One man's journey of turning his family's factory farm into Georgia's Largest Organic Operation
Nestled in the farmland of southwest Georgia is White Oak Pastures, a 150-year-old, multi-generational, 2,500- acre family farm. In the last half of the 20th century, this family operation was turned into a monoculture factory farm that produced antibiotic-laden beef as fast and as cheaply as possible. However, in the mid-’90s, Will Harris, the fourth-generation steward of the farm, gradually awakened to the idea that converting the farm back to the way his great-grandfather ran it — with animal welfare and environmental stewardship prioritized — might be the best way to differentiate himself in the market and truly scale the farm’s operations.
Since then, Harris and his family have done everything from implementing Savory Institute principles to having animal behavior specialist Dr. Temple Grandin design slaughterhouses (or abattoirs) on-site, all in the name of sustainability and animal well-being. The results have been astounding. The farm’s revenues have increased from $500,000 to $28 million, the operation has become the largest organic farm in the state of Georgia, and Harris and his family have been recognized as prime examples of how to bring sustainable farming to scale. We spoke with Harris about this journey.
Can you talk about the history of White Oak Pastures?
Will Harris: My daughters are the fifth generation on this farm. We will celebrate 150 years of living on the same piece of land next year. My great-great- grandfather came here in 1866, so 2016 will make it 150 years of continuous farming by the same family on the same piece of property.
Our family story kind of tracks agricultural history in this country. My great-grandfather and grandfather farmed the land in a way that was environmentally sustainable, with a high level of animal welfare because your land and your animals were your treasures, your wealth.
My father’s generation was the one that industrialized, commoditized, and centralized agriculture in this country, beginning right after the end of World War II. He reduced it to a monoculture of only cattle. We were a spoke in the wheel of “big beef,” and he was very successful financially. That whole revolution was very, very effective — wildly successful — in doing what it set out to do. It caused meat to be abundant and cheap, obscenely cheap, and safe, from the perspective that you wouldn’t get an acute illness from eating it.
I graduated from the University of Georgia in 1972, majoring in animal science, and then I came home to help my father run the farm in the same way. In fact, I helped him take it even further down the road to being a factory farm, and I farmed that way for about 20 years. By the mid-’90s, I was coming to resent the excesses of that production system.
About that time, I started reading about consumers who wanted meat that was raised with higher levels of animal welfare and environmental sustainability and I thought I could do that. So I set about changing the farm. We didn’t set out to make such sweeping change, but we did. Between the early 2000s and today, we went from three minimum-wage employees to about 120 employees. We also went from about half a million in sales to about $28 million in sales.
Was there a specific moment when you realized that you wanted to transition to a more sustainable way of farming, or was it more of a gradual awakening as a result of the kinds of things you were reading?
WH: It was definitely a gradual awakening, rather than an epiphany. But I do remember loading about 100, 500-pound calves into a double-decker trailer, knowing that they were going to be on that trailer for about 30 hours with no food, water, or rest, with the ones on top urinating and defecating on the ones on the bottom, and thinking, “I just need to do something different. This is not the way I want to do this.”
"What gives me the most joy in this world is having stewardship over this land and these animals, and working every day with my family to improve that system — that organism."
What were the largest hurdles you faced when you were trying to transition to this more sustainable way of farming?
WH: There were several, but the financial risk was the worst. We climbed a steep learning curve to learn how to raise cattle differently, and then to add other species to the farm, and then to vertically integrate. We faced the hurdles that every other businessman faces when gearing up, such as hiring and training employees and putting systems into place. But all those things were enjoyable in their own way.
The hard part was the financial risk. Between 2004 and 2012, we borrowed over $7 million to build infrastructure. We built a USDA- inspected red-meat abattoir, or slaughterhouse, a USDA-inspected poultry abattoir, an egg processing center, a vegetable processing center, cabins on the farm for tourism, a restaurant on the farm for guests, and a store.
We went from raising one species of animal, cattle, to pasture-raising five red-meat species and five poultry species, as well as pastured eggs and organic vegetables, and to running a large number of small ancillary businesses that on their own would never be able to support themselves but that work in the organism we call White Oak Pastures. I think of it as an organism; certainly not a factory, not even a farm — it’s an organism.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you had known during that transitional time?
WH: Well, if I’d known how difficult it was going to be, I probably wouldn’t have done it! [laughter] But I’m glad I did it when I was naïve and exuberant. But the risk was very painful. And by the way, when I was an industrial cattleman, we made money every year. I never did not make money. I never did not pay taxes in a year. When I made these changes, I hemorrhaged money for several years.
I learned that nothing I build is big enough. I learned that every project takes more time and more money than I thought. I learned that every new product takes longer to bring to market than I thought. I had all those joyous learning experiences.
Do you think if you had continued with business as usual that you would have experienced the same growth that you have, and that you would have reached the $28 million in annual revenue that you have now?
WH: No, we were pretty capped-out before. We would still be maybe a half million dollars per year company.
But the best thing that this has done for me is bring two of my daughters and their spouses home to the farm. I have three daughters, and I can almost guarantee you that they would not have come back to the farm if I were still just an industrial cattleman. When I switched to this kinder and gentler agriculture, they came home. That’s been a great joy to me.
What advice would you have for anyone who’s farming right now and thinking about turning their farm into a more sustainable “organism,” as you describe it?
WH: I would recommend, first, find a way to go to a farm that has already done it, one that you want to emulate, and go work on that farm for at least a year. Some people might think that they can’t take a year out of their life to go work for someone else, but I can assure you that you’ll save time in the long run by not reinventing the wheel and by not making all the same mistakes yourself.
Tell us about the project with Temple Grandin, and building these more humane abattoirs on-site. What did that project look like and what was the inspiration behind it?
WH: Dr. Grandin, as you probably know, is autistic and she has a gift — she sees the world differently than you and I. She sees the world through the eyes of an animal, so she recognizes things that would be frightening or problematic for animals and she designs ways of managing those things.
She’s great to work with. Unfortunately, I think she’s been taken advantage of in recent years. She has helped contribute to the design of some very large meat companies’ abattoirs, and I think she did this because she wants to make those animals’ lives a little bit better. Those companies are handling millions of animals, so if she can improve their lives just a little bit, she’s accomplished something. But when she helps those companies, they will say that their design is “approved” by Temple Grandin, and I think that they’re using her to greenwash their products a bit. I don’t think it’s any sort of adverse reflection on her, but I think some of that has happened.
That said, the inspiration for getting her to do this was to offer my animals the most humane slaughter we possibly could. They are making the ultimate sacrifice, and they’re not doing it voluntarily, and it’s just the right thing to do to make it as non-stressful as it possibly can be.
What are your thoughts on the current state of food and the agricultural system?
WH: Those of us who have been farming since the end of World War II — and that includes my father’s generation and my generation — have designed a food production system that is incredibly efficient. It makes food obscenely cheap and abundant, but it has dire, unintended consequences. Those unintended consequences impact the welfare of animals, the degradation of our soils, our environmental sustainability, and the decline of the rural economy of the United States.
It probably has also had some effect on things like nutrient density and nutrition, food safety, and other areas, but those are not my areas of expertise. I have anecdotal beliefs about these things, but I’m a farmer, not a nutritionist, not a doctor, not a dietitian. So, I hold my comments back on everything except animal welfare, environmental sustainability, and rural impoverishment.
As a farmer, what are your thoughts on the future of the food system? Are there any trends that you’re seeing, or do you think it will be just more of the same as we go forward?
WH: I think that the sophisticated consumers have studied the food production system and have made some decisions regarding environmental sustainability and animal welfare, and how people on the farm are treated, both the farm workers and the farm owners. And that impacts the way they make purchases.
A percentage of consumers are willing to pay a little more if they feel that those problems that I mentioned — animal welfare, sustainability, and fairness — are addressed. I think it’s a small percentage of consumers who care, but it’s a growing percentage.
You talk about the Whole Foods shopper versus the Wal-Mart shopper. There are a lot more Wal-Mart shoppers than there are Whole Foods shoppers, but I think that there’s a growing enlightenment. The way I raise food is a niche, but I think it’s a growing niche.
You didn’t ask about problems, but I’ll say that my greatest problem or nemesis is the large multinational food companies that use words to confuse consumers and make it appear that they raise their food in the same way that I raise my food. We call that greenwashing, and it’s the greatest threat to a really sweeping movement. Every time a big food company — not by changing their procedures, but by changing the words they use to describe their procedures — makes a consumer believe that they do things the same way we do things, it devalues what I’m doing. It makes it economically very hard for me compete.
Do you have a specific example of this type of greenwashing? What should consumers look out for when they’re shopping?
WH: There are hundreds of examples that I could use, but I don’t want these guys coming after me. These are big multinational food companies that have their own legal staffs. So, I would say that consumers need to educate themselves, educate themselves, and educate themselves, so that they will be less likely to be tricked.
What gives you the most joy in this world?What gives me the most joy in this world is having stewardship over this land and these animals, and working every day with my family to improve that system — that organism.