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June 22, 2012

Back to the Land, Page 4: Will Harris Lets Nature Lead the Way

Georgia farmer's animals are pasture-raised without chemicals or drugs

All Animals magazine July/August 2012

  • Will Harris' egg-laying chickens enjoy fresh grass outside their mobile hen house.    Julie Busch Branaman

by Karen E. Lange

Farm: White Oak Pastures
Location: Bluffton, Georgia
Certified Step 4 for cattle: Cattle  are not dehorned and are raised on pasture with constant access to shelter.
Certified Step 5 for chickens:  Chickens are bred for the outdoors and spend their lives on pasture.
Website: whiteoakpastures.com

In an out of the way corner of Georgia, close to the Florida border, Will Harris enjoys his own little stretch of the Serengeti. He rises at 5 a.m. to drink a cup of coffee and watch cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, turkeys, guinea hens, and geese graze and swim. And he ends each day drinking wine from the bottle, watching the sun set over the flat green fields bordered by pine trees and scrubby oaks. In between, Harris, who sports a goatee and covers his head against the sun with a cowboy hat, herds his cattle from a jeep. “Goup, goup, goup—come on!” he calls. The cattle run and moo over what looks like an endless expanse of grass.

“I love my herd and flock as much as you love your dog or cat,” he explains. “I don’t love the individual within it—I love the cycle, the system.”

What Harris has created on his family’s 2,500-acre ranch is based on the famous East African ecosystem, even if the animals involved aren’t wild: Large ruminants graze, then small ruminants, then birds, all fertilizing the soil with their manure. Since most parasites and diseases are adapted specifically to one type of animal and cannot survive in the gut of another, this keeps them from spreading. Harris transplanted the Serengeti to Georgia in his early 40s, when he grew tired of fattening up cattle in a feedlot and sending them across the country without food or water in double-decker trucks, where they urinated and defecated on each other. Now he’s ranching like his grandfather and great-grandfather did, raising animals without antibiotics, hormones, chemical fertilizers, or pesticides and butchering them on the farm.

Harris’ friend, Virginia Willis, a food writer and cookbook author, says White Oak Pastures’ grass-fed beef is a revelation to most people. “There’s a fullness and a richness. It’s gamier.”

As a conventional cattleman, Harris made money every year. When he switched to the new model, he lost money. Harris spent $5 million to build the cattle and chicken slaughter plants on his property (animal welfare expert Temple Grandin was a consultant). It costs him a quarter to a third more to produce beef and about double to produce chicken. Fortunately, Whole Foods bought his meat, and “Certified Humane” and “Animal Welfare Approved” certifications helped sell it. Though still searching for more buyers for his chicken, Harris finally made money. He’s hoping his GAP step ratings will pay off as well.

“In my 20s, the idea of really producing a lot of meat as efficiently as possible—giving it whatever I needed to give it to make it grow—was kind of exciting,” he says. “... [But] you really are fighting against nature. … Now we try very hard to emulate nature … let the animals express their instinctive behaviors.”

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