In Peter Byck’s lovely short film, “One Hundred Thousand Beating Hearts,” Will Harris shares the story of how he went from being a conventional “commodity cowboy” to a regenerative farming pioneer. Today, Harris’ farm, White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, produces high-quality grass-fed products.
But while beef and other animal products are the commodities being sold to the public, what Harris is really producing is healthy soil, and the success of his farm is a great demonstration of how you can accomplish the conversion from conventional to regenerative agriculture.
From 1946 — when his father was still running the farm — to 1995, the farm used industrial farming methods and chemicals. Harris had just one focus: how many pounds of beef he could produce at the lowest price possible.
Today, such concerns no longer occupy his mind. Instead, he’s wholly absorbed in figuring out how he can make the land thrive even more. Instead of feeding cattle, he now says his business is built around feeding microbes in the soil — all those crucial microorganisms that in turn make the soil fertile.
Because while the fertilizer they laid down each year helped the crops grow, what they did not realize was the damage being done underground.
Synthetic fertilizers actually harm the microorganisms in the soil, without which soil degradation sets in, nutrition (both in the soil and the food) goes down and, ultimately, the entire ecosystem begins to suffer.
In addition to cattle, Harris now has free-range goats, yews, pigs, chickens, geese and ducks on his farm. This mix of species brings a much needed synergy to the whole system. They form symbiotic relationships where one species helps keep parasites from overwhelming another.
A common misconception is that regenerative and organic farming cannot be done on a large-scale. Harris proves this isn’t true. In fact, while farming conventionally, he had about 700 head of cattle on the farm.
The animals’ hooves break up hardened soils and tread their own feces and urine into the soil. To get the animals to cover and “treat” the entire 220 acres, Harris entices the cattle to move across the land by placing the hay at one end and the water at the other.
The Regenerative Transition Story (from White Oak Pastures website):
Beginning around 1945, with the Post World War II Agricultural Revolution, Will Harris’ generation commoditized, centralized and industrialized American farm production.
This was done for noble reasons, and these changes made food cheap, abundant and “safe” (in one limited sense of that word):
- Commoditization – “Minimum Standards” were set for farm commodities (cotton, corn, peanuts, etc.). Farmers were no longer incentivized to make their production the best that it could be. Market price was paid for products as long as it met the minimum standard. Farmers would go broke if they put increased quality into a product, because they could never extract this added value from the marketplace.
- Centralization – Production and, more importantly, processing operations were relocated and stratified geographically. Vegetables in California. Corn and Soy in the Midwest. Cotton and Peanuts in the South. Cattle feeding in the West. Etc. Etc. Etc. This dried up and debilitated small, family-owned, home town processing throughout rural America, because larger factory farms could process more cost effectively.
- Industrialization – The factory farm model was embraced. Shirts were made in the shirt factory, so pigs were made in the pig factory. Cars were made in the car factory, so chickens were made in the chicken factory. Catering labor, equipment and other necessaries of processing to a few specific functions, cost was further driven down. Unfortunately, this change ignored the complexities of the living animal system.
This Revolution was wildly successful in achieving its goals. These revolutionary changes caused food to become obscenely cheap, wastefully abundant, and pass for “safe.” But, these changes had horrific unintended consequences on the welfare of our farm animals, the degradation of our natural resources, and the economy of rural America:
- Animal Welfare– Post World War II, the standard for good animal welfare was that the herdsman, or the system, did not intentionally inflict pain and suffering. The absence of pain and suffering was considered to be perfectly acceptable animal welfare. Today, we have returned to the understanding that good animal welfare also means providing the animal with an environment in which they can express instinctive behavior.
- Environmental Degradation – Topsoil loss, endangered wildlife species, escalated greenhouse gasses, dead areas in the seas, pesticide contamination, antibiotic resistant pathogens, diminished resources, water shortage and contamination, and a host of other disasters have only been with us for the last 70 years. Industrialized farming or “factory farming” has been an enormous contributor to these, and other environmental problems.
- Impoverishment of Rural America – Prior to the Industrialization, every rural community processed its farm production locally. These foods were also consumed locally. Every farm community had an abattoir and butcher, a grist mill, a creamery, a vegetable packing shed, and all other necessary infrastructure to maintain a local foodshed. Farmers strove to increase the value of their production by adding as much quality as they could. In essence, they were competing against each other in their local market. After the Centralization, the goad was to merely meet “minimum standards” and accept commodity prices for it. In this system, a product recall of millions of pounds of products could not occur.
At White Oak Pastures:
- We De-commoditized- We produce 5 pastured red meat proteins, 5 pastured poultry proteins, pastured eggs, Certified Organic vegetables, and much more. All of these products are sold under our proud White Oak Pastures label. We put our name, and brand, onto every package that leaves our farm. Our products are not commodities. They are our artisan creations.
- We De-industrialized- We do not operate our farm as a monocultural factory. We operate it as a living ecosystem. 10 species of humanely treated animals live in symbiotic relationships with each other. Our lands are holistically managed to become increasingly a living organic medium that is teeming with life.
- We De-centralized- We built processing abattoirs to allow us to vertically integrate our production system. This gave us full control over the quality of our products. It also caused us to hire 120 employees making us the largest privately owned employer in the county. It also allowed us to breathe life into our 200-year-old farm village, Bluffton, that had slipped almost into oblivion.
Photo credits: White Oak Pastures.