The Dirt Underneath
Will Harris began trying to return his family farm to pre-industrial methods just because it felt like the right thing to do. Twenty years after he began this process, his White Oak Pastures has become America’s grandest experiment in the de-industrialization of agriculture.
I am standing in the middle of Pine Street in downtown Bluffton, Ga., with no worry of being run over. What little traffic there is in Bluffton moves slowly. Next to me stands a demonstrative man. He is pointing.
First, he points north, straight up Pine Street.
“OK, there is a strip of land that starts about 10 miles that way,” he begins and then turns and points southwest, “and goes about 15 miles that way. It is anywhere from a few yards wide to maybe a mile wide, probably not quite a mile. It is really good land because it's where the Appalachian Mountains went subterranean.
“Highway 27 right here, the old one, was built on the Indian trail that ran along that crest.”
He points east. “Everything on that side of the road drains to the Flint River.”
“On this side of the road, it goes to the Chattahoochee River. That's important because this soil is an uneroded mountain soil. This is uneroded because there's nowhere for it to run.”
The pointing man is a farmer named Will Harris.
He teaches me that we are standing on a strip of the same good land that drew huge numbers of native North Americans to a place called Kolomoki, about seven miles southwest of Bluffton, 1,600 years ago.
Kolomoki back then was the most populous area north of Mexico, like New York City is today.
You can still visit Kolomoki, but it’s now known as Kolomoki Indian Mounds State Park. In the early spring, it is mostly devoid of people, save a few curious tourists and the one state park ranger staffing the visitor’s center. Nothing remains of the old civilization except the ceremonial mounds, which archaeologists tell us were used in the religious practices of the Swift Creek and Weeden Island people.
Kolomoki is quieter than a church on Saturday night. It hasn’t been a hopping town in more than a millennium. But the grasses and trees around the mounds are brilliantly green, because underneath it is that good land, fertile topsoil black and rich in organic matter on a bed of the red clay that defines the American South.
In this heavily agricultural part of southwestern Georgia, much of the cropland is now freshly plowed for spring planting, shining bright red in the sun. What that color tells you is there is little to no organic matter left to serve as topsoil. This is the result of our country’s move to industrialized agricultural. After decades of being treated with chemical fertilizers, these red-clay fields with which we so strongly identify can now produce food only with the aid of chemical fertilizers.
But here we are, Will and I, right in the middle of a strip of land once so naturally rich that an entire civilization called Kolomoki rose up on it.
Can such land be redeemed? Yes, absolutely. But it takes time and great effort.
Will Harris’ 1,250-acre White Oak Pastures has been in his family since 1866, when his great-grandfather, James Everett Harris, came to Bluffton. Under the direction of James’ grandson, Will Bell Harris, the current Will’s father, it became a modern cattle farm after World War II, when traditional methods of farming began giving way to industrial methods.
Then, about 20 years ago, Will Harris turned back the clock. He slowly began to exchange the methods of large agribusiness corporations for something different. He stepped back two generations to the methods of his great-grandfather, to a way of farming that depends on the keen eyes of the cowboy traveling endlessly through the pastures, vigilant for small changes, determining when it’s time to move a herd from one pasture to another, to give the land a rest.
Today, you can pick up a handful of earth from anywhere on Harris’ 1,250 acres and not see red. Here, there is topsoil. It feels friendly in your hand. It smells so good you almost want to eat it. The grasses and legumes that spring up from it feed great herds of cattle, hogs, goats, sheep, rabbits, chickens, ducks, guineas, geese and turkeys.
White Oak Pastures has turned itself into one of the largest — if not the largest — pasture-raised livestock operation in the entire nation. It is the only pasture-raised livestock farm in the nation with its own separate slaughterhouses for hooved animals and for poultry.
In the process of making the transition back to the old ways, Will Harris accidentally became something of a celebrity among foodies. A recent story in The New York Times said, “If the Southern organic crowd were made up of teenage fan girls, he would be their Justin Bieber.”
One of Harris’ daughters had to tell him who Justin Bieber was, and when he was told, he didn’t much care. But let’s not be too hard on the Times, because it’s difficult for any journalist who visits White Oak Pastures (including this one) to resist the lure of writing about Will Harris the character instead of about Will Harris’ farm. He wears a ridiculously sweat-stained Stetson Open Road, the same model his daddy (and LBJ) always wore, except Will trains his into a narrow-in-the-front, wide-in-the-back profile. That’s his look. He travels the pastures in a pickup truck with a short-barreled rifle lying on the console. He is a born storyteller of the highest order, and his deep South Georgia accent sounds, by his own admission, “like Foghorn Leghorn.” Will Harris the character is irresistible.
But the better story, the story that actually raises big questions about the future of the South, is the one about the ecosystem Harris has built — which happens to include more than 100 people with some pretty great tales to tell.
The Stetson Open Road, trained Will Harris-style
On any given day, White Oak Pastures is home to eight acres of vegetables, an entire pasture devoted to composting, and at least 72,000 chickens being raised for meat, 9,000 egg-laying chickens, 3,000 ducks, 2,000 guineas, 2,500 geese, 1,000 sheep, 1,000 goats, 700 cows, 100 hogs, 100 rabbits and 200 turkeys (although the turkey population will swell to about 7,000 this month with the arrival of young heritage-breed poults that will be raised for slaughter during the holiday season).
More importantly, the White Oak “organism,” as Harris calls the whole shebang, includes 110 employees — a crazy quilt of South Georgia country boys who make good livings as meat cutters and young folks from all over the world bearing degrees from places like Cornell and Harvard. What’s weird is that all of them, regardless of background, talk about a common purpose: They want to work on a farm where they can experiment with their theories about how to feed the world without raping its land.
No farm in the nation so confounds our conventional wisdom: that it is impossible on a large scale to return to the methods of old, where nothing is wasted and farm animals express instinctive behavior in the environments nature designed them for. Judged against the revenue of giant agribusiness corporations, White Oak’s entire operation amounts to pocket change. And to be sure, there is no consensus among those who study the world’s food supply about how much this kind of farming can contribute to feeding a global population — now more than 7 billion people and still growing.
But White Oak Pastures’ scale has become big enough to make people take notice at a very interesting time, when a growing number of consumers are becoming concerned not only about the hormones and chemicals in the meat they eat, but also the welfare of the animals that become our food.
White Oak Pastures is, at this moment, America’s grandest experiment in the de-industrialization of agriculture. And to understand that story, you have to understand the importance of the dirt underneath.
A few members of the White Oak "organism": in the top row, Sade Greene, USDA inspector; Tony Smith, cowboy; Johnny Kriven, organic vegetable farmer; Stephanie White, butcher; Tommy Owens, biodiesel brewmaster; Chase Floyd, ground beef (aka "Red Gold") manager; Justin "Buck" Wiley, red meat plant manager, Manuel Fuentes, poultry wrangler; Jerome Broner, butcher. Second row: Jamie Lynch, organic vegetable farm intern; Mary Bruce, organic farm assistant manager, biodiesel chemist and leather craftswoman; Luis Fuentes, compost maker; Alfred Foster, bone grinder and hide salter; Tim Solomon, organic vegetable farmer; Brian Sapp, director of operations; Reid Harrison, master chef; Cedric Jones, butcher; Ryan Carnley, organic vegetable farm manager. Bottom row: Andre Ponder, butcher; Jean Turn, comptroller; Louie Schroeder, poultry plant manager; Jamie Gill, soap and candle maker; Johnny Jones, butcher and skinner; Chad Hunter - Pavilion Restaurant front-of-the-house coordinator; Lori Moshman, entomologist, nursery manager and black soldier fly breeder; Frankie Darsey, pastured poultry production manager; Helio Torres, poultry brooder.
Will Harris stands knee-deep in the greenness of one of his pastures, telling me how his father, Will Bell Harris, moved the farm into the industrial age.
“Daddy took over the farm after World War II, in 1946,” he says. “He said they had a farmer meeting in Bluffton. salesman from the ammonium-nitrate company held a fish fry at the peanut mill. They invited all the farmers. My daddy went.”
As corporate America began converting the nation’s new manufacturing capacity to peacetime uses after the war, ammonium nitrate became cheap and abundant.
“The salesman had 100-pound bags of ammonium nitrate, and they’d dip five or 10 pounds into a brown paper bag and give a bag to every farmer. He said, ‘When you get home, take it out there in your yard or your pasture and just make a pile, a straight line or a circle, write your name or whatever you want to do. Put some water on it and don't look at it for three days.”
Will Bell Harris did just that.
“Daddy came back three days later, and the grass was like this high,” Harris says, holding a hand at about waist level of his six-foot, 60-year-old frame. “It was black green instead of pale green and Daddy said, ‘Shit! I want the whole farm to look like that.’ And so he did. Every year from 1946 until about 2003, the time I quit using it, we put ammonium nitrate on every acre every year.”
Every year, they used 200 to 400 pounds of nitrogen fertilizers per acre.
Harris’ father continued into the modern age of industrial agriculture, introducing the use of so-called “subtherapeutic antibiotics” and hormone implants. He began feeding the cattle cheap and abundant corn, even though cattle are not designed by nature to eat it. But corn made for tasty, fattier meat at the dawn of fast-food restaurants, which demanded megatons of cheap ground beef.
When Will Harris graduated from the University of Georgia’s College of Agriculture in 1976, his father told him he had to work elsewhere before he could return to the farm. He took a job with Gold Kist, which was gobbled up by Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. in 2007, one of the world’s largest meat producers. He rose to become a regional manager in Gold Kist’s Agriservices Division, overseeing the operations of the company’s cotton gins, peanut-buying points, fertilizer-blending facilities and grain elevators in parts of Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
Will continued to work on the family farm, some days putting in eight hours at his job and then another eight on the farm. In 1995, Will Bell Harris’ declining health pushed the farm’s leadership role to his son. And in the beginning, Will held firmly to the industrial model of his father.
“There were a lot of excesses in that production system, and it's kind of interesting: Those excesses were things I really enjoyed,” he says. He remembers the way he used to view the advent of new “treatments” designed to make his cattle grow faster.
“Man, they've got some new shit that you can give cows, that you can inject your cows with? Bring it on! They say give them 2 cc's every 100 days, that's what the label says. But you can really give them 3 cc's every 50 days. And my calves weighed 20 pounds more at weaning per calf. On 700 and something calves at a dollar and something a pound, that’s great. And then they've got some other stuff they're coming out with, and you ain’t supposed to give it straight into the brain, but …”
“I loved excesses.”
But as the end of 1995 rolled around, he found himself feeling differently.
“I started getting a little bit disgusted about it,” he says. “Probably, if I had played by the rules, I wouldn't have gotten disgusted by it.”
Harris with orphaned kids, who are fed by farm workers until they're old enough to fend for themselves in the pastures.
Will Harris is not a church-going man, but that was the beginning of a long, slow conversion experience. He knew he had to orient his farm in a different direction, although he did not fully understand what to do to make it happen.
“It was a long way from being something I could articulate,” he says. “The first thing we did was give up hormonal implants, subtherapeutic antibiotics and feeding them corn. I gave it up and liked it, and I was thinking, this is good, I like this better.”
I ask if it caused the farm to lose money.
“It caused me to make less money,” he answers. “Less was OK. But we were still making money.”
Then, in 2003, he took a much bigger leap: He stopped putting chemical fertilizers on White Oak’s pastures.
“Giving up chemical fertilizers caused me to start losing money,” he says. “Chemical fertilizers are good stuff, and it takes a long time to get off them.”
More than once as we roam the pastures of White Oak, Harris makes it clear he believes chemical fertilizers are to a farmer as heroin is to a junkie.
“When I first gave up chemical fertilizers, my pastures looked like shit.”
But he persisted, and two or three years later, the farm’s bottom line turned black again. So did the soil in his pastures. The percentage of organic matter in his farm’s soil today, Harris says, is about 10 times higher than the soil of nearby conventional farms. Two years after that, he introduced sheep, heeding what farmers have known for centuries: that raising different species on a single farm benefits both the land and the animals.
He later began reading the books of Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer who is also one of the South’s most prolific writers. Berry, now 80 years old, has published 28 books of poetry and 15 works of fiction, but people in the food world are most familiar with Berry’s non-fiction. He writes passionately, frequently and authoritatively about farming, especially in his 1977 book “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.” “Unsettling” is a polemic about the unintended consequences of industrial agriculture, in which Berry essentially argues that the health of people and the health of the land are inseparable — and that industrial ag practices constitute a fundamental threat to the natural symbiosis between people and land.
“I conceive a strip-miner to be a model exploiter, and as a model nurturer I take the old-fashioned idea or ideal of a farmer. The exploiter is a specialist, an expert; the nurturer is not. The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter’s is money, profit; the nurturer's goal is health — his land's health, his own, his family's, his community's, his country's. Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity?”
With the farm changing around him as a result of his earlier decisions, larger questions began gnawing at Harris. He had rid the farm of all the artificial inputs he could control. His animals roamed the pastures freely, foraging instinctively, as nature designed them. But there was one aspect of his herds’ welfare he could not control: the way in which they were slaughtered.
Will Harris could no longer stomach the idea of loading calves he had raised onto double-decker trucks, in which they’d travel hundreds of miles way, with neither food, water nor rest, to slaughterhouses run by one of the four big agribusiness companies — Tyson, Cargill, JBS and National Beef — which process 80 percent of America’s beef.
“When I majored in animal science at the University of Georgia from '73 to '76, good animal welfare meant you don't intentionally inflict pain and discomfort on the animal,” he says. “That’s like saying good parenting means locking your children in a closet at 72 degrees and leaving the light on.”
So he did something crazy, something no conventional cattle farmer would do these days. He hired the renowned animal-welfare expert Temple Grandin to design a slaughterhouse to be built on his own farm. Then he borrowed $7.5 million against his family’s land and built it. It went into operation in 2008. Today, no animal at White Oak Pastures ever sets foot on concrete until a few seconds before its slaughter.
“When I went and borrowed all that money, we were hemorrhaging money for about four or five years, but I was never 30 minutes late paying anybody. We finally caught traction and it started making a little more, then a little more. Now it’s not a really profitable business, but it's a good enough business.”
In 2010, Harris introduced chickens to the farm and added a second slaughterhouse for poultry. Since then, he’s added seven more species to the farm: hogs, goats, rabbits, chickens, ducks, guineas, geese and turkeys. Today, White Oak Pastures is a paragon of biodiversity. Its gardens turn out a wide variety of organic vegetables, its beehives produce wildflower honey, and logs sprout fresh mushrooms. All its animals, with the lone exception of breeding rabbits (a fact that still annoys the heck out of Harris), roam its pastures freely.
Harris’ slow journey on the Road to Damascus, by now almost 20 years in the making, may have been a spiritual awakening, but it did not turn him into a religious man. As he often notes when talking about the history of the Harris family, “We are profane people. We were pretty rough compared to our neighbors — irreverent, profane, talk too loud, drink too much, cheat to win.”
But Harris has become more watchful, more deeply conscious of the consequences of his actions, and perhaps even a little prayerful. In the Pavilion restaurant at White Oak Pastures, where a chef prepares meals, which are about as “farm-to-table” as you could possibly get, for visitors and employees every day, an unusual prayer is painted above the window into the kitchen:
“We pray for plenty of good hard work to do, and the strength to do it.” It’s a prayer he remembers from childhood.
“I get that prayer,” he says. “Most of the exposure I’ve had to different faiths, I don’t get most of it. But I think if you are given plenty of good, hard work to do and you’re given the strength to do it, everything else is pretty much OK.”
That night, over a supper of chicken quesadillas with Will and his wife Von, he says the same little prayer. Then, to maintain a proper balance of the sacred and the profane, he pours us glasses of Pappy Van Winkle, the world’s most coveted bourbon.
“Julian (Van Winkle) is a friend of mine,” Will says. Stardom in the food world evidently does have its privileges.
One of the first people I meet at White Oak Pastures is Jean Turn, the farm’s financial controller. In our first brief chat, she says something I will hear repeatedly in later conversations with White Oak folks: that she thinks of the entire farm — the pastures, the gardens, the animals and the people — as a single organism.
I figured I’d hear that kind of talk from Harris himself, but I didn’t expect it from an accountant.
But Turn is right. To witness the 110 people of White Oak Pastures do their daily work is to see them function as a single unit with a singular goal: that nothing goes to waste, that nothing is ever, to use Wendell Berry’s words, “used up.”
Lori Moshman, 24, splits her time between sprouting the plants that will later mature in the farm’s eight-acre (and growing) vegetable operation and making sure, in her way, that nothing is wasted. She grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., earned a degree in entomology at Cornell University, and then moved to Bluffton to work at White Oak.
“I told my mom that I wanted to work on a farm after I graduated, and that kind of started a long series of very painful conversations with her,” Moshman says. “It's just something that for my parents, who both grew up in New York and have never lived anywhere other than New York, it's just something that they can't imagine at all and didn't understand. Their impression of farming is I'm going to shovel shit all day. It took awhile to convince them that it's really a lot more than that. They've since come around quite a bit.”
Her parents now visit the farm twice a year, she says, and they’re impressed.
They should be. When Moshman came South at age 21, she started as an apprentice in White Oak’s gardens.
“Since then,” she says, “I have become greenhouse manager and black soldier fly manager.”
If you’re wondering why a farm needs a manager of black soldier flies, you have to understand that these little insects, which look like all-black fireflies and are abundant in South Georgia, produce larvae that are among nature’s most efficient recyclers. They eat meat waste and turn it into food that chickens absolutely love.
Two old silos, which stored corn for the cattle before Harris went old-school on everyone, have been turned into breeding chambers for thousands of black soldier flies. Moshman runs this operation with a dude from Spain named Alfredo Llecha, who has long, wispy, salt-and-pepper hair and looks more than a little like Geddy Lee, the bass player from Rush. Moshman and Llecha harvest the larvae of the black soldier flies in the chambers.
“We have two goals for the larvae,” Moshman explains. “One is to eat up all of the organic waste that comes out of our two slaughterhouses on the farm so that it reduces the amount of waste handling that we have to do, and then to produce a protein- and fat-rich feed source that can be used to supplement (the diet of) our pastured poultry.”
The whole process is natural genius. Large sheets of burlap are laid on the ground and covered in meat waste from the slaughterhouses. The burlap is then folded over on itself and then rolled into what the White Oak folks jokingly call “burritos.” Each burrito is then laid on a squirming mass of a few thousand black soldier fly larvae.
The result is food for the chickens of White Oak Pastures.
The larvae of black soldier flies are among nature's best recyclers.
“It's not on a farmwide scale yet,” Moshman says. “We're still pretty small, but we've made some really great advancements since the time I've been here. Right now we've pretty much figured out the system that we're going to use, so it's just a matter of scaling up and getting the labor to do that.”
The large-scale compost heaps at White Oak are called “lasagnas.” They are giant alternating layers of meat waste, peanut shells and other carbonaceous material, distributed evenly across one large pasture. Each lasagna matures for two years, and the resulting compost is spread on the other pastures.
The chicken feed that Moshman and Llecha produce from the wastes of the red-meat slaughterhouse is consumed by flocks that are under the care of a Savannah native named Frankie Darsey.
“I have this memory of my dad with baby cardinals in his shirt in Savannah, and we wanted to touch them, and he wouldn't let us touch them,” Darsey, 42, tells me one day out behind the poultry slaughterhouse. “He was like, ‘Well, I'm going to put them back and hopefully they'll live because we haven't touched them.’ I didn't know what that meant, but I think what that instilled in me is that everything has the right to live, and what we think is best for an animal might not be the best thing for an animal so we have to think like an animal, and I'm glad I kept that memory.”
To talk so deeply about caring for chickens directly behind a building in which they are slaughtered seems a bit ironic, but only if you look at it through the lens of industrial agriculture. Almost all the chickens we eat these days are raised in closed “broiler houses.” A typical broiler house of the current design is about 36,000 square feet, and it will house 36,000 chickens — only about a square foot per animal. They live brief six-week lives to reach a slaughter weight of about five pounds, growing that fast only through the aid of chemicals. A 2009 report from the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service said the “typical” flock of 25,000 chickens in Georgia broiler houses has a 3 percent mortality rate. Many of the remaining chickens suffer from blindness caused by ammonia fumes rising from all the feces that piles up during the growing cycle.
The website fusion.net, a joint venture of Univision and the Disney/ABC Television Network, sent shockwaves through the broiler industry with its recent six-part documentary, “Cock Fight,” which not only gave the public a rare look at conditions inside broiler houses but also documented that “71 percent of U.S. farmers who only grow chickens live at or below the poverty line.”
By contrast, here is what the lifecycle of a White Oak Pastures chicken looks like:
The first thing to note is that the cycle lasts 12 instead of six weeks. That’s how long it takes a chicken to mature to slaughter weight without artificial assistance.
It starts with one-day-old Freedom Ranger chickens. Darsey tells me the Freedom Ranger is only about four hybrid steps away from a heritage-breed, or purebred, chicken. The chickens that populate most conventional chicken farms are about 36 hybrid steps up from heritage breeds, he says.
The chickens spend the first two to four weeks of their lives, depending on the weather, in a brood house, until they are old enough for the outdoors. Then they are loaded by hand into plastic laundry baskets and from there placed by hand into an open trailer filled with peanut shells. The trailer is hitched to a tractor and pulled out into one of the pastures. Out on the pastures are movable coops; they’re hauled to a new patches of ground after the chickens pick each one clean. The chickens get gently herded into a newly cleaned coop, filled with food and water. They spend only one night confined to the well-ventilated coop, “long enough for the homing mechanism to kick in,” Harris says.
From there on out, the chickens spend the eight to 10 remaining weeks wandering all over the pastures by day and returning to their coops by night, not by force but by instinct.
“For us,” Harris says, “good animal welfare means they can express instinctive behavior.”
At slaughter time, the chickens are gathered into coops and brought a few at a time to the poultry slaughterhouse. The animals are hung two or three at a time by their feet on a metal apparatus, and a slaughterhouse worker touches the neck of each one with an electrified knife that stuns the bird senseless. You can see its muscles relax and its feathers go limp. Immediately, the knife is drawn swiftly across their throats. They bleed out into a system that captures the blood from both slaughterhouses and recycles it for other purposes around the farm.
Watching an abattoir at work is not for the faint of heart, but the butchers of White Oak work with great care, not only in how swiftly they dispatch the animals but also in the steps they take to ensure the cleanliness of the meat they deliver to supermarkets from Pennsylvania all the way down to Florida.
If your diet is dictated in any way by concerns about animal welfare, it doesn’t get much better than this. The chickens spend most of their time in the sunshine, pecking around the farm, until it’s time for them to become your dinner. And when that time comes, they never know what hit them.
Mary Bruce, 25, brought her chemistry degree all the way to Georgia from the suburbs of Detroit to go to work at White Oak Pastures.
“I was a vegetarian until I came to this place,” she tells me one day as we watch the soldier-fly larvae do their work. She’s seen vegetarians visit the farm who wind up eating meat before they leave. “They’re like, ‘We still don't eat a lot of meat but we’ll have it from you because we know you're doing the most respectful thing to the animal.’ Where else do you find someone who actually respects the death of the animal? And then what happens afterwards … it's profound.”
She starts talking about how cowhides become rugs or wallets sold in the farm store. “And then the beef fat makes terrible compost, so we started making soaps, chapsticks, candles.”
The fat, by the way, is also turned into biodiesel to help power the farm’s vehicles.
“It’s just a big loop where nothing gets wasted,” she says. Mary points at Will, who is standing nearby, and says, “ just think about how hard he works to just make sure that every piece of that animal has a use.”
Jose "Nacho" Benitez, butcher and skinner, on the killing floor
Will Harris treated Jenni Harris, who is now 28 years old and White Oak’s director of marketing, the same way his father treated him. He told both Jenni and her younger sister Jodi Harris Benoit, who today is manager of farm events, that they had to work elsewhere for at least a year before he would let them come back.
“It was a great rule,” Jenni tells me in a conference room in the headquarters office of White Oak Pastures. “He said, ‘It is my intention to create an opportunity for you but not an obligation. If you work here it will be because you chose it, not because I pressured you into it. It won't be your only option, it will be an option.’”
So Jenni, after finishing her marketing degree at Valdosta State University, moved 228 miles north to Atlanta.
“I knew I wanted to work with White Oak Pastures,” she says. “I didn't know at what capacity and I also didn't know what strengths I had and what I could bring to the farm, where I would be most valuable.”
So she took at job at Buckhead Beef, a food purveyor to restaurants in Atlanta and customer of White Oak Pastures, and set about learning exactly what was required to bring the meat of her family farm to chef’s tables in the big cities of the South.
“Everybody can make money based on the value that they bring,” she says. “We are farmers. Our value is producing it and selling it. Chefs transform raw stuff to cooked stuff and present it to the consumer, who eats it and enjoys it. That’s the chef’s value. What value does the distributor bring? It’s in always having product, keeping it cold, covered and sealed and delivering it on time. That’s a really hard thing to do with consistency.”
She loved the work. She learned a lot.
“Then 365 days from the day that I took the job, my ass was back home,” she says. “I am not an Atlanta person. I enjoyed it for its conveniences, but I have never felt more lost in my life. Who would have ever thought that the little girl that grew up with 16 people in her graduating class, that always wanted to do something different and express a part of her that was not able to be expressed the first 23 years of her life, would move to Atlanta and still feel lost as shit?”
When Jenni talks about the “part of her that was not able to be expressed,” she is referring to the fact that she is a lesbian. Growing up that way is not easy in a place such as Clay County, Ga.
“I had a hard time watching things falling into place for everybody else and things being so wrong for me,” she says. By going to Atlanta she wanted to figure that out. But she could not resist the call of the farm.
“I was ready to be back,” she says. “I had told my dad, ‘I’m coming. You can find something for me to do. It might be working on the kill floor, it might be mopping floors, I don’t give a shit. I’m coming home.’ I got home and my dad said, ‘You’ve got a marketing degree, Would you like to be the marketing manager?’”
By the time she got home three years ago, White Oak was already successful selling its grass-fed beef and pasture-raised chickens wholesale to supermarket chains such as Whole Foods and Publix. So Jenni set to work on expanding two other markets, both of have higher profit margins than the wholesale biz: selling to chefs and directly to consumers over the Web. Going to market that way makes a lot of sense for an operation the size of White Oak.
“When you talk about keeping stuff in stock and always available and keeping it consistent, those are two of the big complaints that people have when working with local farmers,” Jenni says. White Oak is now big enough to deliver a steady stream of whole chickens, eggs and ground beef to supermarkets, but the same is not true for the other outputs of the farm. The farm is now very large and its red-meat slaughterhouse runs at full capacity five days a week, but that’s only 35 animals a day, maximum. Thus, you will not always be able to find a White Oak-grown ribeye steak every time you walk into a Whole Foods.
So Jenni is doing what smart marketers do, turning her company’s disadvantages into advantages.
“What separates us from the commodity market is that it is inconsistent,” she says. “That makes it beautiful — because it’s not always available.” What she’s doing, really, is making White Oak’s marketing strategy a reflection of the seasonal nature of the farm itself.
The natural seasonality and variation in weight of the farm’s products do not matter to shoppers who order from whiteoakpastures.com. They are able to buy whatever is available, when it is available, thus making them ideal retail customers. Jenni’s other ideal customer is a chef — but only a certain kind of chef.
“One of the first questions I ask a chef who wants to work with White Oak Pastures is, ‘Do you celebrate inconsistency?’ And if they say, ‘Not really,' then I go ahead and say, ‘We might not be for you. If you order a case of lip-on ribeyes, they’re not all going to weigh eight pounds. That’s our spec, but they’re not all going to weigh exactly eight. And they’re not all going to look alike. Is that OK with you?' If they say, ‘Yes, that’s great. I’m a chef and I’m trained and I can handle the curveball you throw,’ that’s who we want to work with.”
Pregnant nanny goats that have twins or triplets sometimes abandon the weaker ones. Here, Jenni Harris fills the orphans' nipple buckets with fresh goat milk.
Jenni might not have been comfortable during her year in Atlanta, but these days, she probably has more relationships with more of the South’s great chefs than even the most ravenous foodies. She will not speak publicly about which Southern chefs are her favorites, but she will allow that she has frequent e-mail exchanges with one of her favorites along these lines:
“Hey I’ve got a lot of lamb testicles this week. You want to try ’em?”
“Absolutely. Send me 20 pounds.”
During her first year back at White Oak, Jenni wrestled with another problem, one unrelated to the marketing puzzles she was solving. While living in Atlanta, she had fallen for a woman named Amber Reece. She wanted to get Reece to move from Atlanta to the farm, but before that could happen, she had to come out to her parents.
She nearly worried herself to death before she told her mother, Von.
“Talk about being stressed, the night I told her, I broke down in tears,” Jenni says. “She was convinced I was dying of cancer by the time I finally got it out of my mouth. At that point, she had knelt down beside me and was like, ‘Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it. Are you in trouble? Are you sick?’ She was just freaking out, frantic. And I was like, ‘No, I’m not any of those things. I’m gay.’ She was like, ‘OK, that’s fine. You want some macaroni?’”
Her father’s reaction was not much different, she says: “OK. Want to go out and ride around the pasture?”
He did, however, give her advice that she took.
“He was fiercely proud of me,” she says. “It did not make a difference to him, but he wanted to make sure that I was absolutely sure that this was what I wanted because there were consequences of it. He wanted to be certain that, if it was what I truly wanted, I was going to handle the negative comments. That was straight fatherly advice, but I was sure. I was 100 percent sure at that point. I mean, I was 25. I had found the person that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I told him that and he said, ‘That’s good. If you want me to, I’ll run an ad in the Early County News and we’ll tell every motherfucker around. And if they’ve got any questions or comments we’ll put my cell phone in the ad.’ He’s had my back since day one.”
She remained worried about her coworkers at White Oak.
“I was stressed out about moving Amber here,” she says. “It’s Southern culture to the core.”
I ask how this has worked out.
“They fucking like Amber better than they do me,” Jenni says, smiling. “I mean everybody. I have had not one single negative thing said about me or my relationship. Not only do they not say negative things about it; they say positive things. They look forward to us being at places. It’s a different story. Amber and I get invited to baby showers by folks in town, the people that are the front-row Baptist sitters. They see me in a good relationship in which I’m a better person. Why should they not accept it?”
Today, Amber Reece and Jenni Harris live in the 150-year-old house in which Will was raised. Amber runs the farm’s egg sales and soap making, as well as a new operation that turns otherwise unused animal hides into chew-toys for pets. Amber grew up in North Georgia, in the county just southwest of where I grew up, and her last name shares the odd Reece-with-a-C spelling. She’s probably my distant cousin.
If so, I am glad to know a member of my family has found a happy existence in an unlikely place.
As it gets dark one night, Will Harris and I head south toward Blakely for some barbecue.
He tells me this: “If you had told this 60-year-old cowboy that I would have a gay daughter, that I would just be crazy about her partner — and just hoping somebody will say something about her being gay....” He is, after all, a cattleman, and all the best cattlemen have ornery streaks.
“I've been waiting this whole time for somebody to say something about her being gay. I've got 110 employees,” he says. “But them cowboys and butchers just love my daughter.”
I ask if his politics have changed over the years.
“Good question. I used to be an ultra-conservative hawk, and now they piss me off,” he says. “Democrats do, too, but the Republicans piss me off worse. They all piss me off.”
On this point, we agree, and speak no more about politics. Will turns his attention to the pastures at roadside. He’d rather point out which flocks of the chickens, geese and ducks we’re passing are egg layers and which are “meat birds.”
Regardless of politics, American agriculture sits at an interesting juncture. Poll after poll shows growing concern about food safety. A Gallup survey last August showed that 45 percent of Americans actively try to include organic foods in their diets. A majority of people under age 30 — 53 percent — do so, the poll said.
Big Ag has noticed. Just last week, the giant Tyson Foods announced it was “striving to eliminate” by 2017 the use in its chickens of antibiotics that were developed for humans.
But there remains a huge gap between the capacity of a farm like White Oak Pastures, which operates with the cycles of nature, and the huge feedlot systems of the large beef producers. White Oak Pastures can slaughter 35 cows a day. Big Ag can slaughter 100,000.
A visit to White Oak Pastures raises heavy questions about a basic subject: what we eat and how we get it. Can operations such as White Oak Pastures be scaled larger? How can they be replicated by others? And if so, can this style of farming really feed the world? We know American agriculture will respond to consumer concerns. But what will it wind up looking like? Will it look like the de-industrialized operation of White Oak? Or will consumers settle for a slow dialing back, such as the one Tyson’s recent action represents?
These are bigger questions than Will Harris can answer, and he knows it. He is already limited by the amount of land under his control. To meet existing demand, local farmers follow Harris’ pasturing and feeding protocols on another 1,250 acres of land, producing certified grass-fed beef for slaughter in White Oak’s abattoir. But these farmers don’t yet find it economically feasible to give up their chemical fertilizers. Which means the only beef White Oak can certify as both grass-fed and organic is the beef raised on its own 1,250 acres.
Harris is also limited by the fact that the organism he’s built at White Oak has begun to need resources that aren’t in place in Bluffton. One of industrial agriculture’s aftereffects was the decline of small businesses in rural towns. Berry wrote more than 25 years ago, “The proprietors of small businesses give up or die and are not replaced. As the farm trade declines, farm equipment franchises are revoked. The remaining farmers must drive longer and longer distances for machines and parts and repairs.”
Bluffton’s population these days hovers around 100, and it feels like a ghost town, apart from the houses that are occupied and maintained by White Oak employees and a few others, and the old Bluffton Methodist Church. When the congregation dwindled to nothing, White Oak bought the building and began using it for large meetings and to house the offices of a few folks who work in the corporate operations.
“When I was a kid, we could get a baseball game of little boys any time,” he says to me one day in Bluffton. “Shit, you couldn't get a baseball game now. You couldn't get a few kids to have a baseball game to save your life.”
Harris hopes he can change that. He has applied to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to participate in a low-interest loan program dedicated to providing housing for farm workers. When his application goes through, he says, he’ll borrow the money to fill land he already owns all over downtown Bluffton with small houses for the farm workers.
He takes me over to an old building and removes a padlock from its door.
“This was Mr. Herman Bass’ store,” he says. A sharp local carpenter, Hud Gay, is already hard at work rehabbing the place, shoring up its structure and reclaiming its wide heart-pine floorboards. When it’s finished, Harris intends to move the farm-store operation, now part of the same complex of buildings that includes the slaughterhouses, to downtown Bluffton.
Will Harris and his constant companion, Bud, on Pine Street in Bluffton.
A farm is a living, breathing organism, Harris has learned. And nature now demands a few houses and a store if the community is to thrive. Harris says he’s content these days with being the “Andy Griffith sheriff” of this community. He rides the pastures, letting his cowboys know if a fence needs mending or if a cow’s brisket looks finished enough for slaughter. He rides up to Bluffton and checks in on Hud’s progress with Old Man Bass’ store.
“This is not a rich man's philanthropic effort,” he says. “We got a nice little business and it's profitable, but it's not wildly profitable. I'm not a great fan of money. Money's like blood in your veins. I need enough to pump through my veins. What would I want with an extra gallon of blood? I need enough money to pay my bills. I don't want a certificate of deposit.”
After we’re full of barbecue, Will drives me back up to the farm store, where I can pick up my car and head off to sleep at an old house on the edge of the farm’s pond. Harris had Hud renovate the place, and he added a few new cabins, so now his daughter Jodi runs an increasingly successful agritourism business. You can spend the weekend at White Oak, get a tour of the farm, wake up in the morning and wander out of a grove of trees into a pasture where you might be greeted by 1,000 nanny goats and their kids, whose playful behavior clearly demonstrates why we call human children by the same name.
We’re sitting in the parking lot. It’s about 10 p.m., and all is quiet. The stars are big and bright, just like in that song about Texas. I ask Will what his friends in the wider cattle industry — folks outside the “the Southern organic crowd” — think about what he’s done.
“I still got relationships with the good old boys,” he says. “They don't like me much, but they gotta tolerate me. And when I have conversations with them, the first thing they want to throw up is, ‘You can't feed the world like that. You know, we have this efficiency thing down, we can feed the world, and you can’t feed the world farming like you are.’
“And when they say that, I kinda gotta smile, but my response is always something like, ‘Well, I tell you what, I might have that discussion with you, but before we have that discussion, we gotta both stipulate that the Earth has a limited carrying capacity.'
“And they don't want to, but most of the time, almost every time, they'll say, ‘OK, all right all right, we'll say that.’ I’ll say, ‘OK, good. Thank you for that stipulation. I will go ahead right now, up front, and concede to you that if the acreage that we have to farm is the limiting factor, you win. You can produce more food per acre of land than I can farming the way you farm. If that's what we're talking about, you win.
“‘But if we're talking about the limiting factor for feeding the world being petroleum fuel, I win, because I don't use as much as you do. If we're talking about it being global warming and greenhouse gases, I win. I don't produce as much of that as you do. If we're talking about antibiotic-resistance pathogens, I win. I don't do that like you. I can go on like this for a long, long time, and the only scenario in which, in the long view, your system's better than mine, is efficiency and productivity per acre of land.’”
The next afternoon, I stopped by the farm store and loaded up a cooler full of meat and a bag of dry ice for the three-hour drive home. I planned to feed our little two-person family with meat that I knew — because I’d seen the process with my own eyes — had been raised right. It was not one bit different from the country hams and pork chops I grew up on that came from my oldest uncle, Efford, who entered this world in 1898 and thus knew a thing or two about pre-industrial agriculture.
A young man named Louie Schroeder helped me get everything to the car. Schroeder is an Asian-American native of the suburban South. He grew up in Alpharetta, one of Atlanta’s more affluent northern suburbs. He went to school at Valdosta State University, where he met John Benoit, who would later marry Jodi Harris. That’s how he wound up after college with a job at White Oak, not knowing if he’d stay long. That was three years ago. Such stories are common at White Oak.
Schroeder has risen to run the poultry abattoir. Without Louie and his team, there is no steady supply of pasture-raised, organic chicken. Not to mention the ducks, geese, guineas and the 7,000 heritage-breed turkeys that will have them working 12 hours a day, seven days a week come the holiday season.
I ask him if he likes working here. We wind up talking for about 15 minutes in the South Georgia sunshine, which has the slightest touch of summertime’s-a-coming heat. He tells me he’s not sure he’d want to do anything else now, how he’s come to love the cycle of a day on the farm, how he’s come to welcome a day with plenty of good, hard work to do.
“Man,” he tells me as he slams my hatchback shut, “I haven’t just made a living here. I’ve learned how to live.”