When White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, made the transition from an industrialized agricultural facility to a regenerative farm, the benefits were felt throughout the town. In his new film, director Peter Byck introduces viewers to Will Harris, the owner of White Oak Pastures, whose journey could inspire a revolution across the global agricultural industry.
“I used to consider what I did to be a simple business,” Harris said in the film. “I had nothing but cattle, dogs and horses to work the cattle, and cowboys to work the dogs and horses. We raised the cows, fed corn to the cows, and sold the cows.”
As a “full-time commodity cowboy,” Harris was only concerned with his bottom line. However, the town around him was crumbling. With the centralization of industrial agriculture, Harris said, small, rural towns just weren’t needed anymore. And with economic reason to stay, people left Bluffton to pursue better jobs elsewhere.
Harris left, too. After earning a degree in Animal Science from the University of Georgia, he returned to his family’s farm to put his knowledge to use. Twenty years later, he said, he was doing what he was good at – but every year, he liked it a little bit less.
“The industrialization of agriculture sought to make this farm a factory,” he said. “But I came to hear about consumers who wanted grass-fed beef, and that appealed to me.”
Initially, Harris said, his intent was change the way he treated his cattle – no more confinement feeding, no more antibiotics, and no more hormone injections. But soon he realized that using chemical fertilizers and pesticides on his pastures was just as wrong as the other practices he’d already given up.
Today, Harris is glad he made these changes to his farm, but he noted that in the beginning, it was a struggle to turn a profit after investing a borrowed $7.5 million to build processing plants. Harris even faced a brief time where he faced significant losses, year after year.
“I didn’t know if I was going to lose the farm that my great-granddaddy had established 130 years earlier – the farm that I was supposed to leave for my children,” he admitted. “Those were dark days. We took an incredible risk.”
Now, Harris says, his business is even simpler than it used to be. Instead of feeding his animals, he feeds the microbes in the soil. From there, he lets nature take over – the microbes feed the soil, the soil feeds the plants, and the plants feed the animals, which, in turn, feed Harris, his family, his employees, and his customers.
“It’s a really beautiful system,” Harris said. “What’s most beautiful is that every generation, the animals are healthier and healthier, happier and happier.”
The pastures have recovered from the damage that was caused by 50 years of chemical fertilizers that killed the microbial life that fed the soil. Harris said that the organic matter in the pastures has gone from 0.5 per cent fifteen years ago to more than five per cent, today. And only five years ago, Harris said he’d never seen a bald eagle on his land – but today, 26 eagles call this farm their home.
“There’s about a hundred thousand beating hearts on this farm, on any given day,” Harris said. “Just about everything I see makes me feel good. It makes me feel good to see all these animals, both wildlife and farm animals, expressing instinctive behaviours. And it’s healthy … to eat food that’s raised like this. It’s food as nature intended food to be.”
Those beating hearts aren’t just found in animals. White Oak Pastures is now the largest employer in Bluffton – and in the surrounding counties. And according to Harris, many of his 120 employees are living in the refurbished homes that were left vacant when the town began to struggle.
“John Muir has told us that in nature, when you pull a string, you see that everything is connected,” Harris said. “There’s no reason to believe that the health of the soil is not connected to the health of the community. In rebuilding the soil, we are rebuilding a middle class.”