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.

*****

Part four of a four-part series on the human side of regenerative agriculture and the Regenerative Organic Alliance.

Part one

Part two

Part three

“It’s an ethereal f**king experience” – Meating

Brian Wolfe is the executive chef at Kimball House, a restaurant in the Atlanta that serves “food and drinks that reflect the seasons, farms, and personalities of the people preparing them”. Brian brings a long-time interest in butchery to the kitchen, and he spoke with us about his choices as a chef in the protein-ordering process at Kimball House.

Kocher: How does your kitchen approach buying meat?

Wolfe: At Kimball House, I purchase all proteins for the restaurant except oysters. For our oysters, Bryan Rackley [Kimball House owner] knows all the oyster farmers and has visited most of the farms. So I try to base my ordering within that kind of ethos – ordering as local as possible, as sustainable as possible, and trying our best to know all the people we get our stuff from.

Evans Meats out of Birmingham has taken a lot of our business. They’re family-owned and small, which I’ve learned is a great sign for ordering proteins. We get seafood from them, caviar, a lot of stuff.

We do get some non-regional beef. Beef is hard – most of our beef comes from coops in the Midwest, and we buy prime beef because I think the taste and quality of prime beef is better than grass fed. But we also do work with local farms- we get rabbits from a guy in southern Georgia, pigs from a guy in southern Georgia, pigs and beef from a place in Nashville, lamb from a farm near Athens.

Brian Wolfe butchering whole hog

What are other approaches to sourcing proteins have you seen?

I’ve been cooking for 13 years or so, and in control of ordering only in the last 5. But you see all kinds of different systems at different places – some places rely on orders that are completely questionable. You should order from people you trust; you shouldn’t want to only look at dollars per pound. I mean, ethically, you should be driven by what you think is the best-sourced product, the best animals. Some places, you get a list and you order from cost analysis only – that was always really frustrating to me because I wanted this sustainable practice that wasn’t really there.

If you’re dealing with a purveyor who does a super high volume, when they’re purchasing they only think about money. It’s only about monetary value and quantity and profit. I get it; it’s a business. But that said, when they buy large amounts of meat, their quality control is very low, and the variance in quality of the product we receive is wide. Some of it will be beautiful, some of it will be awful.

What cuts of beef do you buy?

We order “subprimals”, four to five whole ribeyes and/or strip loin a week, and we break everything down in-house from there. We don’t order individually purchased steak.

I’m pretty proud of our beef program, because we don’t buy that much but we’ll use literally everything. There’s no waste at all. All the fat gets rendered to cook in, bones and silverskin are roasted for stock, all lean trim gets ground for family meal, for the menu we get bone-in ribeyes – we confit and deep fry the ribs and use it as an entree.

For example, we get hanger steaks, which is on the diaphragm of the cow. There’s only one of them per cow. It’s kind of an odd muscle with a large piece of meat separated by cartilage that runs through it, and people typically trim that middle part out because they don’t cook it properly. But we cure it and cook it for 24 hours at 135 degrees fahrenheit, low temperature, basically make a perfect mid rare and melt the cartilage – so we get to a full yield. 

Kimball House behind the scenes

The quick turnaround to getting it butchered, cleaned, cured, cooked, and on the menu within the week is necessary – because that’s a large expense, and margins are thin for every restaurant.

 You have to be organized and use every single thing – not all of it turns into profit, but most of it does. Our outlet for beef, mainly, is a steak dinner portion of our menu and hanger steak entree. Steak is popular on the menu, but there’s not much else we can do with it. I prefer buying a whole loin as opposed to a tenderloin, so I have all of the other parts, the bits and bobs, to use. 

Most people in our kitchen are trained to break down the steaks – they already have their vessels and containers, they know what they’re going to get. We have it pretty streamlined and make it quick.

Why the focus on a quick turnaround?

For any beef loin or half hog (I never get a whole pig unless it is smaller) or lamb, the quick turnaround to getting it butchered, cleaned, cured, cooked, and on the menu within the week is necessary – because that’s a large expense, and margins are thin for every restaurant.

For us it is more cost-effective to get a half hog. There’s only so many cuts on it but if you utilize it well, and it doesn’t go to charcuterie and remain standing inventory, you can make your money back pretty quickly. But getting it on the menu and sold has to be the priority.

We get incredible, show-quality lamb from Two Brothers Sheep Company, out near Athens, Georgia. It’s expensive, but when we put it on the menu, people buy it and love it and we can get that good turnaround. But I need to have a goal in mind from the second I start, because the guy will ask if I want a big lamb or a medium one when I order – so I need to know how busy I’m going to be that week and what I can sell.

What’s the key to making your money back on selling local meat?

Whenever our food cost allows, we try to get ahold of a whole or half animal, because it is really cost-effective in the long-run. Then, as a team, we figure out what we’re going to do with it. But having an endgame in mind – from the beginning – allows you do make your money back, not waste things, use it appropriately, and move forward from there.

For example, if I buy a pig, we might buy multiple heads. A lot of people don’t use the head because they think they can’t make money off of it, or they think people won’t eat it. But we do head cheese or Coppa di Testa, sell three slices of a pig’s head for $16 with a bunch of garnishes and accoutrements. But from that $25 head you can get 50 slices, and that’s a ton of money – you can almost make enough money on the pig’s head to pay for the whole pig. That’s what I’m looking for.

A lot of people just want it to be simple. They want easy, they don’t want to have to worry about what am I going to do with this, they just want to open a vacuum seal bag. But for me, this is more interesting.

Another example: we get trout from Bramlett Farms in North Georgia, non-eviscerated, and my butcher processes them. If we get enough eggs to cure for caviar, we can cure our own roe and sell it on a caviar service for $30-$50 a piece. If I sell five of those, I purchased all the trout and then I’m still selling trout fillets, and every bit of those sales are profit.

A lot of people just want it to be simple. They want easy, they don’t want to have to worry about what am I going to do with this, they just want to open a vacuum seal bag. But for me, this is more interesting. You start with an endgame in mind, and know how much everything is going to cost – that’s what allows me to buy local, high quality proteins like that.

So how do you sell an entire animal to a public that prefers certain prime cuts?

Part of buying whole hog, whole sides of beef is knowing what you’re going to do with it – but it’s also educating guests to value all of it, not just the cuts that they’ve heard of. 

Kimball House housemade brine

How do you educate the guests then?

I’ve never worked with more interested, engaged servers than the ones at Kimball House. The staff, the front of house, they want to talk about things before service, and they’ll watch me butcher.

I talked about the pig head earlier – people think that they won’t be able to sell it, but that’s the job of the front house staff: to sell. Guests usually want to be told what they need to get. People want to be sold an experience.

Our sales are funny, especially in proteins. With interesting proteins like head cheese, terrine, offal, weird stuff, if our sales aren’t good I’ll first look at the way it’s worded under the menu. Because it’s wild, how that manipulates our sales to an insane degree. So I look at the menu first, and then I’ll cook the dish for the servers. I’ll make them eat it, I’ll plate it for them, I’ll show them pictures of the farmers, we’ll discuss it – and the sales will go up.

People who know what head cheese is, love it. It’s probably like 70/30 for people who try it for the first time. The 30% who don’t like it just think about it too much, with their own head cheese.

So you find a generally positive guest reaction to using all the “bits and bobs” of an animal?

We are very fortunate to have a relatively knowledgeable clientele for the most part. I’m very lucky. We don’t have a big sign out front, we don’t get many people who randomly walk in not knowing what they’re getting into.

Of course sometimes servers will come back and be like “Well, table 12, seat 3 wants to know where this is from, where this is from, where this is from” [editor’s note: please watch this Portlandia sketch] When that does happen I feel decent about the fact that I have an answer for every single one of those questions. And most of it is very local, I know the names of some of these animals.

The animals you get have names? Or numbers?

No, some of our animals have names. It’s not sad for me, but the lady who brings the pigs in is sometimes crying when she delivers them, because she helps raise them. We had one named Socks – they fucked up, because that’s too cute – and she came in crying and saying, “I know I fucked up and spent way too much time with this pig, but I saved it for you guys because I know you’re going to do a really good job”.

And then that night after service we butchered this pig and I told everyone, “the lady who delivered this literally cried in our kitchen, so you need to be really careful with how you handle this animal.”

It goes down the line, from the people who raise the pig all the way down to the servers who are selling it. People take it really seriously and respect it.

What is it like to run a kitchen with a butchery focus? 

Cooks who get to work with the whole animal get creative. It’s a morale booster; people enjoy it. It gets people’s creative juices flowing. A lot of restaurants literally never butcher animals, because it is more work than one person can do in a reasonable amount of time. But it’s something I’m really passionate about, and it completely runs down the line and I can get people involved with the different parts of it.

And looking at the animal, you get acquainted, you can see the kind of life that it had. That’s changed who I’ve ordered pigs from in the past. If you get three pigs in a row that obviously had tons of kill stress – and we test the pH of the pork when it comes in, and you can see what happens when a pig has released hormones and adrenaline and was stressed out – it does change the feeling, the texture of the meat. It has everything to do with the final taste of the product.

Kimball House Brian Wolfe processing whole hog

In the culinary world, there’s the growing consciousness of eating seasonally – guests are increasingly willing to pay for local fruits and vegetables in season. But we rarely talk about eating meat seasonally. Is there a season for local pork belly?

Historically there was seasonality, but we don’t see it as much anymore. Feed and shelter are so readily available now, so the fat and the health of the pig should be good year-round. A hundred years ago, that wasn’t the case – you had a long spring and summer into fall, and when food is plentiful the pig is plentiful and healthy and fat. So you would kill your pig in the fall, because that’s when it is the largest, and you need all that fat for preserving things in the winter.

But now we don’t feel that seasonality as much – there are lamb and goats, animals that reproduce at specific times, there is a seasonality to when that animal is becoming ready. Rabbit is something I brought under the menu in the last couple of months, there are rabbit breeding seasons when they are healthier and more plentiful. But really, we’re only affected by the volume that we can get, not the quality, because animals in the modern age are taken care of way better.

Where you see seasonality in protein more is with fish and shellfish. You can only get flounder a couple times a year because of their migration and reproduction patterns. Crabs, crustaceans, bivalves, sure, but you don’t see it in meat on the sourcing side.

Do you ever apply the seasonal, local ideals we use for fruit, vegetables, etc, to the meat you buy and use on your menu?

You do see the seasonality in the preparation. Seasonally, when it’s cold, people want comfort foods, we’re going to braise more things, so pork sells better in the winter time because there are more large braising cuts. But the seasonality is mostly based on what we want to be doing at that particular moment, which is exciting and fun.

The choices we make in proteins honestly comes from what vegetables we have available. That also leads to creativity – “oh, we have these dope carrots in the walk-in, we’re going to do something with that”. It’s full-circle.

We’re very well connected with proteins, and we can get whatever we want whenever we want it for the most part – but I kind of wish it was harder to get, you know what I mean? I like a challenge of you “we have these things to work with, what do you do?” That’s kind of where we are with produce. Because we can get the same meat each week, but the produce is going to determine the menu.

I get excited by the seasonally available produce. Sometimes you have a lot to work with and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you want to have a beet dish, but no one’s growing beets and you can’t. It was like that this year here, not many people grew beets for whatever fucking reason. 

A majority of my produce ordering is with farmers. Chefs and farmers are built way different, but I love working so closely together with them.

Kimball House Brian Wolfe whole hog

Why are sourcing your proteins this way and butchering so important to you?

Fitting in whole animal butchery is difficult. I don’t want it to be like that, but you have to have practice or learn under somebody. I’ve had years of practice at it and I’m finally getting better at it. But a lot of people get a whole pig and then they don’t know what the fuck to do with it and then they just go back to precuts. That’s why they get pre-portioned steaks and they don’t give a fuck about utilizing whole animals. And that’s a shame.

I’m learning and I’m able to teach people and I enjoy both of those things equally. When I have a deer that I or my dad killed at the restaurant, and I’m there late at night, listening to music and butchering it, it’s like an ethereal fucking experience that I really enjoy. It means a lot, and I think a lot of people miss that.  

When I have a deer that I or my dad killed at the restaurant, and I’m there late at night, listening to music and butchering it, it’s like an ethereal fucking experience that I really enjoy. It means a lot, and I think a lot of people miss that.

 I started to get this series of epiphanies at the beginning of my cooking career. One of them was about how I had watched my dad hunt my whole life. Eventually, I understood the importance of knowing where everything comes from – it was a crash course of “you go get it yourself or you don’t get one”. My dad had that hunting background, and he grew up working on farms, every summer from 7 until he was 19.

But I missed out on that agricultural experience that is a major part of his background, so I feel like I’m trying to make up for lost time in what I do. I deal with farmers everyday. I also help maintain our garden at Kimball House, and I think I look at things differently than some chefs who have never had the opportunity to be on the farm side. I was fortunate to be exposed to it, and now that makes it very, very important to me.

Blue and Green and White – Regenerative Organic Alliance

Before he starts to talk about his dead rock theory, Will Harris gives me the side eye and asks if I’m ready.

“For what?”

“I’m going to talk about colors.”

I nod, Will grins, and the truck eases down the road. We’re rolling slowly past his biggest herd of cows and calves, who had just gotten moved to new pasture that morning.

“Our planet was once dead rock, a moonscape,” Will starts. “Everything was all black and grey and brown.” He expands on the theory – water was either vapor or ice. The landscape was uninhabitable, and the atmosphere was poisonous.

And that’s how it would have stayed, except somewhere along the way – and Will certainly wouldn’t presume to tell you how, or the reason why – life began. Ecosystems began to form, and these ecosystems didn’t operate in black and grey and brown. They operated in colorful cycles, moving around energy, water, minerals, microbes, and, eventually, plants and animals.

“Over millions of years, these cycles transformed the black, grey, and brown into blue and green and white,” Will continues, parking the truck. We’re paused next to one of his pastures, the perennial grasses laced with beautiful, blooming red clover. Will describes the effects of temperature moderation, which led to liquid water. Symbiotic microbes broke down minerals in soil and rocks, making it available for plants. Plants didn’t bounce off energy, like rocks would, but instead absorbed sunlight and breathed in poisonous gases, changing the atmosphere. Animals could survive and grow in the new atmosphere, impacting the ecosystem with their life cycles as well. The cycles of the ecosystems caused that change away from a dead rock – and produced a bounty.

“You know those utopia pictures? Those old, framed photos that you would find in a thrift store, with the overflowing garden of Eden, all the plants and animals? That’s the cycles I’m talking about – the ones that naturally result in an abundance.”

These cycles contain “millions and millions of fishing lines”, forming a myriad of connections between all components. These fishing lines result in complexity, a distinction Will has made before (check out part one of this story). Complex systems have many moving parts that function together – and for the most part, if one thing changes, others adapt. When cycles are balanced, they absorb changes and keep on moving. These are the kind of cycles that “we can’t improve,” according to Will.

But in the era of industrial agriculture, “when homo sapiens got technology that made us powerful, we got convinced we could.”

Say you try to just pick out one fishing line – commodity corn, for example, or cattle – and try to pull it out, design for it, intervene. You use all the might of industrial agriculture, all the inputs and machinery and technology available. It may seem viable at first, but as the years go on, the effect on the natural cycles starts to become clearer.

“When you manage for the benefit of one species,” starts Will, “you do so at the expense of all others.” In other words, in complex systems, if you pull too much on one thread, you usually end up unraveling the whole picture.

“That’s what we did when we chose to prioritize cheap, commodity beef,” Will continues. “We broke the cycles.” And when you break down the cycles that grew the blue, green, and white, you start to snap fishing lines everywhere – or, in Will’s words, you start to “turn this son of a bitch back into a rock”.

White Oak Pastures field

As we pass by some neighboring row crop fields, empty in between plantings, I’m thinking about colors. The raw dirt is exposed, cracked – a maintained moonscape. My eyes are aching for the bursts of red clover that are popping up all over White Oak Pastures in the early spring.

Will’s got an oft-cited one-liner, “nature abhors a monoculture”. But these row crop fields are monoculture, dependent on a steady diet of inputs and maintenance. Talk to most commodity farmers, and you don’t hear about cycles – you hear about straight line rows, and straight lines of inputs to product to outputs.

*****

“The further north you go, the more recently the land was acquired.”

We’re touring again, passing a network of parceled pasture. When Will inherited the family farm, he started with around 1,000 acres. In the years since, transitioning toward regenerative agriculture, he started buying up other farms in the area as land became available. Today, White Oak Pastures owns around 3,000 acres of pasture.

Much of the farmland that the Harris family acquires was previously commodity row crop land that had been used to grow peanuts, corn, and soybeans for years. If you’re starting with fertilizer-dependent, monoculture-designed, raw, cracked, low-organic-matter soil – and your business is based on perennial pasture – well, what do you do?

“You kickstart the cycles with animal impact.”

Will calls it “hay bombing”.

*****

Hay bombing is less dramatic than it sounds. A herd of 2,000 or so cows, calves, and bulls stay in a field for an extended period of time. They are fed 40 bales of hay a day, in addition to the pasture grazing. In the first field we looked at, the herd had been there from December through March.

Cattle are an especially powerful tool, because they are, in Will’s words, a “walking fermentation tank”. The cattle eat, defecate, and knead any leftover hay into the ground with their hooves. When they’re done, the field is stripped bare – it is brown, and ugly.

But this walking fermentation tank technique provides a powerful kickstart to the ecosystem. After the cattle move to new pasture, the field is planted with perennial grass. There is plenty of rich, natural fertilizer available for the seeds, and the disturbed topsoil is craving some ground cover.

At first, quicker-growing annuals will shoot up over the slow-growing perennials, racing to outcompete for light and real estate. So White Oak briefly moves the cattle through again to mow down the annuals, opening up more space for the slower-growing perennials to continue taking root.

White Oak Pastures cattle

We drive past a parcel of pasture that was hay bombed a few months prior. It’s not pretty; the field is patchy and uneven. I look out the window and open up my mouth to ask a question – and find flies swarming my face.

Will rolls up the window. “This is part of the process too,” he explains. “At first, the flies explode. There’s no predators for them yet.”

Changes happen slowly. The first year, a number of annuals take advantage of the newly disturbed soil, but some perennial grasses take root as well. The next year, the process may be repeated – perennials are planted, annuals shoot up early looking to overtake them, and cattle are used to mow them down. The proportion of perennial grasses grows again.

Year after year, the process is repeated, refined, and changes start to happen. The fly population starts to decline, because as the perennial plants start to take over, ecosystems friendly to predator insects return too. The plant species mix shifts. Water percolation in the pasture starts to improve as the organic matter in the soil increases, which boosts perennials and their deep roots.

“You can see animal tracks, and feces start to appear too,” explains Will. As perennial pasture starts to take over, more wild animals start to move in tangent with the pastured ruminants. “Now, we get cattle egrets, visiting from April to October.”

White Oak Pastures compost pile

Cattle egrets at White Oak Pastures

Will shows us fields first hay bombed in 2018, 2017, and 2016. The differences are striking – the ground cover, the species mix, the proportion of annuals to perennials visibly shifts. Land that was formerly filled with straight-line row crops, dependent on chemical inputs and strict monoculture control, is moving closer to blue and green and white.

Leaving one of the fields that was hay bombed three years prior, we pause to watch the cattle nearby. I comment on the beautiful red clover for perhaps the 20th time that day, and Will smiles to crack a joke.

“Well I’m glad, because I paid a lot to make sure that clover was blooming while you girls are here.”

*****

Many of these land use ideas are based on biomimicry, emulating nature in the way we manage our land. The hay bombing, for example, is based on understanding how to use the movement of predator and prey. Will plays the role of a predator, moving these grazing animals around from field to field, making sure they don’t stay in one place too long. The cattle have a hard impact on the land, and then are moved, and the pasture is given a long rest and recovery. This is a prescriptive use of animal impact, using animals to shape and alter land.

Things like hay bombing and prescriptive animal impact, among many other regenerative practices, are part of a larger framework and movement in land management. Much of Will’s approach to land management comes from Allan Savory, a farmer and thinker that Will calls “the father of holistic range and pasture management”. (White Oak Pastures is one of the world’s global Savory Hubs, and one of the few hubs east of the Mississippi River.) And there are a number of groups moving in this space – for instance, Will is a board member of the Regenerative Organic Alliance, an organization promoting regenerative practices and overseeing the new Regenerative Organic Certification program. The movement toward holistic, regenerative, resilient, biomimicry land use practices is growing from many different directions.

But, for Will, all the different regenerative practices center around one thing: those colors. Previous attempts at industrialized, managed, monocultured, controlled dead rock are abandoned in favor of the cycles that bring us blue and green and white. Land management, using animal impact, sets the cycles in motion again.

White Oak Pastures Bluffton downtown

Downtown Bluffton

At the end of the day, Bailey and I meet Will at the farm’s “General Store”. The farm’s food truck is parked outside a long dining room in the back of the retail store, and everyone is in the mood to relax. We share a good meal – Bailey and I both order grass fed beef burgers, which are predictably delicious. One of Will’s daughters, Jodi, is there with her two children, and the rest of the table is filled out with staff and visitors there to attend a training on produce handling safety, hosted at White Oak.

I keep returning to the conversation that we had with Will earlier that day, looking at the white cattle egrets mingling with one of Will’s herds. I had asked him what indicators of health he looked for in his land, the large vital signs that indicated the pasture was doing well.

He listed a long list of things that you can measure, from water percolation to grass species per square foot, and then finally just pointed to the cattle egrets. “It’s signs of life. This place is teeming with life.”

Breaking natural cycles doesn’t just affect isolated farm plots. When we chose to prioritize maximizing the output from our farms, making the shift from one farmer and ten farm hands to one farmer, 150 acres, a tractor, and ammonium nitrate fertilizer, maybe we changed more than just cycles in the pasture. Bluffton experienced decades of closed businesses, aging demographics, and shrinking job opportunities. We tried to pull out one thread, industrial agriculture profits, and the cycle of a healthy community started to snap apart.

But as Jenni Harris, another one of Will’s daughters, likes to say, radically traditional, regenerative agriculture “brought Bluffton back to the party.” Because of White Oak Pastures’ growth and evolution, there are plans in place for new housing and talks of childcare facilities in Bluffton. Houses that had laid empty for years now have new tenants. There are jobs opening up in the community – White Oak is the largest private employer in the county – and places to spend your paycheck, in-town. These are re-kickstarted cycles in the community, supporting the growth of changing demographics and new generations.

Tonight, I’m surrounded by kids running around, fries hanging out of their mouth, happy. The young people down the table are loudly trading book recommendations over a few beers. The two women running the retail shop are trading stories and laughing to themselves, in between customers coming in to pick up snacks, drinks, and toiletries. The food that I’m eating was grown nearby, and the fresh vegetables on my plate are also available for sale at the store not 50 feet away. There’s music playing, and planters full of colorful local flowers blooming just outside the window, in downtown Bluffton.

There’s signs of life all over the place.

White Oak Pastures fields of clover

(If I hadn’t been ready to hear about colors, and you had wanted to read more, Will wrote it down beautifully in his very Will way on the White Oak Pastures blog. You can read his words here.)

Part two of a four-part series on the human side of regenerative agriculture and the Regenerative Organic Alliance.

Part one

Part three

Part four

Unintended Consequences – Regenerative Organic Alliance

I’m looking at two jars filled with dirt.

The first jar contains soil that looks like dried, cracked red clay. It reminds me of summertime corn and soybean fields in my hometown in Indiana, fields of straight-line crops laced with dry, exposed dirt. This soil sample in the jar had been taken from a field growing classic southern trifecta row crops: cotton, peanuts, and corn.

The other jar has deep, dark black, loamy soil, and as I lift off the cover I breathe in the smell of earth. Even though these two jars are housed inside an old, repurposed Baptist church, away from the elements, a few plant sprouts shooting out the top confirm the soil as a petri dish of fertility.

The two soil samples look worlds and ecosystems apart, but they actually came from two sides of the same fence in Bluffton, Georgia.

White Oak Pastures regenerative agriculture soil

I stand by that fence later that day, a line straddling two startlingly different fields. On one side, green pasture, owned by Will Harris III of White Oak Pastures. On the other side, row crops, planted by a Harris family cousin and maintained with a steady diet of chemical inputs.

I’m looking at the two jars writ large, the soil samples played out on the scale of acres. The side-by-side view of the two fields, under completely different management, is disorienting. Green, lush grass layered on top of itself, sitting next to straight crop rows separated by bare, raw soil.

“It’s monoculture, in rotation” explains Will, pointing to the row crops. “That’s left the soil with half of 1% organic matter. Mine has 5%.”

Organic matter is the life in the soil, made up of fresh plant residue, small living microorganisms, and stable, decomposed organic materials. Organic matter acts as a nutrient reservoir and provides structure in the soil. It also acts as a sponge, allowing the soil to absorb and hold water – for every 1% of organic matter, the soil can hold about one inch of rain.

“So if it rains an inch on his soil, half of it runs off. If it rains five inches on my soil, all of that water is absorbed into my field,” Will adds. In a county where it rains nearly every week of the year, the ability to retain rainwater can be a boon for the land.

Taken separately, the two fields look like two completely different ecosystems. To see them side-by-side feels like a pointed case study in land management.

But as Will explains, the soils aren’t actually separated by much: “nothing but 20 yards, a fence, and 20 years of holistic management.” That last part is important – because a few decades ago, Will’s soil didn’t look much different than the dried, cracked soil sample that we saw in the church.

White Oak Pastures Will Harris

Will Harris, owner of White Oak Pastures

In the mid-1940s, a salesman arrived in Bluffton, Georgia with a hundred pound bag of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Bluffton, originally established in 1815, was one of many small agricultural towns in the southwestern part of the state. In the era of “40 acres and a mule,” the town served as the business and trade center for farmers and their families on plots in the surrounding area. Although Bluffton had a small in-town population, some 7,000 people frequented the town to visit shops, the schools, a movie theater, and other small businesses.

To draw farmers into Bluffton, the salesman hosted an event at the local peanut processing facility, offering food, drink, and entertainment. Scenes like this played out all over the country during the decade: this salesman was there to move ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Although chemical fertilizer had been around for decades, the price had dropped significantly after the chemical factories used to make bombs in WWII realized they needed another product to market.

None of the farmers at the gathering had used ammonium nitrate fertilizer on their land before, and they couldn’t possibly believe the wild claims of productivity the salesman was making. So at the end of the party, the salesman packed up one-pound bags of the fertilizer for farmers to take home and try for themselves. He instructed the farmers to draw a fertilizer squiggle, circle, or some recognizable design on their land – and wait three days before checking the progress.

Will Bell Harris, Will Harris III’s father, brought his one-pound bag home and poured that fertilizer onto a small section of his pasture. His soil, despite being healthy grassland that had been supporting his family’s cattle operation for nearly 80 years, had never experienced such a windfall in concentrated nutrients. The design Harris drew with the ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded with plant growth.

Will Bell Harris, like farmers all over the country, was convinced, taking his first step on the path toward industrialized chemical agriculture. Will Bell Harris, and later his son, put fertilizer on every single acre of their family farm from 1946 until 2000.

The fertilizer inputs allowed the Harris family to grow their generations-long cattle operation into an efficient industrial machine, pumping out cheap and abundant meat from their pastures. The fertilizer inputs also slowly changed White Oak Pastures’ rich topsoil into, in the words of Will Harris, “dead mineral medium”.

White Oak Pastures neighboring fields conventional agriculture

Exposed row crop field on a farm neighboring White Oak Pastures.

Conversations with Will Harris tend to start with either quotable but occasionally off-color aphorisms, or questions that are so pointed you know he’s about to take you to school. I knew I was going to get the latter when Will asked if I was familiar with the difference between complicated and complex.

“Complicated things have a lot of moving parts to them – your phone, computers, the like. And if one part breaks, the whole thing stops working. If you fix the part that breaks, the thing starts working again.”

We’re touring around White Oak Pastures in Will’s truck, praying the rain holds off from the grey clouds rolling in from the southwest. We’re visiting one of his cattle herds, made up of new mama cows with their calves. Slowing the truck to a crawl in front of the pasture, Will motions towards his cattle.

“Complex things, like this herd, your body, an ecosystem, they have a lot of different parts too,” he continues, “but the difference is that they’ve got resiliency. If one part stops working, the other parts adapt.” He stops. “And if you think you can mess with just one part, you’re going to find some unintended consequences.”

Will’s definitions tie in closely with what he calls “reductionist” thinking, the idea that you can simplify a system into different interactions of elements. This thinking may work for fixing a computer, he says – change out each component separately, and the whole mechanism should work. But in a complex system, where different components are linked to one another through millions of different threads, reductionist thinking may get you more than you reckoned for.

Applying chemical fertilizer and pesticides to their pasture allowed Will and his father to scale up their cattle operation and earn a good living. As long as they provided the steady stream of inputs, they were able to squeeze out what they needed from the land.

But as the years went on, Will Harris started to notice that the soil was providing diminishing returns. They were still putting hundreds of pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer on every acre of their land every year, but these isolated inputs into the complex system were starting to show some unintended consequences – within and beyond the farm.

White Oak Pastures cattle grazing pasture

As chemical inputs and mechanized processes started to take over agriculture, the community surrounding Bluffton grew smaller and smaller. What once was one farmer and ten farm hands became one farmer, 150 acres, a tractor, and ammonium nitrate fertilizer. The era of the town as a hub for a thriving agricultural community was looking like it was coming to a close.

“When we industrialized, centralized, commoditized agriculture – we made this town irrelevant” recounts Will Harris, rolling his truck through downtown Bluffton. The effects of that period are still visible today – houses left to fend for themselves, one-time schools and shops slowly abandoned to the elements.

In between 1972 and 2016, there were no new housing starts in incorporated Bluffton. Demographics shifted, and young families, kids, or teenagers started to become a rare sight. The only people living in Bluffton were there for the “cheap real estate or equity” – houses passed on in a family until they weren’t, then, according to Will, “a poor person would buy it, then a poorer person bought it, then a poorer person bought it.”

150 years after its founding, Bluffton, Georgia was becoming a ghost town. First the movie theater closed, then schools, and then the stores. By the early 2000s, all you could buy in town was a postage stamp from the post office, which was cutting its operating hours anyway. In the lifetimes of Will Harris and his father, in between the fertilizer salesman coming to town and the early 2000s, Bluffton, Georgia had dwindled from a trade and social hub to a quiet, sparse town of 100 people.

“When we industrialized, centralized, commoditized agriculture – we made this town irrelevant.”

The first year that Will Harris didn’t use fertilizers and pesticides on his land, his topsoil looked dead and dry.

“Those fertilizers are like steroids. They make you look good right away, but you’re not actually building any strength in the long run,” says Will. “But farmers like looking good. It’s hard to give that up.” The first few years without chemical inputs, the grass at White Oak Pastures was sparse. It was a hard pill to swallow for a cattle operation that had been thriving off of a diet of fertilizers and pesticides for decades.

Many try to find a “come to Jesus” moment for Will Harris, but he’s unwilling to draw a line. White Oak Pastures’ shift away from industrial farming practices toward regenerative agriculture was gradual. Will’s incremental changes over time (like stopping chemical inputs, or refining the nutrient stream) were not, at first, motivated by a sweeping land management ethos. He was pursuing what he calls his “first passion” – animal welfare.

His growing concern for the animals under his care (a separate story in its own right) led him to a series of impactful decisions: giving up hormonal inputs and subtherapeutic antibiotics, for example, and stopping corn feed. But eventually, Will decided to address the final step in his cattle’s life – slaughter.

In 2007, White Oak Pastures took out an enormous loan to build an on-farm red meat processing plant. In 2009, a poultry processing plant followed. (Today, White Oak Pastures is still the only pasture-raised livestock farm in the country with both on-site).

With the processing plants on-farm, White Oak Pastures was able to do a radical thing: access the nutrient stream that comes with slaughtering an animal, and return it to the land.

At most conventional farms, and certainly most large-scale animal operations, you would hear talk about the “waste stream”. When you rely on inputs, like chemical fertilizer, for example, outputs and waste seem acceptable, part of the business model. Animals consume the nutrients from your land, and then those animals and nutrients are shipped off the farm – as cheap, commodity meat, or as slaughterhouse waste bound for a renderer. So you add more chemical inputs into the land to replace what you shipped away. This is the reductionist view, seeing your ecosystem as divisible into inputs and outputs.

But if you’ve decided to stop the chemical inputs, it becomes imperative to keep the nutrients on your land – which is why, when you’re at White Oak Pastures, instead of “waste stream”, you’ll hear the term “nutrient stream”. With a processing plant on the farm, White Oak Pastures had the opportunity to create as closed of a loop nutrient system as possible: livestock graze on the land, they are slaughtered on the farm, and whatever is left over is returned to the land.

In this complex system, gut fill, bones, and feathers from the plants are ground for compost. Long rows of compost line one field of the farm, fermenting for at least a year before being spread out on the fields. Grey water from the plants is washed into a series of six 5,000 gallon tanks, where it is progressively processed before being sprayed onto pasture.

“See how brown the water is? But look at how green the grass is!” says Will, proudly. We’re admiring the fields surrounding the red meat and poultry processing plants, which are centrally located next to the main offices and the on-farm restaurant. These fields are also the fields that supplied the beautiful soil sample we had seen in the jar, the fields adjacent to his cousin’s row crop land.

Closing the nutrient stream loop at White Oak Pastures was a radical step that started out of concern for animal welfare, but led the farm away from synthetic-input-based agriculture and toward regenerative land practices. Seeing the changes in the land, Will started to understand the complex nature of his ecosystems, and his focus began to evolve. His passion for animal welfare led him to what he defines as his new life passion – regenerating the land.

But as with all interactions with a complex system, this one came with an unintended consequence. Will is direct: “Regenerating the land is my passion. The rural enrichment was really an accident.”

White Oak Pastures General Store

Bluffton had endured decades of decline as the surrounding agricultural system became commercialized, centralized, and industrialized. But as White Oak Pastures made the transition to regenerative agriculture, Bluffton became revitalized too.

Over the past 20 years, White Oak Pastures has grown into an enormous, multi-tentacled organism. The farm’s departments operate like any other business, broken down and under oversight of different managers. Departments range from meat production with cattle, pigs, and poultry, to fresh produce and eggs. White Oak Pastures also offers on-farm cabin stays, a full-service restaurant, and a growing number of value-added products like candles, pet chews, and hides.

Every new element of the farm business has created new jobs and new growth. In the early 2000s, White Oak Pastures had three employees making minimum wage. Today, 20 years later, over 160 employees work at the farm, earning twice the county average. “Pretty much everyone in the town who works, works for us,” explains Will.

About 15 years ago, as the company started to grow more rapidly, White Oak Pastures also started buying houses, lots, and storefronts. Today, the farm operates a general store in downtown Bluffton, where, for the first time in decades, you can buy fresh produce, toiletries, and snacks in-town.

White Oak Pastures owns and rents housing all around the town, remodeling houses that had had laid dormant. With the influx of employees and the continued growth of the company, White Oak Pastures is also building new housing in Bluffton. The company recently secured an on-farm farmworker rural housing loan from the USDA to build accommodations for 24 more employees.

Will doesn’t claim too much credit for the revitalization – he sees it as an accident, a “byproduct” of regenerating the land. When asked about his role in the town’s growth, he tends to deflect. But the effects of the shift toward a regenerative agriculture focus are difficult to ignore in the new construction, new faces, and new energy in Bluffton, Georgia.

Even within the Harris family, the company’s growth has provided for the next generation. Two of Will’s daughters work on the farm, running new arms of the business that have come along with the regenerative growth (more on them in our next installment).

Will is matter-of-fact. “I don’t believe my daughters would have come back [to Bluffton] if I still did what I used to do,” he says. “It wasn’t planned, but it is very pleasant.”

White Oak Pastures’ transition to regenerative agriculture changed their soil, their land, and their animals’ lives. But regenerating the land also changed the business, and the town, along the way – unintended consequences that weren’t planned, but, as it turns out, are very pleasant.

White Oak Pastures pavillion employee lunch

Will Harris and White Oak Pasture employees and visitors during lunch at the on-farm restaurant.

 Part one of a four-part series on the human side of regenerative agriculture and the Regenerative Organic Alliance.

Part two

Part three

Part four

Suitcase Full of Honey – Chow Club

Yohana Solomon

When Yohana Solomon was preparing for her mother, Gezachin Fantaye, to visit from Ethiopia, the first thing she did was deep clean her kitchen. This is because she knows that in her family, visits are all about food.

“We wake up; we cook breakfast. Then breakfast will be done, and we’re getting ready for lunch. Then lunch is finished and somebody is coming over for dinner,” explains Yohana.

We are talking around a platter of tibs, a rich beef stew surrounded by rolls of injera, the omnipresent Ethiopian bread. Bailey and I had expected just a normal interview until Yohana, Gezachin, Aunt Shewaynesh, and Yohana’s daughter Seseni tumbled through the door with bags full of ingredients.

Into the kitchen we went, Gezachin quickly and efficiently adding everything to a sizzling saute pan and finishing a steaming-hot lunch in a matter of minutes. We now sit surrounding the communal platter, trading stories while tearing pieces of injera to scoop up the stew.

My own mother would be horrified with the amount of questions I am asking with a mouth full of food, but I can’t help it. Gezachin and Auntie are quite literally feeding me bite after bite, reaching across the table to politely (and relentlessly) offer me more food. Yohana explains this gesture, called “gursha” in Amharic, as a symbol of care and hospitality.

“You cannot do it just once, or you may have relationship troubles.” Yohana explains. I nod silently, as I continue to chew this delicious mouthful of food that Gezachin just carefully placed in my mouth. I can see her preparing another bite, her eye on me.

Yohana grins. “You have to say yes, otherwise the interview won’t go well.”

Old friendsIn my experience, there is no mother on earth who will let you leave their table hungry, and Gezachin is no exception. She traveled from Ethiopia to the US with luggage filled to the brim not with personal belongings, but with things to feed her family: Ethiopian herbs, spices, green coffee, and honey. Gezachin will be using these well-traveled ingredients to cook for her family, and anyone else in the vicinity, during her many-week stay.

When Yohana was growing up in Ethiopia, food was always at the center of the family. She doesn’t recall her mother directly teaching her any recipes, but through watching, tasting, and practice, Yohana learned how to cook Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Italian food. Yohana and her sisters were expected to cook for the family from a young age, and Yohana has taken those experiences with her as she has grown her own cooking and catering business in Atlanta.

Even now, with the family spread out between two continents, food is still the center of their relationship. This is Gezachin’s first visit in four years, and the self-described “ultimate foodie” family spends much of their visit deciding what they are going to eat next.

In particular, they seek out cuisines that they think have a lot of flavor, just like Ethiopian food – Gezachin lists Cuban, Chinese, Indian, Thai, and numerous Middle Eastern cuisines being among her favorite. Any American food she likes in particular?

“Burgers,” Gezachin says without hesitation. Yohana laughs.

Solomon Family

Mother and daughter also cook together, although they both describe the occasional “war in the kitchen”. Sometimes, one of them finds it best to leave the cooking to the other and just reconvene over the dinner table. Yohana says that while her mother might not have taught her strict recipes, she definitely lets you know what she thinks about your style.

“Gezachin means ‘one who conquers'”, explains Yohana, “and she lives up to her name.”

No matter the kitchen disagreement, the two of them love each other’s food, and they always return to a shared meal. Watching the jokes, laughter, and injera passed back and forth, the love between the pair is clear. “Food is her way of communicating that she cares.” Yohana says, smiling at her mom. Gezachin nods in agreement.

Gezachin’s visit to the US overlaps with our Mother’s Day holiday. I ask her what she thinks of the holiday, and the mother and daughter trade looks.

“Every day is mother’s day in our family.” Yohana replies.

And why shouldn’t it be? After all, this is a woman who comes to visit with a suitcase full of spices. Gezachin is prepared to show you how much she cares. She is prepared to feed you.

Pigs, and Weathering the Storm – Regenerative Organic Alliance

“Well, just look at a pig’s face,” instructs Kylan Hoover, swine manager at White Oak Pastures. We’re standing next to the fence lining the border forest, watching the herd of pigs that had come running over at Kylan’s confident approach. He’s got one foot propped up on the fence, his hands gesturing toward the pigs crowding around.

“See how there’s a flat disc up front, their nose? Think about their face as a shovel. The top of the disc is the cutting edge, the disc is the bottom side of the shovel.”

Kylan starts to mimic a shovel with his hands. “When pigs root, looking for food, they do a scooping movement.” He sighs and drops his arms. “Do you see it? A pig’s basic movement is tilling the soil.”

White Oak Pastures hogs pasture raised pigs

Kylan is part of the management team at White Oak Pastures, an operation known for practicing and advocating holistic, regenerative land management practices. “Regenerative agriculture” is no simple thing – keeping the life in the soil intact requires a lot of moving parts. In a regenerative pasture system, you’re trying to build a diverse ecosystem of different kinds of perennial polycultures. You’re wanting resilient, established root systems in the ground. You’re working to sequester carbon in the organic matter in the soil, keeping the nutrients and minerals you already have in the ground as well. All of this usually means… avoiding tillage.

“It’s tricky to use pigs instead of cows in your regenerative rotation, because pigs are a destructive event.” Kylan looks back at the pigs. “So we’re out here trying to regenerate the soil, keep the tilth, the bacteria, mycelium, etc intact – and if pigs were on the pasture, they would turn over the soil and bake it in the sun.”

He knows the question most people want to ask. Why the hell would you use pigs in your holistic grazing operation?

White Oak Pastures is usually associated with cattle. Will Harris III had inherited a conventional commodity cattle operation. During Will’s return toward holistic, “radically traditional” agriculture over the last 20 years, cattle remained the backbone of the operation. But that growth toward regenerative practices also grew the number of species living on the farm. Today, over 10 species make up a verifiable ecosystem of different kinds of animal impact – including herds of pigs.

But while feral pigs roam all over south Georgia (and an individual hog can cause an enormous amount of destruction by itself), domestic pigs can cause an even bigger impact when concentrated in herds. So most people ask: where do you put a herd of pigs, to limit their damage?

For Kylan, and White Oak Pastures, it’s not always a question of limiting the destruction that pigs can do – it’s asking, “where can their intense damage be helpful?”

White Oak Pastures Kylan Hoover field

Pigs were added to White Oak Pastures’ ecosystem, partially, because the farm relies on diverse business revenue streams to do the work it does (pork, no surprise, can be good for business). But hogs were also added because a holistic land management system requires many different kinds of animals for different kinds of roles.

White Oak Pastures’ land management aims for a savannah landscape, which Will describes as a warm, seasonal, perennial multiculture. This savannah goal includes some 20-30% shade, providing resting areas for animals and encouraging more diverse plant species and ecosystems. White Oak plants hundreds of different trees in their pastures every year, including pecan, peach, and other local trees. But some land, especially new acquisitions, already contains some of shade.

“What corn is to Iowa, pine trees are to Georgia,” Will Harris tells us, driving past the strips of timberland that border some of his tracts of land. Over the years, Will has acquired a number of commodity crop fields, flanked by factory pine silviculture (tree cultivation).

Although we normally associate monoculture with crops like corn and soybeans, this pine was planted for commercial pulp production in very much the same way. Land under silviculture is a little disorienting to look at –  an eerily overdesigned forest, trees lined up neatly in evenly-spaced rows. But once the pine is no longer being harvested, if left alone, these monocultured pine plantations would turn into the kind of jungle you can see on the edge of the highway – thick, impenetrable forest that frequently ends up taken over by an invasive plant like kudzu or buckthorn.

But at White Oak Pastures, these border forest areas, many former pine plantations, are part of the plan: the farm is trying to grow what they call silvipasture, or “pasture in the woods”, providing that shade for the savannah. To kickstart the transition away from overgrown timberland and toward a healthy savannah ecosystem, they need to use some big animal impact.

And nobody does animal impact like pigs do animal impact.

White Oak Pastures hogs 1

“Put pigs in a longleaf pine plantation, and they’ll turn over the soil, expose it,” Kylan explains. If you keep them there for a week, or a month? “They’ll keep foraging, and if left long enough, they’ll even girdle the trees eventually.”

Omnivores, like pigs, play a special role in prescriptive grazing practices. “Herbivores are focused on moving, because they know what they can eat but they need to constantly find more of it and avoid carnivores. Carnivores are super focused, because if they don’t kill, they don’t eat,” explains Kylan. “Omnivores do a little of both, but they’re more motivated by curiosity – they’re asking, ‘can I eat that?'” (Kylan adds: “that’s why they’re smarter too – think pigs, raccoons, bears… humans.”)

At White Oak Pastures, curious, foraging pigs are “the first line” of opening up a pine forest and turning it into savannah. Pigs tear up holes in a forested, overgrown landscape, opening up brush so sun can hit the ground and new plant life can start. After the first team of pigs, sheep and goats can start to get through the holes, opening up even more of the forest. With brush cleared, humans, too, have the opportunity to come in, thin trees, and alter the plant life. Finally, cattle have the opportunity to come through.

Kylan takes us on a tour of different sections of what’s planned for silvipasture. We start with an area that hasn’t seen any animal impact yet, the woodlands dense with overlapping vegetation and canopy. Looking at the forest, it’s hard to imagine any animal, let alone cattle, ever fitting through the brush.

We then visit a rotation of other sections, seeing where the pigs had been at the month prior, the month before that, and the month before that.

Kylan stops at the last section, where the pigs had been in January, three months prior. “When they left, this was a moonscape,” he says. Now, it was totally green again – but unlike the thick jungle we had seen previously, sunlight was peeking through to the ground.

White Oak Pastures hogs 2

In October of 2018, Hurricane Michael, a category 3 hurricane (the first to directly land on the state in more than 100 years), swept through the southeast. Bluffton, Georgia, 100 miles from the gulf and with 300 feet elevation, doesn’t normally get hurricane effects. This storm, however, passed through with 115 mph winds and left devastating damage.

White Oak Pastures knew the storm was coming and worked around the clock to prepare the farm for its arrival. When the storm had passed, the Harris family took stock of the damage. While no employee or community member was hurt, they had lost a significant number of their poultry, and some other animals had been wounded. A number of structures and fences, including those central to the plants and fulfillment centers, were damaged. Fortunately, on the operations side, only two truck shipments were delayed (and customers were extremely accommodating for both).

But overall, Will told us, “that storm damage kicked my ass”. Pointing to a number of enormous, old, downed trees in one of his pastures, he explained, “since we don’t normally have storms like that, there’s less of a natural thinning of trees. The damage was devastating for the trees at White Oak Pastures.”

After the storm, Jenni Harris, one of Will’s daughters and the Director of Marketing, received an outpouring of prayers and well wishes from White Oak Pastures’ supporters and customers. But while she appreciated the kind wishes, she knew that what White Oak Pastures needed most after the storm was, simply put, business. Jenni put out a call to action email to the farm’s community, asking for orders from the online store, to put production, processing, fulfillment, and the rest of the farm to work. The message ended with, “The Harris prayer has always been ‘We pray for plenty of good, hard work and the strength to do it.’ We have the strength, please give us the work.”

Jenni still looked dazed, describing the response, months later. “We had a bigger October than we did November and December, which has never happened. We were so grateful.” Customers and supporters flooded the farm with orders, adding business behind their well-wishes. According to Jenni, the amount of support from the community was overwhelming, “so we got to work”.

Business recovered, and over the months, farm operations slowly returned to a new normalcy. Hurricane Michael was an enormous challenge for White Oak Pastures, but the family and the business were able to withstand the hardship, and continue on.

With all the talk about building resiliency in the soil, it’s hard to avoid connections to the business and community. “Will, Kylan, a lot of our managers – they’re focused on the resiliency in the soil,” says Jenni. “I focus on the resiliency in our customer base, our business, our production.”

That focus on resiliency means that what you put out, you get back, in abundance. Resiliency in the land allows you to produce a bounty. Resiliency in your business, in your relationships with customers and business partners, means that you’ve created a community of support, just when you may need it most.

White Oak Pastures visitors tour

“This southern plain doesn’t have a proper rock for miles,” explains Kylan, smoothing a few small pebbles in his hand. “This is it.”

We’re not looking at much. Bailey, Kylan, and I have finished with our herd of pigs, and we’re crouched next to the red dirt road running alongside one of the former pine plantations, checking out the small, multi-color pebbles that line stream lines on the ground. Kylan tells us, “Will’s said that his dad always told him, ‘pebbly ground is the best ground’ – because that meant you had access to minerals.”

White Oak Pastures soil health pebbles field

Kylan points to the grasses edging the dirt road, whose roots are exposed in a cross section. “So if you have those materials, nutrients, on your land – you don’t want them washed away to the swamp, and then taken downstream.” The way to keep the minerals, the nutrients there, Kylan explains, is roots. “This is Georgia. It may have never had the 10-foot deep roots of the tall grass prairie, but the Longleaf Pine/Wiregrass ecosystem was one of the most biodiverse in North America.”

But White Oak Pastures’ regenerative agricultural practices, and long-term stewardship, are invested in getting roots deep in the ground. Every decision along the way, from how they use pig animal impact to creating a savannah through regenerative practices, is designed to support perennial polycultures and resiliency in the soil.

But for White Oak Pastures, focusing on the roots isn’t separate from focusing on the livestock, or the people. In Kylan’s words, “Savory talks about the connection between people, landscapes, and livestock – if you build those roots, animals and people will be supported by that.”

And at White Oak Pastures, the roots, the animals, and the people are still there – supported, resilient, and ready to weather any storm.

White Oak Pastures Kylan Hoover

Part three of a four-part series on the human side of regenerative agriculture and the Regenerative Organic Alliance.

Part one

Part two

Part four