“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!

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

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.