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Sunday, November 27, 2011

White Oak Pastures - Dignity & Respect @ Its Core

One Family, One Farm, Five Generations, 145 Years 
A Full Circle Return to Sustainable Land Stewardship & Humane Animal Stockmanship

Above is the introduction on the White Oak Pastures website - a perfect introduction to the integrity, dignity and respect at the foundation of White Oak Pastures (WOP) farming practices.  

Within the full circle of WOP farming methods are the decades when commercialized operations, filled with nitrogen-based fertilizer, antibiotics, long (thousands of miles) journeys to feedlots for the young cattle, and other unmentionable yet common practices, were the norm at WOP and the industry. It was a profitable time period for the farm.

White Oak Pastures 411
WOP Cattle are athletes
Photo Courtesy of Melissa Libby
Around the millennium shift, Will Harris III, WOP Patriarch, began the journey of returning WOP to traditional agriculture methods, with an infusion of technology where appropriate. The first step was shifting his herd to a grass and hay-only diet, the nutrition their digestive tracks were built to digest. Sheep were added to aid in weed control and balance the land.

At the core of the farming evolution is treating the animals, land and those who consume the meat with respect and dignity. When the land and animals are tended with integrity and in alignment with the systems nature created, the result is healthy, GREAT tasting meat. The entire chain from the soil to the livestock to the farmers to the consumer benefit.

Eliminating the cattle transport for slaughter (some prefer the term harvest) was the next step in the farming evolution journey. In 2008 Will traversed numerous regulations and built a $2.2 million US Department of Agriculture inspected beef abattoir. Only one other on-farm USDA-inspected abattoir is permitted in the nation.

Healthy WOP Turkey
Photo courtesy of WOP 
To bring the land back to its balanced, healthy state, Will reinstated grazing rotation in his fields. Using the Serengeti Plains grazing model, a field is grazed first by the large ruminants - cattle, followed by smaller ruminants - sheep with birds completing the cycle. Ruminants are cud-chewing mammals with four-compartment stomachs.

With chickens and turkeys part of ranch operations, Will embarked on securing the appropriate permits to build an on-site poultry abattoir. In August, 2011 White Oak Pastures opened the only abattoir for free-range poultry in GA, TN, FL, MI and AL, paving the path for his birds to never leave the farm until post-slaughter and for smaller farmers in surrounding states to harvest their free-range birds.

WOP is the only farm in the US with beef and poultry abattoirs on the property. Both abattoirs are zero waste and 40% of plant energy comes from on-site solar panels.  A future ZWZ Blog post will give details.

WOP beef (rt) & poultry (lft) on-farm arbattoirs
Photo courtesy of Melissa Libby & Associates 
Consumer and chef education was integral to building demand for WOP products, priced at a premium to inhumanely raised meat. Whole Foods took the lead with educating the consumer and Will hosted many on-farm chef tours. 

 While serving as the Georgia Restaurant Association chef liaison, Holly Elmore (Elemental Impact founder) orchestrated the first WOP chef tour, Celebration of Grassfed Beef, in July, 2008. 

Imagine the courage and fortitude required to replace profitable farm practices with methods respectful to the land, animals, farm workers and the consumer. A tremendous investment was required for profits to return. Will Harris is a pioneer and hero!

Chefs @ end of 2008 WOP Tour
Photo courtesy of Melissa Libby
Georgia is taking notice and giving Will accolades for his amazing conviction and accomplishments. Will was named the 2011 SBA Small Business Person of the Year for GA, received the GA Governor's Award for Environmental Stewardship and was acknowledged as Innovator of the Year at the 2011 GRACE Awards (GRACE = Georgia Restaurant Association Crystal of Excellence).  

Family tradition deepens as Will's daughter Jenni Harris joined WOP staff full-time in 2010 and became the fifth generation to raise livestock on the farm.

“The most rewarding thing that I do is having the opportunity to raise livestock in a humane and sustainable way and provide it to customers who appreciate it,”  Will says. “Being able to do this on our 145-year-old farm and being able to share it with my daughter just makes it better.”

Will & Jenni Harris with their
2011 Innovator of the YEAR Award
Photo Courtesy of Holly Elmore
To learn more about Will Harris & WOP, watch the Whole Foods video, An Interview with Will Harris, to witness Will's commitment along with many interesting WOP facts. For a more lively look at Will's conviction and personality, the Southern Foodway Alliances video, CUD by Joe York, is a MUST for Will Harris admirers!

The impact of White Oak Pasture's evolution into an amazing sustainable livestock ranch and abattoir is gaining momentum. Will is a role model and building a path for the farming industry to follow. It is an honor to know Will Harris and call him a friend ... more to come on Will in future posts.


  1. I'm mighty proud of cousin Will and Jenni, and all they have accomplished!

  2. I love what Cousin Will and family are doing. Proud to call them my cousins.