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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.”
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.