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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