Animals, Land and People: An Interview with Will Harris

This interview appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal.

Will runs the largest USDA-certified organic farm in Georgia, farming 1,200 owned acres and 2,000 leased. He has over 2,000 head of cattle, raises 60,000 pastured chickens, and also raises eight other species of animals, most of which roam around in a model of farming based on the way animals graze on the Serengeti plains. He has built two abattoirs on site—one for red meat, one for poultry. He has an organic vegetable CSA and an heirloom orchard. His farm closes the loop on sustainability through rotational grazing, solar power, and the recycling of all of his various “wastes” from his animal operations. All of the wash water, bones, and other animal “wastes” end up back on the land, building the soil over time.

Q. As you look at the situation in farming today, what jumps out at you?

A.Today’s farmer is facing a transformation. But it is not only the farmer. Equally important is a transformation of the appetite of the American consumer. The complexity of this transition is great. And there’s also an investment side of this transition—how do we finance kinder, gentler, regenerative agriculture. We still live in a world that is full of big box stores and fast food places. This transition isn’t going to happen immediately and it shouldn’t. It is going to take time. You’ve got to remember that the big changes to food and farming— commodification, centralization, industrialization—started after WWII 70 years ago. It could take another 70 years for the pendulum to swing back to some semblance of it was.

Q. Saying it’s going to swing back towards what it once was raises all kinds of questions.

A. I don’t mean returning to my great grandfather’s agriculture. But the ag we have today is completely built on maximizing consistency and efficiency. Very little emphasis is placed on animal welfare, the environmental sustainability of the program, or the economic impoverishment of rural America. What this has done has made food obscenely cheap and the cost has been borne on the backs of farm animals, the environment, and rural America. When I say it will swing back to where it was I mean … hey, technology is fantastic, I’m sitting in a pasture in my new Jeep, talking to you a cell phone with a laptop open on the seat beside me … but I’m talking about rediscovering fundamental respect for the animals, the land and the people who are producing the food.

Q. What’s the relationship between this kind of respect and the quality of food?

A. There was a time when farmers put everything they could into making their milling wheat or corn for cornmeal for their pigs or their chickens the best possible quality. They didn’t do so for altruistic reasons or vanity. They did so because when they went to sell, they wanted to get a higher price for their produce, based on quality. After WWII, the USDA set minimum standards for milling wheat and feed steers and Number One hogs and Number Two corn. When we set minimum standards, we de-incentivized adding quality. It became about producing as cheaply as possible and still meeting those minimum standards, with the Chicago Board of Trade deciding how much you were going to get.

Today the Tysons and Cargills and Smithfields and other large multinational corporations of their ilk have moved so far down this model of efficiency that I don’t believe they can ever move back. They are so committed to uber-high-volume, uber-efficient production operating purely on a cost basis that they will never be able to move away from that. But it’s not just the big guys. Small producers at the other end of things face a different set of challenges as they strive to return to a higher quality system of production.

Q. Sounds like you are heading towards the ag-in-the-middle story here.

A. I am. What we are doing at White Oak Pastures is one example. We built our own processing capacity, investing $7.5 million to do it, so that we can achieve and maintain the quality we want in our product.

Q. To the small guys, you are big and to the big guys, you are small. Can you say more about how your particular scale allows you to produce a high-quality product?

A. There are some animals, in the case of beef, that just aren’t going to make good steaks. You did all the right things, you cared for them properly, you had the right genetics, but they just did not turn out as a good steak animal. If you are focused on quality, you will inform your meat cutters that when you get an animal that is of inferior quality, let me know and we’ll decide what to do. For instance, we may make ground beef. In that case, I may lose $400 on that animal. But I protect my overall quality. You can only do that if you have complete control of the processing.

Q. Isn’t this the question of appropriate scale? The idea that there is an optimal scale at which quality, market share, and impact can all come together?

A. Scale is everything. I don’t mean the bigger, the better. It has got to be scaled properly. When it’s right, scale is the balance that comes from a three-legged stool: production, processing, marketing. In this balance, it can’t be the best two out of three, or the stool will topple over.

I couldn’t have built the processing we need for any less than we spent. Our $7.5 million investment worked for us. We’re profitable, but it’s not a get-rich deal. It’s a good family business, good enough to bring two daughters and spouses back into it. But I didn’t figure out that scale in the abstract. I didn’t say at the outset, ‘$28 million in sales and 123 employees is our ideal scale.’ I kind of blundered towards it. I made a lot of mistakes along the way and there were many times that I thought, ‘I’ve got this,’ that I really didn’t. But we did arrive at a scale that is working.

Q. As your operation has grown, you’ve added species, added diversity. Yet it is usually the case that the bigger farms get, the more commodified they get.

A. It used to be that farms were organisms. The farms of my great grandfather’s era had grain, cattle, chickens, lots of different species living in symbiotic relationships. Nature abhors a monoculture. Nature always gravitates to many different species of plants, animals and microbes living in symbiosis. You don’t have a forest with nothing but rabbits or a forest with nothing but deer in it. There’s always a smorgasbord. Henry Ford taught us the factory model. The efficient way to build cars was to build a factory. It works beautifully for cars or anything else that is complication. A watch is complicated. A cow is complex. A factory is complicated. A farm is complex.

Reductionist science works for complicated systems. You can isolate the variables. But when it comes to nature, to complexity, reductionist thinking doesn’t work.

White Oak Pastures

Q. How did you make the transition from the post-WWII model of commodification, centralization, and industrialization to a model that puts respect for animals, land, and people first?

A. After WWII, we applied the industrial model to farms. Just like you make cars at the car factory and shirts at the shirt factory, we started making pigs at the pig factory and chickens at the chicken factory. We started using industrial tools: pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones.

The industrial system of farming was wildly successful in achieving what it set out to accomplish—in making food cheap, abundant, and consistent. But it had unintended consequences. My family has seen these up close.

My father went to a meeting in Bluffton in 1946. A young man was a salesman for a fertilizer company. Chemical fertilizer wasn’t being used much at that point. The fertilizer company was a repurposed munitions manufacturer that was making ammonium nitrate fertilizer. This kind of fertilizer didn’t become cheap and abundant until after WWII, when all those munitions plants were repurposed. This young fertilizer salesman had two 100-pound bags of ammonium nitrate and he gave every farmer 5-10 pounds in a brown paper bag with the request to spread it out on a pasture, water it, and check it in three days. The effect was like steroids in a weight room. When my dad and the other farmers checked the results, there was no comparison: ‘Shit, I want my whole farm to look like that!’

So, we put ammonium nitrate on every acre we owned twice a year. But what my dad didn’t know, what no one knew at that time, is that ammonium nitrate was killing microbes in the soil and oxidizing the organic matter that it had taken millennia to create. For the next 50 years, we kept applying ammonium nitrate all over our land twice a year.

In the ’70s, I went to the University of Georgia. I majored in agriculture. No one ever mentioned to me that fertilizer kills microbes and oxidizes organic matter. No one. By the mid ’90s, I was starting to read things that introduced me to new ideas. And then I started noticing at the edge of the woods where the truck doesn’t get, and so we hadn’t applied fertilizers and pesticides there, the land had more tilth and was teeming with life that you could see and even more that you could sense, and that made me realize that if we’d never used the ammonium nitrate and pesticides, all my land would have this much life.

Q. There’s a lot to admire in that story of observation and learning.

A. I’m still observing and learning. I’m new to the goat and hog business and I’m just learning these herdmanships. Hogs are really forest creatures. Sheep and cattle are pasture creatures. I had some goats that had been on pasture but I put them in the woods with the hogs. I noticed that they were shinier, gaining weight, playful, just generally doing better. And the hogs also seemed to start doing better. I googled and tried to research something that would explain this. Couldn’t find anything. I kept observing. Here’s what I’m thinking. The goats are eating plant species that the hogs don’t eat and the hogs were eating the goat shit and then hogs are getting different nutrients from that goat shit, so they are healthier. And when the hogs ate the goat shit, they broke the lifecycle of the barberpole worm, internal parasites that affect goats, so the goats also started doing better. Seems like textbook mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships, but I don’t have the textbook. I have the farm.

Q. What do your observations tell you about Allan Savory’s holistic management system?

A. It’s past time to be talking about sustainable farming practices. We’ve got to talk about regenerative farming practices, those that every single year improve the productive capacity of the land. The end game of most regenerative practices is going to be sequestering carbon in the soil. Not as a response to global warming, per se, but because this is what turns soil that is a dead mineral medium into an organism that is teeming with life. Allan Savory’s holistic management system is the best game in town. This system emulates nature, using prairie animals to build the soil by mimicking the predator-prey animal systems, where animal herds were bunched and moving. Hooves breaking the soil, defecation, microbes in the animal guts working with microbes in the soil, intensive grazing. This flies in the face of commodified, centralized, industrialized livestock practices.

This interview appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Click here to learn more or to subscribe to the Journal.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *