“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.”
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?”
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.