Before he starts to talk about his dead rock theory, Will Harris gives me the side eye and asks if I’m ready.
“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”.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
(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.
Stay tuned for more.