature that the industrial, monocultural, input-heavy methods of modern land management broke so that land naturally produces the abundance that a farmer can turn into products they can sell, that helps to finance the good farming practices they follow, that ensures the cycles keep spinning.”
Harris makes the important point that you can’t rehabilitate land damaged by monoculture farming without livestock grazing. It can also help prevent damage to the land; in the book, he tells a story about how he convinced the owners of a soon-to-be installed solar farm to let him graze sheep on their land to mitigate any potential environmental harm caused by the solar operation. The expansion of solar and wind farms in the U.S. and elsewhere has been a troublesome development, taking productive farmland out of commission and adversely impacting the environment and land.
Industrial agriculture is a race to the bottom with its negative effects on food quality, human health and well-being, animal welfare, and environmental impacts; for many, however, selling into the commodity system is still easier to do and less risky than direct marketing. What Harris has done to respond to the challenges of direct marketing (and other obstacles to making a living from a sustainable farm) is to gradually build a vertically integrated regenerative operation. White Oak Pastures has gone from a monoculture cattle farm to a farm that raises, processes, and sells ten species of livestock and poultry: cattle, hogs, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, guineas, geese, and ducks. It has two USDA slaughterhouses—one for livestock and the other for poultry. There is a commissary producing value-added products such as broth and tallow as well as foods such as pickles and relish from the farm’s organic vegetable garden. The farm also has a fulfillment center shipping about 1,000 orders a week around the U.S. Harris’s courage, drive, work ethic, and vision have created a farm operation that draws thousands of visitors each year.
The farm is close to zero waste. It uses meatpacking waste as compost for fertilizer on its pastures, and there is a dehydrator taking scraps (e.g., ears and tails) and processing them into 30 different kinds of pet chews. There is both a farm store and restaurant in Bluffton selling White Oak Pastures foods. Tours of the farm, farm-stay cabins, and an RV park bring in agritourism revenue. The farm holds educational workshops throughout the year. White Oak Pastures is also home to the Center for Agricultural Resilience (CFAR), a nonprofit Harris founded to teach “thought leaders on the environmental, economic and social benefits of building resilient animal, plant and human ecosystems that can nourish our communities.”
All of White Oak Pastures’ activities have combined to create 180 jobs and revive the town of Bluffton. Harris said that around 2016, the only thing you could buy in Bluffton was a stamp—and that, from a post office that was open one hour a day. Bluffton was typical of rural communities across America turned into ghost towns by the centralization and commodification of agriculture. Harris says there are only a few dozen farms outside the industrial system producing food on a significant scale and employing a significant workforce; CFAR is working to change that.
The White Oak Pastures business model has been to control as many inputs as possible in the farm operation; Harris mentions insurance, utilities, shipping, and feed costs (cattle and sheep are species feeding on only grass) as inputs he has to go outside the farm for. Harris is a risk-taker and hasn’t been afraid to go into debt; when he knew that local slaughterhouses were not going to be able to process enough of his animals to enable him to meet the demand from national supermarket chains for White Oak Pastures meat, he borrowed over $2 million to build his own slaughterhouse for beef and pork processing, even knowing that USDA does not approve a facility until after construction. Rather than taking cash out of his operation, he is more interested in building a resilient farm and maintaining closed herds, soil health, the diversity of grasses, and water-carrying capacity; these—along with the return of insects, predators, and scavengers to the farm, food quality, customer loyalty, community revival, and children staying to work on the farm instead of leaving the farm—are all indicators of wealth and part of the balance sheet Harris looks at.
When Harris asked an appraiser to compare the value of a property he wanted to buy that had infertile soil due to monoculture farming to a parcel of similar size owned by Harris that was teeming with life, the appraiser said the two properties would appraise the same. To have a more accurate determination of a farm’s true worth, appraisers need to take into account a farm’s biological capital. The Savory Institute has created a farm valuation method called Ecological Outcome Verification that measures the health of the farm’s ecosystem; maybe in the future this will become an essential part of assessing a farm’s balance sheet. Poor human, animal, and soil health, corporate monopolies, and emptying of the countryside are all part of the balance sheet for industrial agriculture.
White Oak Pastures does around $25 million in sales; Harris doesn’t see that figure increasing, saying, “When you run a circular farm, your priority is closing the loops and building the health and wealth inside your own system, not achieving infinite growth” (i.e., not scaling up and up). When Harris transitioned to regenerative farming, initially more of his sales were to chain stores like Whole Foods and Publix. Due to factors such as greenwashing, toothless Country of Origin Labeling laws for beef and pork, and Covid, a higher percentage of his sales today are direct-to-consumer.
Ultimately, it’s the consumer who will determine the success of regenerative agriculture. Will the consumer be more willing to eat nose-to-tail? Will the consumer be willing to cut out or reduce household expenses less conducive to well-being and put that savings toward purchases direct from the farm instead? How much more of their dollar will the consumer spend on buying from regenerative farms? With the benefits to human, animal, environmental, and community health, the answer should be “considerably more.” Regenerative food is more expensive than conventional food, but Harris’s experience and his book show why the rewards of producing and consuming regenerative food far outweigh the cost.
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