Cows were born to roam and graze. Hogs were born to root and wallow. Chickens were born to scratch and peck. According to Will Harris and White Oak Pastures, these are the natural behaviors of animals, making them commonsense tenets of how to raise healthy livestock. “Nature abhors a monoculture,” is one of Will’s favorite sayings.
Five generations of Harrises have farmed a tract of land in Georgia that now raises livestock using traditional, multi-species grazing rotation, no hormones and no antibiotics. But, business was not always done this way. Post WWII, the Harris family farm moved away from the traditional ways of doing things and began raising livestock using more chemicals and fertilizers and blending into the industrialized complex of food production. In the mid-90’s, Will Harris, the current head of White Oak Pastures, made what some called a foolish decision to bring the family farm full circle: moving back to the traditional ways of natural grazing, healthy animals, and respectful butchering.
Harris is the first to admit that making that change wasn’t easy or cheap. In Joe York’s documentary, Cud, produced by the Southern Foodways Alliance, he said, “I was a very conventional cattleman for many years. I went to the University of Georgia and majored in Animal Science and I learned industrial beef production and came home and did it. I used hormone implants on my cattle, fed…antibiotics, confinement-fed a high carbohydrate or corn and soy diet, and used all of the other tools that science had given us to make beef production cheap, and quick, and efficient. But, as I approached middle age, the excesses of that production system came to bother me more and more.”
Ultimately, Harris decided to transition into a grass fed, pasture-grazing style of farming. They stopped using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, something Will Harris admits was difficult. “I’ve never used cocaine,” he said, “but using particular nitrogen-based fertilizers, I believe, is like cocaine for farmers.”
Maggie and I visited White Oak Pastures on the way back from Florida last month and toured the farm with Will. As we rode around the 2,500 acre farm in his pick-up truck, Will called these early years “dark days.” The commitment, the change, and learning new ways nearly cost him the family farm. “Dark days,” he said again. “Can you imagine?”
The farm has expanded from what was once a monoculture of cattle to include sheep and poultry (guarded by 12 beautiful Great Pyrenees dogs) that roam freely and breed naturally. This is certainly not the cheapest or easiest way to raise livestock, but the Harrises and the entire staff they call “cowboys” at White Oak Pastures have adopted it as a lifestyle and have even dedicated themselves to seeing their animals through every stage of their life. They have built on-site abattoirs to ensure a dignified end to their days. Their plant was designed by Temple Grandin famed doctor of animal science, and is intended to allow the animals a humane passing. Dark days behind him, Will says to me, “I’m happy every day. I love this life.”
Our visit only reinforced for me the connection between the slow food and the slow fashion movements. We at Alabama Chanin make every effort to be a zero waste company, using only necessary materials, reusing everything we can, and throwing very little away. The Harrises take this zero waste approach to everything they do at the farm. Their animal remains are processed in an on-site digester and used as organic fertilizer for their pastures. They are learning to tan hides to increase useable output from their well-loved animals.
More than that, almost half of the farm’s energy is derived from solar panels. They have a small organic farm that grows heritage fruits and vegetables, which the employees are encouraged to take home to share with their families. Like us, the Harrises believe that their skilled workers are artisans. White Oak Pastures employees work on non-mechanized lines rather than rushed and more dangerous assembly lines. When we visited, we ate the “cowboy” lunch that the farm serves every day: organic, farm-raised food for just $1. The pavilion where they eat during the week becomes a farm-to-table restaurant on the weekends. There are plans to build cabins or a bed and breakfast on the property so that others who want to learn more about farming organically and ethically can attend workshops on just about everything White Oak Pastures does – animal welfare, land and food management, growing, and canning.
Will Harris is a fourth generation cattle farmer and offers what he calls “Southern Cowboy Common Sense” on how to recognize if animals are being well treated: “If you would like to open up a lawn chair and drink a couple of glasses of wine while you watch the animal, then you have good animal welfare.”
Transparency is the key to ethical production, no matter what industry you are in. Fast fashion and fast food are both unhealthy lifestyle models that harm individuals and environments. White Oak Pastures is setting an example for a league of industries to follow. Ours included…