Will Harris III (BSA ’76) got something crazy into his head in the mid 90s. It was a line of thought that challenged the very nature of his family’s century-old cattle business. Instead of quantity, he decided to shoot for quality.
“Basically, I had started to recognize the unintended consequences of the tools that reductionist science had given us to take cost out of production,” said Harris, the owner and operator of White Oaks Pastures in Bluffton, at Terry Third Thursday. “The first thing I did was to cease using performance enhancing drugs – hormone implants, therapeutic antibiotics, on my cows. By this time the farm had been reduced to monoculture of only cattle. If you don’t remember anything else, remember this: nature abhors a monoculture. And I quit feeding grain to cattle. Cattle are really not meant to eat grain.”
When Harris took over the farm from his father, White Oaks was a profitable company that employed three other people. The business operated on a simple, guiding principle: to squeeze as much beef as possible out of the cows. But that operation had begun to take a toll on the land – and on Harris, who started to question the industrial revolution of first-world farming.
“My father took over the farm post World War II. That generation made the first really sweeping changes to agriculture. It was done for very noble purposes. People were starving in Europe. Their changes made food cheaper and abundant,” Harris said. “They centralized agriculture: Farming stayed in the country, but the value addition moved to urban areas. They commoditized agriculture. All of a sudden it wasn’t about making your crop the best it could be, it was about meeting the minimum standards set by USDA. And they industrialized agriculture. They applied the Henry Ford idea – make cars at the car factory, make chickens at the chicken factory, make pigs at the pig factory. And it was incredibly successful. It was the first time food was really abundant and cheap in all the industrialized world. But there were unintended consequences, and those fell on the backs of the welfare of the animals, it fell on the degradation of the land from an environmental perspective, and in the impoverishment of rural America. Our little town of Bluffton had 400 people in 1900. The census today says 102. That’s not good progress.”
So Harris backed things up. No more hormones, no more grain. But that didn’t settle his mind. His land was POISONED from years of chemical fertilizers. So he stopped using them. Instead, he brought in a mix of animal species to regenerate the nutrients of his soil.
But it was a gamble. He borrowed money and went into debt, hoping that a more sophisticated consumer who valued his new practices would be willing to pay a higher price for pasture-raised meat.
“I thought I was the premier born-again farmer,” he said. “And I farmed like that for a while. Then I realized that hauling animals 100 miles away to get slaughtered by somebody who doesn’t have the same animal welfare values as us is not good. So we built two slaughterhouses. So by this time we weren’t making money any more because we were adding value to the product that we couldn’t extract from the market. The $7.5 million we spent building those plants was borrowed money. We were bleeding to death. But, very fortunately, we caught traction in the market and the business grew. And today, our annual profit is greater than before we transitioned.”
Now White Oaks Pasture is the largest private employer in Bluffton, employing more than 120 people. It features a restaurant on the grounds, which cooks meals from the animals and plants raised there, and cabins for agro-tourists. The farm continues to expand, too, spinning off satellite businesses. For example, White Oaks makes its own biofuel out of fat from its cutting room to run its tractors. That, in turn, spins off glycerin that’s used for making soaps and balms.
While it’s successful, Harris chafes at being heralded as the future of American farming.
“There is a growing awareness that creates a growing demand for food that’s raised with higher levels of animal welfare and environmental sustainability. Most of us intuitively believe that there may be some health benefits to it. I don’t comment on those things. I used to but then I realized how stupid farmers look talking about nutrient density and amino acids. There are dieticians and doctors and nutritionists who do that. The growing awareness is what allows us to catch traction on our farm and let our business become profitable again. But let’s not get too carried away,” he said. “A lot of people who do what I do think that we’re leading the charge to change the way food is made in America. I don’t think that. I think that I am raising food the way I want to farm for a selective clientele who want food raised that way. I’m happy with that. I don’t’ think I’ve got to change the way America farms. I’m not an evangelist. I’d like to see it but that’s not my job.”