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A Higher Purpose

by Feifei Sun

White Oak Pastures is a zero-waste farm in Georgia that practices the Serengeti grazing model, with abattoirs built by animal welfare activist Temple Grandin. But that wasn’t always the case.

White Oak Pastures, a three-hour drive southwest of Atlanta, is easily one of the nation’s most innovative and sustainable farms. But you would never know it at first glance. Located off a state highway in quiet Bluffton, GA, which has a population of roughly 100 (many of whom work at the farm), White Oak Pastures prefers substance to flash. The simple entrance sign lets visitors know they’ve arrived, and it’s not unusual for guests to be greeted by owner Will Harris—dressed in a cowboy hat, jeans and boots—himself.

Much of Harris’ motivation for sustainable agriculture is informed by empirical evidence: healthier practices result in healthier animals and land. To that end, he operates White Oak Pastures as a zero-waste farm that practices the Serengeti grazing model, where complementary animal species are rotated through the pasture in an order that naturally fertilizes land and makes the most of its use. The farm is completely free of pesticides, chemical fertilizer, hormones and antibiotics, and all animals are processed in abattoirs that were built on the farm with the input of animal welfare activist Temple Grandin. In fact, White Oak Pastures is the only farm with pasture-raised livestock to have separate USDA-approved abattoirs for poultry and red meat.

The meats are shipped off to retailers like Whole Foods, while the animal fat contributes to the farm’s biodiesel fuel, homemade soaps and lip balms. Animal scraps end up in dog treats; animal hide is sent to a local tannery and turned into leather products; guts and bones land in compost.

But Harris’ devotion to holistic and sustainable agriculture is rooted in more than just farming facts. “I never think about how to squeeze more production out of this farm. This land, these animals, and the people working on the land—I’m focused on making the system better for them,” he says.

That hasn’t always been the case for him, a fact that Harris is the first to admit. Founded in 1866 by a former Confederate soldier, White Oak Pastures operated for more than a century as a traditional or industrial cattle farm. Harris is the fourth generation of his family to run White Oak Pastures; two of his daughters, Jenni Harris and Jodi Benoit, make up the fifth generation of the Harris family directly involved with the farm’s operations.

“I used to only be concerned with producing as much beef as possible at the lowest cost,” Harris says. “That was my only focus—and I was probably obsessed with it.” But around 1995, Harris says he developed a “higher purpose” after becoming disgusted by the waste and excess associated with the production cycle of industrial farming. Inspired by the activists like Allan Savory and Michael Pollan, Harris slowly began to implement sustainable practices, like removing hormone implants and pesticides. And while they were financially painful decisions at the time, more than 20 years later, Harris says he has no regrets.

But for all the ways Harris has transformed White Oak Pastures from a conventional farm to a pioneer in sustainable agriculture, he’s most proud of the fact that two of his children have chosen to come back and work on the farm. Harris made both daughters work elsewhere before coming home—“I wanted them to experience working for someone else so that on Monday morning, when I made them do something they didn’t want to do, they wouldn’t think it was just daddy being mean,” he says. Middle daughter Jenni is the farm’s marketing manager, while youngest daughter Jodi, who spearheaded the development of White Oak Pasture’s new visitor lodges, serves as events manager. Together, they’ve expanded other parts of the business, too, including farm tours and workshops that explore topics such as soil health and bald eagle habitats.

“I feel really fortunate to have had an understanding and appreciation—from a really early age—for where our food comes, so it makes me really happy to be able to share that with other people,” Benoit says.

And as the farm celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, the Harris family’s ambitions for the land—and the community that it has cultivated—are only growing. “Being sustainable is not good enough because that just means you’re keeping things the way they are,” Harris says. “We want to be regenerative. That means you’re making it better.”

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