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

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

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