Q3 2023

Will Harris runs White Oak Pastures in the same way his great-grandfather did 150 years ago, becoming an icon in the regenerative agriculture scene

By Katja Ridderbusch

Will Harris is in his element when, after a hearty breakfast, he steps into his silver Jeep Wrangler—the big wheels covered in red Georgia clay, the windows fogged by dust, a .44 Magnum rifle leaning against the dashboard, and an extra box of ammunition sitting on top. Two times a day, often three, he rides around his 3,200-acre farm, where the grass is a rich green and the dark topsoil has a clean and earthy scent. Animals roam freely on the pastures, with cattle grazing next to sheep, hogs rooting and wallowing, and chickens busily pecking the ground.

Harris often stops at a small forest. Rows of pine trees form a canopy, with rays of sunshine breaking through. It’s one of his favorite spots. “But I can really go anywhere on the farm and be happy as long as I’m seeing the land in its natural condition,” he says.

At 68 years old, Harris stands tall, with bright restless eyes, a spare smile, and a thick South Georgia accent. He is the owner of White Oak Pastures in the tiny town of Bluffton, about 45 miles west of Albany. It’s the state’s largest organic farm and one of the largest in the nation.

Wearing his signature straw Stetson and rugged blue jeans with suspenders, Harris is the patriarch of a six-generation farming family. He lives with his wife Von on land that his great-grandfather, James Everett Harris, acquired in 1866. Two of his three daughters and their families also live on the farm.

Harris has become an unlikely icon among slow food aficionados, animal rights activists, and sustainable agriculture enthusiasts. White Oak’s grass-fed beef is sold by retail chains, including Whole Foods, Publix, Kroger, and Mom’s Organic Market. It’s also shipped directly to restaurants and customers across the Southeast.

The media has profiled White Oak Pastures, including the New York Times, Forbes, and the BBC. Harris just penned A Bold Return to Giving a Damn: One Farm, Six Generations, and the Future of Food about his pre-industrial farming operation. The book, published by Penguin Random House, is due out in October.

So what is the future of food according to Will Harris? It’s an ecosystem where farming is done in a radically traditional and holistic manner. The 3,200 acres are divided into 30ish–acre pastures. As the book and a film on the White Oak website attest, the farm has approximately “100,000 beating animal hearts” at any given time.

“My father is a man with a great vision,” says Jenni Harris, Will’s middle daughter and the farm’s director of marketing. “This place represents a real and scalable model of agriculture that other farms, small or large, can replicate.”

Currently, White Oak Pastures is home to cows, hogs, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens, guinea fowls, ducks, turkeys, and geese. Every few days—or, in many cases, daily—the herds are moved to a different pasture. It takes the soil about 60 days to recover, says Harris. During that time, “we may spread some compost to nurture the soil. Some weed species we might mow. But generally, we do nothing.”

Additionally, there are about 25 beehives on the pastures. The farm also grows fruits and vegetables, including pears, peaches, strawberries, figs, pecans, tomatoes, carrots, and eggplant.

White Oak Pastures is a zero-waste facility. On this hot summer morning, several buzzards are hovering over large piles of compost made up of peanut shells, guts, feathers, visceral fat, and bones. Bones, in particular, “are little treasure chests of calcium and phosphorus,” Harris says, pointing out the tiny white pieces spread over the farmland.

Also, hides from grass-fed cattle are turned into pet chews or tanned and crafted into leather belts, keychains, napkin rings, and koozies. Tallow is used to make soap and beef fat to produce biodiesel.

It took Harris almost 30 years—and a journey deep into the family farm’s history—to get where he is now. After World War II, when nitrogen fertilizers became abundant and cheap, Harris’s father, Will Bell Harris, transformed the cattle farm into a large agribusiness. “And it worked. We were financially successful,” says Harris.

Harris graduated from the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural Sciences in 1976 and, a few years later, returned to Bluffton to work on the family farm, fully sold on the industrial model. “I was excited about it. And I was good at it,” he says.

Harris’s excitement lasted until the mid-1990s when he started to dislike chemical-dependent, mass-produced farming. Step by step, he turned the clock back to the pre-industrial method of farming that his great-grandfather used. First, he quit using hormone additions and subtherapeutic antibiotics in livestock feed. Then he stopped laying chemical fertilizers and pesticides on the land. He also introduced new species to the farm, which, according to agricultural scientists, benefits both the land and the animals.

At that time, the elder Harris was struggling with dementia, and his son had taken over the business. “He would not have let me do it. No way,” says Harris. His father passed away in 2000.

Harris says his dissatisfaction with industrial farming grew over time. But he clearly remembers one morning when about 100 of his calves were loaded on a double-decker truck to be transported to mass slaughterhouses hundreds of miles away. There was no food or water, and the calves on the top covered the ones on the bottom with their urine and feces. “And I thought, I don’t want to do this anymore,” he says.

With advice from renowned animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, Harris built two federally approved slaughterhouses, or abattoirs, on his farm—one for hooved animals and one for poultry. Here, slaughtering is a slower and more humane process. A big, industrialized plant can slaughter up to 1,000 animals per hour. At White Oak, workers slaughter 25 cattle on a busy day.

“I’m not saying this is a great death,” says Harris. “There is no good way to die.” But he likes to think that his way of slaughtering is “focused more on compassion than efficiency.”

Harris paid a price for embracing the concept of regenerative agriculture. The farm lowered its production and profits went down. Harris, whose family never borrowed a dime, went into debt to build the slaughterhouses. “But I never regretted making the decision,” he says.

Over time, as grass-fed beef became popular and organic food a major trend, his philosophy paid off. In 2022, sales were about $25 million. White Oak Pastures went from four employees to around 160 today.

One of the growing revenue streams at White Oak Pastures is agritourism. The general store sells products from the farm, and the rustic restaurant serves three meals a day. Visitors can rent one of eight cabins, and the farm offers tours and educational workshops.

White Oak employees enjoy teaching and sharing their experiences and knowledge, says Jodi Harris Benoit, Will Harris’s youngest daughter and the director of tourism at White Oak Pastures. “Our goal is to combat greenwashing,” she says of a form of marketing that makes false or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product or practice.

Benoit says her dad inspires her every day. “It’s his gift of fight. That’s what he’s drilled into us girls. That’s the story of his life.”

It’s a story that Hollywood films are made of, but Will Harris prefers the real thing—the smell of the soil, the sound of the calmly grazing cattle, and the sting of the sun over the pastures. He climbs back into his Jeep. It’s time for his afternoon ride. “This is my life,” he says.

© GaBiz Magazine | Katja Ridderbusch