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

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