Alice Waters Edible Schoolyard Lunch – Georgia Organics

Peter dale, Matthew Raiford, edible schoolyard, Alice waters, Shared Plates, Georgia Organics

Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Lunch Brings Farm-to-School to Conference


The “school cafeteria” came together quickly. The place settings weren’t arranged; rather, stacked plates and piles of silverware were carefully placed in the center of the long, running tables. Seasonal February flower arrangements, sourced from 3 Porch Farm northeast of Athens, dotted the tables and flanked the edges of the room. Minutes before the doors were opened, bowls of peanut hummus and platters of turnips, carrots, and flatbread were spread along the tables.

At 12:45pm, the doors opened, and the largest Edible Schoolyard Project lunch ever put on by Chef Alice Waters and her team began. The lunch was an exciting addition to the Georgia Organics’ annual Conference and Expo programming, held in The Classic Center in Athens, Georgia. 

Chefarmer Matthew Raiford, the Georgia Organics board member who had invited long-time friend Waters to the conference, worked in the kitchen with Chef Peter Dale of Athens’ The National and other cooks. The menu was fun to work with, Raiford said, with Georgia Organics, local farmers, and the chefs coming together to make sure that “everything except for the salt and pepper came from within 150 miles of Athens”. 

Peter dale, Matthew Raiford, edible schoolyard, Alice waters, Shared Plates, Georgia Organics

With the chefs placing the finishing touches on the family-style plates, the lunch crowd filed in and found seats. The energy in the room was palpable as Alice Rolls, President and CEO of Georgia Organics, took to the stage to briefly introduce Alice Waters and the Farm to School Lunch. “Interactive education is the best way to learn,” said Rolls, “and that’s what we’re gonna do today”.

Alice Waters, famed owner of Chez Panisse and founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project (ESP), took the stage recounting some of her favorite memories in Georgia. She told stories of Edna Lewis bringing her cow to a Southern Foodways Alliance to make biscuits with fresh cream, saying “that’s my kind of purist, yes, but that’s also my kind of determination”. Waters also spoke of President Jimmy Carter’s impactful work with Habitat for Humanity, recalling a shared visit to an elementary school in San Francisco, a “school-raising” to build a school garden and complete classroom makeovers over the course of a single day.

Although Waters is widely known for buying food directly from farmers for Chez Panisse’s kitchen over the last 48 years, she brought the Edible Schoolyard Lunch to Georgia to present a different kind of a meal: a healthy, locally-sourced school lunch she envisioned for the public school system. 

With these school lunch demos, Waters “wanted to dispel the myths: that there’s no time for kids to sit at a table to eat lunch, that is impossible to serve wholesome food. I wanted to show that for a great number of people eating together, it could be a civilized, nutritious, delicious experience, both in terms of the food and the aesthetics,” she said. 

Waters is promoting “school supported agriculture” with the Edible Schoolyard Project, an organization devoted to building the capacity of edible education programs in public schools through tools, resources, and trainings. Over the past 25 years, in work in Berkeley, California and around the country, the Edible Schoolyard Project has collaborated with teachers and created curriculum to show that “there is really no subject that you could not connect with food that you’re serving in the cafeteria,” said Alice.

“This initiative is also to give the real cost of food to farmers,” added Waters. Supporting farmers was more important than ever, she explained, as regenerative organic farming was needed to address climate issues. A direct relationship with farmers “who are taking care of their land and their farm workers” allows for closed loop initiatives, like sending kitchen scraps back to the farmer to compost. 

After her overview of Edible Schoolyard work, Alice changed gears. School lunch was becoming an academic subject, and attendees were going to get credit for eating it. 

“Now I’m going to give you an assignment”, she started, starting to smile mischievously. “Our fast food culture does not believe that we can serve a huge group of 650 students in the cafeteria seated. So we’re going to prove them wrong,” explained Waters. 

Long tables were split into groups of eight, and individuals were tasked with different responsibilities, to be completely silently: setting the silverware, getting napkins, or grabbing lunch items like fritters, vegetables, or iced tea. The cafeteria started to murmur, but before anyone could move, Waters joyfully called out, “…and we’re timing you. Go!”

The entire “cafeteria” was a flurry of movement, as groups moved quickly to accomplish assigned tasks. Attendees quietly laughed and smiled at one another as they gathered lunch components, some comparing it to being in school again.

Three minutes and 43 seconds later, Waters called the time. “You’ve beat all other lunches with twice the people!” she proudly announced. The crowd applauded, and to celebrate, the “students” eagerly dove into lunch. 

The food was delicious, with reezy-peezy fritters served atop collard greens, cornbread and root vegetables on the side. Participants passed family-style platters of salad greens with Meyer lemon vinaigrette and finished off the peanut hummus. 

peanut humas, Alice waters, edible schoolyard, shared plates, Georgia Organics

As attendees ate, many studied the placemats lining the table. The placemats, designed by the Edible Schoolyard team, beautifully displayed a map of Georgia and the farmers who participated in the lunch. “I want people to really feel like they were in time and place,” recounted Waters later. “This is February in the South, and this is what we could eat for a school lunch from [local farms].” 

Sarah Dasher, Schools Program Manager at the Wylde Center, a nonprofit that does environmental education in City Schools of Decatur and some Atlanta Public Schools, reflected on what she sees as powerful in ESP’s focus on accessible edible education. “Schools are starting to see that this is something they need to do consistently every day, not on a weekly basis, in order to make an impact,” said Dasher.

Paula Burke, an extension agent with University of Georgia in Carroll County, also expressed belief in the staying power of locally-sourced produce for a school lunch. “People used to think that this was just a trend that was going to go away—I don’t think that’s true at this point,” she added. 

As plates were cleared, Kimberly Della Donna, Farm to School Director with Georgia Organics, introduced the next speaker: Georgia’s State Nutrition Director and a “Farm to School champion”, Dr. Linette Dodson.

Dodson spoke of the efforts to serve 1.1 million kids a day in Georgia’s schools. “We are the only state with a focus on an academic food program,” said Dodson. “It’s not just the service of the meal, it’s also food-based learning activities that can be done in the classroom that continue to expand student palettes”.

Dodson reflected on the Edible Schoolyard Project lunch, drawing connections to Breakfast in the Classroom, an expanding program in Georgia. 

“When I see our students eating together during Breakfast in the Classroom, it models a community environment while maintaining nutrition and food safety standards,” said Dodson.  “It gives the students and the teacher an opportunity to start the day with the kind of community that I think we saw here this afternoon [with the Edible Schoolyard Project]”.

“One of the reasons I wanted to bring Alice Waters here,” Chefarmer Raiford later explained, “is our farm to school program that has been spearheaded with Georgia Organics and Georgia Grown. Georgia has one of the most amazing programs I’ve seen, and I think can be very easily modeled in other states”.

As apple crisp with vanilla ice cream was brought to the long tables (to audible murmurs of excitement), Dodson surveyed the audience about how many people had eaten a school lunch in their district the last year. “I would like to encourage farmers, parents, and community members to visit and eat a school meal,” she added. “Learn what is happening in your local school nutrition program and what is being served as part of your school meals. When you visit, ask how you can be a partner for supporting quality school meals in that district.”

Raiford, joining Waters on stage once the final plate was out of the kitchen, offered his own call to action. “What city do you live in? What action can you take?” he asked, prompting farmers who had sold to schools to raise their hands. To the rest of the audience, he challenged, “Go back to your district, find out who’s in charge at your schools—there is work that needs to be done,” he urged.

To close out the lunch, Waters echoed Dodson and Raiford’s advocacy for farm to school. “And I know I’ll never forget the reezy-peezy today,” she said, hugging her friend Raiford as the audience laughed. She added, “I call this a delicious revolution”. 

Based on the applause, empty plates, and full stomachs, the students in the audience couldn’t agree more.

Shared Plates covered this story for Georgia Organics’ newsletter The Dirt. This story can also be found on the Georgia Organics blog.

Alice Waters & GA’s Farm to School Momentum – Georgia Organics

Alice Waters Visit Highlights Farm-to-School Momentum in Georgia


Georgia’s reputation as a farm-to-school leader was on full display during Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project lunch at the Georgia Organics conference.

While Alice Waters may be most well-known as chef and owner of Chez Panisse, she was a Montessori teacher before she started the restaurant. This background informs her work today with the Edible Schoolyard Project, a nonprofit she founded over 25 years ago. The ESP supports a network of over 7,000 schools that have a garden, kitchen classroom, farm to school lunch program, or curriculum that involves ecology, sustainability, and building community.

The Edible Schoolyard started in a Berkeley middle school before expanding outreach across the country. “It began not as a cooking or gardening class,” said Waters. “It happens to use a garden and a kitchen to teach academic subjects”. The garden and the kitchen, Waters said, are for everything from science and medicine to art, language, or history.

Waters champions the Montessori idea that “our senses are the pathways into our minds” by incorporating learning-by-doing pedagogy into the Edible Schoolyard Project.

“I really believe that our children in this country are sensorily deprived. I mean many because of hunger and poverty, but all of them because of this fast food indoctrination,” said Waters. Edible education, according to Waters, has traction because it encourages children to engage with their senses.

For Waters, this edible education is also fundamentally tied to the idea of school supported agriculture. “You can buy directly from the farmers who are taking care of their land and their farm workers” and bring it into the classroom, added Waters.

To showcase the potential of a school supported agriculture lunch, Waters has toured Edible Schoolyard demonstrations around the country, including a student-style lunch at the February 9th Georgia Organics Conference & Expo. The 650-person lunch, sourced entirely from within 150 miles except for the salt and pepper, powerfully displayed the strong relationship between schools and farms in the state.

Kimberly Della Donna, Farm to School Director for Georgia Organics, said that it was Chefarmer Matthew Raiford, a Georgia Organics board member, and Alice Waters who proposed bringing the Edible Schoolyard Project to Georgia. “They were very excited about the possibility of having this lunch at our conference, because they thought that this might be a receptive audience to the vision that Edible Schoolyard has for school nutrition,” said Della Donna.

1.1 million school lunches are served every day in Georgia. According to the Georgia Farm to School Alliance annual report, in 2018, over 50% of public school districts in Georgia reported buying local or Georgia Grown food items, adding at least $24 million in local purchases to the state economy.

Dr. Linette Dodson, Georgia’s State Director of School Nutrition, credits some of Georgia’s farm to school success to the collaboration between the Georgia Department of Education and local school districts, with the support of State Superintendent Richard Woods. “We’re really fortunate in Georgia; we have a lot of very qualified local directors that are doing some really innovative things,” said Dodson. “They have a strong focus on incorporating local agriculture and locally sourced foods into our program”.

“I think the evolution of school nutrition in Georgia is continuing to set the standard as far as leadership,” said Dodson. “There’s a lot of foundational pieces [of national school nutrition] that actually came out of Georgia”.

School nutrition programs also partner with multiple collaborative state agencies like the Department of Agriculture, UGA extension, DECAL, and the Department of Public Health, as well as non profit associations like Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Dairy Alliance, and Georgia Organics.

After founding the state’s first farm to school program in 2007, Georgia Organics has expanded advocacy and training across the state. Currently, Georgia Organics works with school districts, early care centers, state-wide partners, and agencies to grow farm to school at the grassroots and “grasstops” level. Georgia Organics’ programs are designed to remove barriers for farm to school, with information and support on certifications, trainings, and food safety regulations. The annual Golden Radish awards are designed to showcase the schools leading by example and putting their money where their mouth is.

According to Matthew Raiford, farm and school relationships benefit one overlooked group in particular: small farmers. In his work with Georgia Organics, Raiford trains cafeteria workers and nutrition professionals, but he also spends time with farmers looking to extend the seasons to provide more local food, year-round.

“Farm to school gives small farmers an opportunity to see an important revenue stream that has been overlooked for decades,” said Raiford.

In addition, Georgia’s farm to school focus makes a lasting impact on students. “We are the only state in the nation that has a focus on an academic nutrition program,” added Dodson. Classrooms are used to educate students in the cafeteria, with curriculum that links academic subjects to school gardens and healthy, delicious food.

“I always say that it’s, kind of, six weeks to kale,” laughed Waters. “But seriously, I feel like all of these kids who had three years at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, that they will forever be mindful of the environment and will be able to nourish themselves really well”.

Because a school lunch brings children together in a different way, said Waters, kids are quick to understand the value in an edible education. “They get it osmosis, a kind of camaraderie and sharing of a meal. They take it home to their parents too”.

For Raiford, Georgia’s robust farm to school program was one of the reasons he wanted to bring Waters to Georgia. “Our farm to school program that has been spearheaded with Georgia Organics and Georgia Grown is one of the most amazing programs I’ve seen—and it can be very easily modeled in other states,” he said.

Alice Rolls, Matthew Raiford , edible schoolyard, shared plates, Georgia Organics

This connection between students and farmers is something Waters wants to champion across the country. Waters mentioned the work she’s seen President Jimmy Carter do with Habitat for Humanity, and advocates for activists to come together with the sense of a barn raising—or rather, a “school raising”.

“We need to win over that next generation, and that means doing this farm to school work in the public schools,” said Waters. “I think it’s the perfect relationship to have with schoolchildren and farms”.

Shared Plates covered this story for Georgia Organics’ newsletter The Dirt. This story can also be found on the Georgia Organics blog.

Rodale Institute & Regen Ag Research in Georgia – Georgia Organics

Rodale Institute Many Fold Farm sheep

Regenerative ag research growing in Georgia: Rodale’s Regional Resource Center


The South saw the most growth in organic farming from 2011-2016, and the Rodale Institute is looking to contribute to that expansion – through providing scientific research, economic models, and educational outreach at a Regional Resource Center (RRC), about an hour outside Atlanta in Chattahoochee Hills.

“There’s some data to show that areas that have research and education tend to have a higher concentration of organic farmers,” says Andrew Smith, PhD and Chief Scientist at Rodale. “We’re hoping to use this center to spark a movement and start to expand the amount of organic farmers in the region”.

The RRC is located on the site of Rebecca and Ross Williams’ Many Fold Farm, land formerly used for cheesemaking that also includes pasture-based livestock and forest. While the research site is starting on a small footprint of the 300+ acre farm, over time, Smith is hoping to expand. 

Many Folds Farm, Rodale Institute, Regenerative Ag, Georgia Organics, Shared Plates

Rebecca Williams is on the RRC board, helping facilitate some development work, and is excited to see what the RRC can do in the region. “This RRC is so important because it will offer southern farmers the opportunity to see organic and regenerative agriculture from the farmer’s perspective,” says Williams. “It will provide answers for farmers to the real questions they have… questions southern farmers want answers to before they make a change.”

Aiming to focus on vegetable production from the beginning, Rodale also hopes to take advantage of the farm’s already-existing setup for grazing sheep to study the impact of integrated crop and grazing systems on soil health .”Rodale prioritizes long-term systems trials,” says Smith. “Anything we do at Rodale, it has a focus on long-term soil health and regenerative agriculture”. 

Things are underway at the center, starting with breaking ground on fields identified for research. Rodale is also prioritizing hiring someone from the southeast to design research that fits the warmer temperatures and higher rainfall of the region.


“Research done by the RRC in southern soils, in a southern climate, from within the specifics of the cultural and economic realities of the region will provide real support that will allow regenerative organics to take root here,” says Williams. “I am excited to see new methods and techniques that can be used here in this region”.

With all of Rodale’s activities in Georgia, Smith will be presenting at the Georgia Organics conference. Smith will be speaking about Regenerative Organic Certification labeling, for which he has helped with the soil testing standard. Smith is also particularly excited about his session “about the science behind the principles of what we call Regenerative Organic Agriculture”, one of his areas of expertise. 

“The session could resonate with existing farmers, and also new farmers who are maybe thinking about organic for the first time and are planning the changes they might want to put on their farm,” says Smith.

“The farmers that I’ve met that are the most successful are lifelong learners,” says Smith. “And it doesn’t just have to be from a book – there’s scientists, there’s other farmers, there’s people in the industry.”  

“The more I get know farmers, the more I’m blown away by the amount of knowledge that they have, and the amount of learning that they continue to do.” And with Rodale’s new regional resource center, farmers in Georgia will have even more opportunity to learn and teach within their community.

Many Folds Farm, Rodale Institute, Georgia Organics, Shared Plates

Shared Plates covered this story for Georgia Organics’ newsletter The Dirt. This story can also be found on the Georgia Organics blog.

Georgia Grains at DaySpring Farms – Georgia Organics

Nate Brett and Murray Brett DaySpring Farms

DaySpring Farms Unique in Georgia for On-Farm Cleaning, Milling Grains


On a cool September morning, DaySpring Farms is in transition – the corn harvest is winding down, and the sweet potato and peas harvest will soon be amping up.

“But all year round, we’re milling,” says Nathan Brett, co-owner of DaySpring with his father, Murray Brett. “Our niche market is holding onto stuff that will store for a little while and we can sell over the course of a year.”

Day Springs Farm, Shared Plates, Georgia Organics, Nathan Brett, milling, corn, wheat, organic farming

Experimenting with market gardening in previous years, the father-and-son team has since switched to commodity crops. “We’re predominantly a two-man operation, so we have to think smart about what we get into,” says Nathan.

With 87 acres just outside of Danielsville, Georgia, Dayspring has “more acreage than a regular market garden, but less than most commodity farmers,” says Murray Brett, Nathan’s father. DaySpring saw early on in their business that there was an acreage threshold, even in organic commodity farming, to making a profit. Caught in the middle, DaySpring did a side step, getting into value-added commodity production and storage crops.

“We have the benefit of having one, if not the only, certified cleaning operation in the state,” says Nathan. Providing cleaning and milling on the same property allows DaySpring to make a larger profit percentage off of what they grow.

DaySpring sells their grains both wholesale and direct to consumer. Sarah Dodge, baker and owner of Atlanta-based Bread is Good, uses DaySpring bread flour and cornmeal in her products. She believes one thing sets DaySpring apart: “flavor, flavor, flavor!”

“I do my best to use as many local Georgia grains as I can for flavor, nutrition, and most of all digestibility,” says Sarah. “Good grains take time and patience, and Nathan and Murray are putting so much into making their grains shine”. 

DaySpring sits on the southern edge of where hard red winter wheat will vernalize and produce grain, making this Georgia-grown wheat even more unique. And with DaySpring’s grits and polenta production growing, Murray Brett adds, “with this flavor profile, our products speak for themselves”.

Day Springs Farm, Shared Plates, Georgia Organics, Nathan Brett, milling, corn, wheat, organic farming

During the Georgia Organics Athens 2020 conference, DaySpring will be hosting a Friday-morning farm tour. Depending on the winter, the February fields will either be in cover crop, or thick green fields of wheat in the early stages of filing out.

Nathan knows he’s found value in farm tours he’s attended in the past, seeing farm operations that allowed him to “take away their philosophy and methodology to make certain aspects of my operation better”.

Can’t make the farm tour? Don’t worry – DaySpring Farms will also be providing wheat and corn donations to the conference food menu. One way or another, you’ll want to try these locally-grown Georgia grains.

Shared Plates covered this story for Georgia Organics’ newsletter The Dirt. This story can also be found on the Georgia Organics blog.

Long-Term Hoop House Research at Woodland Gardens – Georgia Organics

Woodland Gardens Hoop house high tunnel

Long-Term Hoop House Research at Woodland Gardens


Celia Barss, owner of Woodland Gardens, a 12+ acre organic farm just outside of Athens in Winterville, Georgia, know the benefits and weaknesses of hoop houses firsthand. With about an acre and a half of hoop houses, the oldest one at the 15-year mark, Barss recounts how her hoop houses started to suffer a decline in production, due to pest and disease pressure, around year ten.

One of the prime issues in Barrs’ hoop houses, which is common with most growers, is root knot nematodes, parasites that build up to large numbers in the beds and destroy root systems. “Everyone will end up having problems with it, because they’re present in our soil – it’s a matter of time,” says Barss.

“Our hoop houses have been here for a long time, so we’re seeing more of the problems,” she adds.

Dr. Elizabeth Little, extension plant pathologist and associate professor with University of Georgia, has been working with Barss and Woodland Gardens for over seven years, and she backs up the grower’s assessment. 

“It’s not just with Celia’s – hoop houses are valuable territory,” Little says. “They tend to be used extensively, and growers don’t always do the same cover crops and long-term rotations that they do in the fields”.

“Most of the small, local, organic producers have at least one hoop house,” adds Little. “But, they don’t really come with instructions,” she jokes. 

Little is evaluating different best management practices to keep issues like nematodes at bay, including cover crop rotations, non-host rotations, soil solarization in the summer, and different soil inputs. 

“There are challenges with the research. You can prove something and have results – but is it something that will work with the grower?”, says Barss.

According to Barss, because many growers get their first hoop houses through NRCS grants, this is an important issue for everyone. For growers with only a few houses who will want to push production, “you invest a lot in these hoop houses, so you need to get production out of them and stabilize farm income,” she adds.

Barss’ moveable hoop houses don’t experience the same level of nematodes issues, because the soil isn’t being as used as intensely. As for her old hoop houses, “I’m not using them as intensively as I used to, and in my newer houses, I’m not pushing it as much,” says Barss. “We’re still having success, enough of a return… but we have to negotiate and manage the problem”.

Celia Barss, Woodland Gardens, Georgia Organics, Shared Plates, Dr. Elizabeth Little, Organic Farming, Athens Georgia, high tunnel

Barss and Little will be sharing best preventative management practices that have come out of research and trials at their “Advanced Hoop House Soil Management” session at the Georgia Organics conference.

“Growers often aren’t aware of soil-borne problems that build for quite a while,” says Little. “It can help raise their awareness of potential issues, so they can take preventative measures as needed”.

On farm research is always a challenge, says Little, but “there’s a need for more research on what works in organics in Georgia”. But in partnering with Barss, Little can work to replicate results, providing critical research that is based on years-long, long-term trials. This research, says Barss, is about meeting the growers’ needs, whether they are “new farmers or farmers eight years in.”

Celia Barss, Woodland Gardens, Georgia Organics, Shared Plates, Dr. Elizabeth Little, Organic Farming, Athens Georgia , High Tunnel

Shared Plates covered this story for Georgia Organics’ newsletter The Dirt. This story can also be found on the Georgia Organics blog.

Amplifying the Sheats’ Farm Restoration Project – Georgia Organics

Farm Restoration Project The Plate Sale Mike and Shyretha Sheats old smokehouse

Amplifying the Sheats’ Farm Restoration Project


Mike and Shyretha Sheats, the couple behind the multi-faceted The Plate Sale, spend their time juggling pop ups on Athens game days, taking care of their three-year-old daughter Luna, and working in Athens restaurants. In recent months, they’ve added sanding floors to their list, working to update Shyretha’s grandmother’s home and farm.

The 12-acre Farm Restoration Project, located in Oglethorpe county east of Athens, includes an old chicken yard, smokehouse, and heaps of old-growth foliage packed with wild plums, bamboo, and bitter orange trees. Shyretha’s grandmother had lived on the property until she passed away in 2012. 

Sheats Farm, Georgia Organics, Shared Plates, Athens GA, The Plate Sale

Shyretha, who grew up on the property just next door, saw it as an opportunity to build on the hard work her grandmother had done. “The least we could do is come back and keep it up,” adds Mike. 

“When you have that opportunity to restore something that’s been in your family, everyone in this community is in good support of that,” says Paul Sorah, farmer at Hearts of Harvest and member of the Athens Land Trust. Sorah has advised the Sheats how to navigate some beginning challenges on their farm.

As of October 2019, the Sheats have got their first cover crop, rye, in a pasture they plan to plant in the late spring. They’re thinking about starting with crops like peas, beans, and leafy greens, in addition to cut flowers and herbs, to continue conditioning the soil. With combined experience in the culinary and agriculture world, as well as support from mentors in Atlanta and Athens, the Sheats aim to one day provide employment and housing on the farm.

The couple is embracing land ownership, and planning on running a business collective off of the farm. Showing us an aerial photo of the farm taken in the 90s, Shyretha calls it “the blueprint”.

“Right now, the property is mostly overgrown,” says Shyretha. “We have a vision for the project as a whole, but it’s a process”. 

Sheats Farm, Georgia Organics, Shared Plates, Athens GA, The Plate Sale

Their goals are wide-ranging. “We want to grow things that are bountiful, that we can extend to the neighborhood,” in a CSA or pay-what-you-can model, says Shyretha. Longer-term projects also include growing ginger for a ginger concentrate beverage, adding high tunnels, and, of course, a future brick and mortar restaurant.

With all their projects, the Sheats have the support of the local food community. “Down here, we’re pretty tapped into the importance of local food systems,” says Sorah. “Small farms are the backbone of the future of sustaining accessible food for communities. We all support each other, because we understand that we’re much stronger as a collective together”.

The Sheats are well aware of their role in today’s conversation. Nationally, the USDA reports that black farmers made up 1.4% of the country’s 3.2 million farmers in 2012. The same study reports that in Georgia, black farmers make up 4% of the state’s total farmers. 

“Here, our family could keep the land and build off of what has been done for 40-60 years,” says Mike. Gesturing to Luna, playing nearby, he adds, “and we can pass it on to someone else – creating generational wealth”. 

Sheats Farm, Georgia Organics, Shared Plates, Athens GA, The Plate Sale

Mike is also interested in the using the land to showcase the food from this particular region. “Most of the spotlight on southern food is about low country cuisine or Appalachian food,” he says, but “the Georgia woods are a totally different environment”.

The Sheats are aiming to secure a location for their restaurant by the end of 2020, as well as leasing out agricultural space on the farm. Currently, they’re staying busy with opportunities networking for resources, sponsorships, and funding.

On the host committee for the Georgia Organics 2020 conference in Athens, Mike and Shyretha are looking forward to the networking at the conference, connecting with progressive farmers to talk about the future of farming. 

“We’re discussing how we can contribute, how to we fit in the scope of farming,” says Mike. It’s about preservation, he says, “but it’s about amplifying as well.”

“It’s making a statement, and using this as a voice to then tell the stories that we want to keep going”.

Sheats Farm, Georgia Organics, Shared Plates, Athens GA, The Plate Sale

Shared Plates covered this story for Georgia Organics’ newsletter The Dirt. This story can also be found on the Georgia Organics blog.

Organic Farming & The Biology of Weeds – Georgia Organics

Nick Basinger UGA University of Georgia Weed Science

Organic farming’s biggest challenge tackled in UGA’s “Biology of Weeds” conference session


“The climate here in Georgia makes weeds and weed management one of our toughest production challenges,” says Michael Wall, Director of Farmer Services at Georgia Organics.

Dr. Nick Basinger, Assistant Professor of Weed Science in UGA’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, knows this challenge well – and he’s ready to speak about it during his session, “Know Your Enemy: The Biology of Weeds” at the Georgia Organics Conference. 

Weed Science, Georgia Organics, UGA, Dr. Nick Basinger, Shared Plates, Organic Farming

With a background in the organic and biodynamic world, as well as years of research at North Carolina State and University of Georgia, Basinger has seen firsthand how much time these farms spent battling weeds.

“Growers have a lot on their plate in terms of production challenges, but for many organic growers, weeds are their biggest problem,” says Basinger. “It’s important to understand when to implement weed control practices, and the potential losses they could have if they don’t”.

Basinger says that the timing of the Georgia Organics Conference is perfect for this discussion.

“Come February, farmers are going into a critical time of the year,” he says. “If farmers can have weed control as part of their plan of action, they can essentially start with a cleaner field before some of the more challenging times later in their season”. 

Basinger’s approach prioritizes understanding the ecological factors behind why certain weeds are located where they are in the field. “Don’t stick a bandaid on it and say we’re going to cultivate these out – instead, get to the root of the problem,” he explains.

Using timed tillage or planting, based on when weeds sprout, can have “a huge impact in the amount of weed control farmers have to implement,” says Basinger. It’s all about protecting crops when they are most vulnerable.

“A big focus of my program is talking about integrated weed management,” says Basinger. “It’s analyzing all the different ‘little hammer’ management practices to get to an integrated approach”. This includes integrating controllable factors (row spacing, planting day, seeding rate) and uncontrollable factors (rainfall, temperature) to manage weeds most effectively.

Weed Science, Georgia Organics, UGA, Dr. Nick Basinger, Shared Plates, Organic Farming

Michael Wall agrees that this sort of advance planning. “Understanding more about the biology of weeds, when and how they will seed out and spread, can allow our growers to be much more proactive, and can let them deal with their weed problems before they get out of hand”.

“It’s important to have an understanding of what weeds are going to be problematic when, and which weeds are the most competitive,” says Basinger. To help farmers work on their weed identification, the first step toward understanding plant biology, Basinger will also bring resources from books to weed ID apps.

For the farmers who struggled with weeds last year, Basinger advises them to stay two steps ahead this year. “Weeds are pre-programmed to come up at a certain time, persist, and go to seed at a certain time,” he adds. “But if you can understand their biology, you can understand what their Achilles Heel is”.

Shared Plates covered this story for Georgia Organics’ newsletter The Dirt. This story can also be found on the Georgia Organics blog.

Erin Wilson and Athens’ The National – Georgia Organics

Erin Wilson the National

Inspiration and Local Food Kept Erin Wilson in Athens


“Over the years, small change makers have done so much to make Athens a rich, southern small town,” says Erin Wilson, gazing out the front window of The National, a well-established restaurant in the heart of downtown.

After coming to University of Georgia in 2007 to study Public Relations, Erin quickly fell in love with the vibrant Athens community. The city’s energy pulled her to stay after graduation, where she found a home in the local restaurant scene.

“I was asking myself, ‘how can this PR skill set be used for [something] that I felt good about?’” says Erin. “This town really inspires me, the people in it really inspire me, and working at The National brought it all together”.

Erin Wilson The National Athens GA

At The National, Erin is able to combine her passion for writing, community building, and food. Originally starting as a host and a PR intern, Erin is now General Manager and Partner, overseeing day-to-day operations as well as the long-term growth of the business.

The National is well-known in Athens and beyond for their commitment to quality food, built on farm-centric sourcing. The restaurant has helped grow the Athens good food movement through investing in local producers.

“The audience that we have from this restaurant, its reputation, its time in existence – it affords us the opportunity to uplift people,” says Erin. “Why put your money out into the world, where you’ll never see it back, when you can put it out into your community and see it grow people who you want to see grow?”

As for the role of restaurants in general, Erin adds, “I think restaurants being on board is essential for the good food movement to progress”. Because such a range of people dining out, she believes, restaurants can demonstrate to a wide audience how sourcing good ingredients makes for delicious food.

Erin Wilson The National Athens GA
Customers’ take these ideas from restaurants, Erin says, to the farmers market, to a CSA, to the grocery store, to their homes. “I think restaurants are a gateway – the more that access is grown, and the more that restaurants can facilitate that access, the more people adjust their thinking about food,” explains Erin.

As for the 2020 Georgia Organics Conference in Athens, Erin is excited to share what The National does in the city. “I hope we can be as engaged with conference goers as possible,” she says, adding that The National is open for a coffee in the morning, a midday break, or a cocktail after the conference.

“Come here and see how Athens is doing so much for the farming community in this town – and how the restaurants are buying into it.”

Shared Plates covered this story for Georgia Organics’ newsletter The Dirt. This story can also be found on the Georgia Organics blog.

“That openness is where it starts” – Meating

A classically-trained restaurant chef turned butcher and charcutier, Rusty Bowers opened Pine Street Market, a retail and wholesale butchery, in 2008. He recently partnered with Riverview Farms, his main sourcing partner for the last decade, to open another retail store, Chop Shop. Rusty sat down to speak with us about selling meat retail, his approach to meat waste, and how he’s seen customers change in the last decade.

Pine Street Market Rusty Bowers Weighing Meat Scale

Corinne Kocher: Pine Street Market has been around since 2008. How has it grown and changed over the last decade?

Rusty Bowers: I’ve been going over old documents recently, and I found my early 2007 business plan. It was going to be a tiny room, two household size refrigerators, one for raw product and one as a curing cave. I was going to have four wholesale customers and that was it, no store, no nothing. I started as only salami, because I thought that no one would spend money on higher-end sausage, because you can get sausage at the grocery store for like four bucks. 

About six months after we opened, I realized I had to grow to stay alive, so I started making bacon. And then with the trim from the bacon, the trim from the salami, I started making sausage. Once the retail store was open, our customers started coming in saying, “I want a pork chop”.

 Originally I had envisioned it as a sort of charcuterie shop, but what I quickly realized is that our customers and neighbors were excited about humanely raised meats and wanted to try heritage  pork chops, grass fed steaks, humane chicken, the everyday meats that they would have throughout the week.  

Pine Street Market Rusty Bowers cured sausage

So it slowly grew. Later in 2009, we were able to grow to processing whole animals, starting with sides of local, heritage pork. And it made more sense – I had always wanted  to showcase the beautiful pork and grass fed from Riverview Farms and humanely raised chickens from Springer Mountain Farms. Now we can be more sustainable with the farms; we can take more from the farms.

In 2008 it was just me. Now we have four full-time butchers, we have a general manager, retail associates, delivery drivers, and we’re growing.

Currently, you practice “whole animal butchery”, working with entire animals. But when you first started your business, you used “primal cuts”. How did you make that transition?

I don’t see a way around that [using primal cuts] at the beginning. Because we had to learn on the job and be as close to zero waste as possible. We would have had high waste if we had started with whole animals. My fear was that I buy a whole animal to make salami, I can’t sell some of it, and I throw half of the animal away. I was going to disrespect the life of the animal. 

So originally we were just buying the hams and shoulders. And by the middle of 2009, we could finally handle doing whole animal. Now, every Monday we get a side of beef from Riverview Farms, and six whole pigs that we break down each week.

From a waste perspective, what is it like doing whole animal butchery?

For me personally, being a classically trained chef and working as that for 15 years before I started Pine Street, what really helped was that I worked under extremely frugal French chefs. The executive chef would go around the kitchen as we were prepping for dinner service. He would empty your trash can into a roasting pan, and add up what he thought you had incorrectly thrown away. He was looking for trimmings of carrots, the top of the red pepper, the tiny pieces you assumed didn’t matter. He would add it up in his head, holding out his hand and demanding in a thick accent, “$2.50, you owe me $2.50 and if you do not pay me you must leave.”

Living that example on the day-to-day gives you that mindset – not only from a cost standpoint but out of respect for the animals and farmers. Our goal at Pine Street is that you can lift the trash can with two fingers at the end of the day – it should be, at most, some spent bones from a broth, paper towels, empty boxes of spice containers, plastic wrap, that kind of stuff.

The other thing that’s really helped me is the several avenues of sales that we have – wholesale, butchering classes, retail, farmers markets, and our new store, Chop Shop. A great example of this would be wholesale customers like George and Michael with Korean Wives [Atlanta-area restaurant group] and Noona, Ramen Station, Taiyo Ramen – buying the leftover bones, skins, and trotters. These lesser used cuts make amazing broth, soups, and ramen that are difficult to sell at the retail counter. True whole animal butchery means finding ways to use every last piece.  We wouldn’t have it any other way.

What really helped was that I worked under extremely frugal French chefs… would empty your trash can into a roasting pan, and add up what he thought you had incorrectly thrown away. He would add it up in his head, holding out his hand and demanding in a thick accent, “$2.50, you owe me $2.50 and if you do not pay me you must leave.”

How does this differ from grocery stores?

Grocery stores are not butchering at the store; it is cases of vacuumed sealed big cuts of meat that they cut and portion for the meat case. These boxes of meat are coming from a distribution center of mass-produced, commodity meat and have usually spent several months in a freezer.  These are animal breed for mass production, not from a local farm where they are raised for flavor.  

For us, we have the beauty and freedom of two shops, so we can always do something with the meat and not waste it. A big box grocery store doesn’t have that freedom – when our staff have an idea, we let them go for it. For example, our staff a while ago realized that we were ending the week with extra beef fat. Together we came up with a solution: Beef Butter. We render the beef fat with black pepper and herbs and blend it with grass fed butter. We now offer it to go with the steak you’ll be cooking at home. What better way to compliment a steak?! 

I don’t think you have that flexibility in the grocery store, so their waste looks different. But we’ve developed that flexibility to go with using whole animals and day-to-day business.

I think one of the most difficult things about selling meat retail, compared to restaurants, is that people at restaurants may be more adventurous, because they don’t need to prepare the meat themselves. But in retail, education about meat has to be central to what you do, because they will cook it themselves.

I agree. We are so proud to be working with Riverview Farms and we want to share that love with our customers. Beautifully, humanely-raised pork – birthed on the farm, which is really important to me. It grows; it’s processed. It comes here, Danny [production team leader] and the crew cut the perfect pork chop. It goes up in the deli case, you take it home, you burn it, and you say, “that’s a bad pork chop”.

[laughs] And I immediately think, “Only one person in this circle messed up. And it wasn’t us.”  So the logical step is to help inform our customers on how to properly cook the meat!

Customers want and need tips on how to cook humanely raised meat because it cooks differently than grocery store pork. I love that! So we’ve started to show people how to dry rub, talking about the love of brining (with brining it’s a lot harder to overcook). Or we talk about the right way to cook sausage, because everyone cooks it backwards. We’re educating people through demonstrations, classes, newsletters, pamphlets.

But also, customers will come in and say, “what do you guys have?” So the education starts with the employee, and then it goes to the customers in the shop.

Pine Street Market Rusty Bowers shop

This company has gone through hard times, and still not let go of quality. So people come in, and we say, “hey, have you had a Pork Secreto? They’re delicious!” and they say, “everything I’ve had here is delicious, I’m going to try a Secreto!” If we’re going to be part of this community we’ve got to do everything we do consistently week after week.

How do you deal with attitudes people have about meat, especially meat that they are going to take home and prepare themselves?

Part of our job, and we talk about this in the training for the retail counter, is taking the fear out of meat. When you walk into the shop, it can be intimidating. So that’s part of the reason why we do things like making recipe cards, explaining how to cook pork, chicken, and beef – to take that fear out of it, so you can just grab the card and say, “oh yeah I knew that”, and feel like you got it.

I think people are starting to realize that you can’t just eat ribeye steak or tenderloin. I do have customers come in, and they say, “okay I want 60 pounds of tenderloin” and it’s like, man, that’s not possible – we don’t even get that in a month. But it’s just what they’re used to – we’re all sensitive, all of us, and we don’t want to be told that were wrong. So to go to the butcher shop, and you see they don’t have boneless skinless chicken breast, so you think you can’t eat chicken, or they don’t have a ribeye or New York strip so you can’t eat steak, you don’t know what to do.

There are also other expectations people have, from other places – we have “all-natural pork and beef frankfurter”. It’s a long title, but it needs that because if I call it a hot dog, you’re going to think it’s $4 a pound. If I call it a pork and beef frankfurter you’re going to say, “what’s really in there?” So it has to be “all-natural pork and beef frankfurter” for people to be like, “okay, that title fits in with my view of meat”.

Pine Street Market sausages

You partner with Riverview Farms to source your animals. A humanely-raised pig can take something like eight months to get to the weight you want. What are the challenges that come with sourcing on such long timelines?

Right now, the weather is driving us crazy, because we haven’t had one of those long cold snaps to where we can get some beautiful fat back on a pig. We need that fattier stuff, that richer flavor, to do things like cure lardo. But if a pig is sitting outside, all hot in a mud puddle, they’re not going to take on a lot of fat. That is the beauty of whole animal butchery combined with such a strong relationship with our farmers, together we have to make it work.

So how do you deal with those long timelines, when you’re trying to meet retail expectations?

The only way it can work is by having the different outlets. Like I said, we sell online, wholesale, retail at Pine Street and now Chop Shop, farmers markets, etc. We have high-end clients who say, “send me four different types of charcuterie this week.” That saves us, because our cured meats take anywhere from 3 to 8 months to cure and something like an unexpected change in the weather or increased retail demand can affect what we have on hand. We make projections of what we’re going to need, but that’s mostly just from the gut. Things can change, and we have to adjust.

How have your customers have changed their expectations or buying habits over the years?

When we first started we could not sell pancetta. Customers thought that was weird, “why would I buy pancetta, that should be at a restaurant.” But now we sell guanciales, ears, rillettes, and pates – our customers are growing with us.

We are forever growing, like doing monthly butcher boxes to test out new ideas – the next one will have lap cheong salami and nduja, which no one would have tried in 2009. Having our customers trust us and try the new items we make means the world to me.

Pine Street Market teaches a lot of butchery classes to the public. How does this fit in with your business model?

I learned a lot in school [at the Culinary Institute of America] about making us “sticky”, making customers stick to us. I view us as not being a butcher shop; we are a “lifestyle shop”. 

We look at it from that avenue – you could go to Walmart, you can go to Kroger, you have all these take places that sell beef and chicken and pork. But you’re choosing to come to Chop Shop, Pine Street – you’re choosing to buy into that culture, being a part of humanely raised, local, sustainable food.

We have a sausage making class, and at first I thought it was just going to be  good ol’ boys who go hunting and want to make some deer sausage, which would have been fine. But as it turns out it’s about fifty-fifty male-female. Most often, it’s people who want to learn about what we do, and then they say, “I get the process, but that’s too complex, so I’m going to go buy sausage in your store.”

Pine Street Market stuffing sausage

The same with the whole hog class, they learn that the butt comes from the front of the pig, why spare ribs are better than baby back, and why chops should be brined. Explaining those stories and reasons, it helps educate our customers, and it helps our whole business.

When people visit Pine Street Market, they can see directly into the butchery side of the business. Why that design?

For me I need to know where our animals come from I want to meet the producer, walk the farm, tour the slaughterhouse, all before I feel comfortable working with that supplier. That openness is where it starts – building trust with the customer means being wide open. That’s why we have a plexiglass window in the store; it’s like an open kitchen. You can stop in at anytime.

What do you think the future of butchery shops, retail meat looks like?

I think I think we’re going to see more and more beautiful boutique companies, celebrating regional stuff popping up. I think we’re going to see Tyson, Purdue, Cargill, Hormel, all the larger meat producers looking for people like us to partner with. It is the same as Anheuser-Busch wanting to buy up high-end boutique craft breweries, and having it in their portfolio and distribute it on a larger level.

I think distribution, supply chains are opening up – people, especially small and medium companies, can open up more slaughterhouses, more cold storage. We’re seeing all that smaller infrastructure that we lost fill back in.

Pine Street Market wrapped packaged meat

What’s next for Pine Street Market?

We are excited to be figuring out how to expand our production to be able to supply mid-level grocery chains and large boutique stores. This starts with securing financing, additional humane meat suppliers, and a much larger facility!

This interview was done as part of Shared Plates’ Meating series, interviews about the meat we eat and how it is sourced.

Getting Out of Peanuts and Corn – Regenerative Organic Alliance

It can look very risky to get out of peanuts and corn. 

We heard this refrain over and over during our time at White Oak Pastures. The entire agriculture system in the south, like in much of this country, is designed to reward the cultivation of commodity crops like peanuts, corn, soybeans, and cotton. With federal crop insurance, subsidized production costs, and export incentives, industrialized, centralized, commoditized agriculture may not have large margins, but the margins seem safe and steady. 

Much of the land in the American southeast is extraordinarily fertile, and here in Bluffton, Georgia, the soil is especially rich. Combined with a steady 55+ inches of rain each year, spread out fairly evenly, the natural fertility of the region has led to intense agricultural cultivation over the centuries – after all, this is the Gulf Coastal Plain topsoil that once supported the Kolomoki civilization (which was at one point the largest population center north of Mexico).

Kolomoki Mounds Georgia

A temple mound built between 250-950 CE at Kolomoki State Park, approximately 7 miles from downtown Bluffton

Kylan Hoover, hog manager at White Oak Pastures, has previously spoken about the natural resiliency of the southeast ecosystems and their non-brittle characteristics (check out part three of this story, here). He mentions this natural characteristic as perhaps part of the reason Allan Savory lacks as much of an influence in this region. 

“I think Savory is more popular in the west, and the southeast had less buy in. But it’s not just a cultural thing, like some people like to say,” explains Kylan. “There’s a reason why land isn’t for sale as often.”

Kylan is talking about the innate productivity of much of the land in the southeast. The natural resiliency of a non-brittle ecosystem, combined with governmental incentives, tends to lean away from ideas of managed, bounded, holistic land use. The system has been designed for inputs pumped in, everything you can grow pumped out.

The easy path is not regeneration – but exportation. “If you had the profitability of USDA-subsidized, insured agriculture – and steady rainfall, like they have here – why would you take the risk of changing it?” asks Kylan.

Especially if, for example, there were other factors at play – a family, a tradition, an established way of doing things. Kylan, coming from an agricultural family himself, adds, “it’s crazy to do something different, in generational farms, simply because you do not want to be the one to lose the farm.” He’s dead serious. “Then you’ll be the one who all your descendents talk about – the one who lost the family farm.”

But say you had the land, you had the family tradition, you had that pressure to keep the business viable – and then you made wild changes. What if you take that risk?

White Oak Pastures, Harris, Regenerative Organic Alliance, Shared Plates, Bluffton Georgia

Portrait of James Edward Harris (1839-1909) in the White Oak Pastures office 

During our visit, driving around downtown Bluffton with Will Harris III of White Oak Pastures, I spot some tucked away coves and parks in between faded houses. Thinking of the mischief you could get into in a small town, I ask Will if there were many teenagers in the area. 

Will is quiet, and gives me a long side-eyed look. “Nobody’s ever asked me that,” he responds. He looks thoughtful as he explains that when he was a kid, he would go downtown any day in the summer to find other kids to play baseball with. But by the time he was raising his own family, 20 years later, “you couldn’t even make a baseball team, even with every single kid in the town.”

During his and his dad’s lifetime, Will saw this lively agricultural community become dead row crop land. Writers (including me) have speculated for pages about what nudged Will down a different path, and the man is notoriously averse to nailing down one specific reason. But if you see that evolution in your hometown, and you want to return there anyway – maybe what you think of as “risky” starts to change.

Will did a wild thing – he started to get out of the commodity beef operation, the livestock equivalent of peanuts and corn, transforming his farm, over the course of years, into a completely different ecosystem. The Harris family farm was taking a risk – tearing up the playbook, and returning to a kind of radically traditional agriculture.

White Oak Pastures abattoir on farm processing

After touring around White Oak Pastures with Kylan to see the hogs, I sit with Kylan and Mark Harrison, the poultry manager, to take a break. We start to talk about their current focus: investing time and resources into training and reorganization of their departments. These two managers are drawing from quite a bit of experience in their fields to help further develop White Oak Pastures’ livestock programs. 

Part of this is the practical training that every manager must do. Mark admits, “I tell everyone around me that they should be able to have my job in 24 months, because I may move on.” But upon closer inspection, the deeper level of their work starts to become clearer – and goes beyond basic training.

White Oak Pastures practices holistic, regenerative land management, including rotational grazing, perennial cropping, and natural cycles of fertilizer and pest control. Many principles of this type of agriculture, while not exactly common today, were widespread just a few generations ago. And while traditional practices are growing more popular today, in the last few generations, some knowledge has been lost. 

“The issue with the [regenerative agriculture] industry is that most people who have generational knowledge about farming are on the conventional side,” says Kylan. Many multi-generational family farms use industrialized, centralized, commoditized methods, because of the perceived risk of “getting out of peanuts and corn”. In contrast, within the regenerative agriculture space, you frequently find many farmers who are agricultural transplants, career changers or well-meaning activists who may not have a background in agriculture.

But White Oak Pastures is an example of a small but growing number of family farms who are transitioning from conventional industrial farming to more regenerative methods – a generational farm, trying to turn in a completely different direction. This background puts White Oak Pastures, and its managers, in a unique position. 

Every farm (and organization for that matter), is operating under some sort of guidebook, a type of Standard Operating Procedure. Whether written out or not, general guidelines for how things are done need to be passed on, to ensure continuity in operations across seasons, people, and generations. Family farms, usually implicitly, have a standard operating procedure – one generation trains the next. Farm families pass on how things are done, transmitting experience and rules. 

But what do you do when you want to do something differently than your parents did? When Will Harris decided to leave commodity cattle production, he wasn’t just changing his production methods – he was leaving behind the playbook that his father had been writing on the farm. 

And when you tear up the playbook of a generational farm, you need to write a new one – one that refers back to the traditional knowledge in your family and also incorporates new developments in the understanding of natural systems. This is the task that Will, his daughters, and managers like Kylan and Mark are working on. They’re rewriting the rules for this kind of farming – and these new guidelines are focused on regenerating.


White Oak Pastures is constantly trying out new systems, experimenting and completing trials of new projects. Talking to Jacqueline DeWitt, the farm’s compost and many-other-projects manager, over a farm lunch, she mentions how many of her projects overlap with a number of different departments. 

“Everything is so interconnected at White Oak Pastures,” says Jacqueline. “If I want to make a small change in the compost process somewhere, I need to talk to so many different people – feeding and grazing and birthing and the kill floor – and see how it all fits together, to get everyone on the same page.”

This system is more complicated than peanuts and corn. And it requires a lot more collaboration, effort, people – and, as the operation grows, new rules.

The new playbook at White Oak Pastures contains a lot of new, and old, ideas, all aimed toward the regeneration of the land and improving the health of the soil, animals, and people involved. Managers like Kylan and Mark are establishing new grazing rotations, breeding methods, and feeding systems. The farm’s operating procedures include a focus on achieving “zero waste”, using every part of the animal possible and returning whatever cannot be used back to the ecosystem. Within the community, White Oak Pastures invests in farm employee retention initiatives like hosting repetitive motion training for workers in the butchery plants or looking into starting a child care facility in Bluffton.

But the biggest tear-up-the-playbook moment has come in the form of a recently released study from White Oak Pastures and a third-party ecological outcome verification firm. The study took a comprehensive look at all carbon generating and sequestering activities of the farm, and found that, overall, White Oak Pastures sequesters more carbon in the soil than its cows emit during their entire lifetimes. This news flew in the face of the expectations that most people have regarding livestock and climate change. The results of this study are still echoing around the agricultural world – making the move toward regenerative, holistic land management suddenly seems a little less risky.

Will Harris White Oak Pastures snake

Our favorite picture of Will Harris – it may have little to directly do with regenerative agriculture, but it tells you a whole lot about a man willing to pull over his truck to move a snake off the road. What were you thinking was risky, again?

“Everything here is a work in progress,” says Will. “The to-do list is freaking incredible.”

He continues. “Sometimes I have to say, ‘you know, we’ve been at this 153 years, maybe we ain’t doing this today.'”

Writing a new playbook, one based on regenerative agriculture, is a never-ending process, and maybe it doesn’t need to get done today. But taking the risk in the first place, seeing the faulty logic behind the rules that you’ve been given – and acting on it – is the first step. This is what can lead to entirely new playbooks, ideas, and contributions from a whole community. And these are the playbooks that may end up influencing people far beyond your pastured acres.

“Everything has gotten more complex,” Jenni Harris declares. We’re talking about the overlap between pasture management, soil regeneration, and the farm business, and she’s pulling in facts and figures from every which direction. “We’ve always had a lot going on, but because we had resiliency in our minds and attitudes, we didn’t say ‘fuck this’,” she recounts. “We said ‘we’ll figure it out’.”

“We’ll figure it out” seems to be the perfect response to anyone telling you that “it’s risky”. At White Oak Pastures, the Harris family frequently cites their family prayer of “plenty of good work and the strength to do it”. Writing the new playbook will certainly give them the good work, and, judging from their never-ending ideas and resilient attitudes – it seems like they have the strength to do it.

This series was created for the Regenerative Organic Alliance, with the cooperation of White Oak Pastures, to explore the human side of regenerative agriculture. This is Part Four, so if you want to read more, be sure to check out Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.