The upstart cattleman

Will Harris broke the mold on farming and built the most successful organic beef operation in Georgia. But first he had to break with four generations of family history.

It took a mere 20 minutes from the time the coal-black, 1,100-pound heifer ambled through a raised door into the slaughterhouse until two sides of beef, hanging on hooks, disappeared into the cooler. The cow entered a small chamber with high, grass-green walls that enclosed her like a shoebox around a loafer. She looked around curiously with big, brown, avid eyes — first left, then right, then up at a captive bolt pistol pointed at her head. And that was it. One wall lifted and she collapsed onto the kill floor.

The six men working inside this small abattoir — no bigger than a studio loft apartment — made quick work with knives and saws, the first cut straight into her heart, stopping it cold. Soon, one fellow delivered this still-warm organ on a rolling steel cart to a white-coated USDA inspector who eyeballed it closely and ticked a mark on his clipboard.

Will Harris III, the owner of White Oak Pastures, drew a knife from his belt holster, neatly bisected the heart and cut a cube from its center. “Sweetest meat you’ll ever try,” he said, popping the red morsel into his mouth. It was not yet 9 a.m.

With his 240-pound frame and Stetson hat capping a sun-creased face, Harris looks like the kind of hardcore cowboy dude who’d think nothing of a little raw offal for breakfast. Yet despite the country-road gravel in his voice, he doesn’t always sound the part. He loves to quote George Washington Carver on the order of nature and Michael Pollan on the dangers of industrial food production. He takes enormous pride in the organic certification that his pastures and vegetable garden have received and in the new solar panels he is installing.

Others have taken notice, too. Harris’ farm has become a way-point for Florida-bound tourists who stock up on his grass-fed meats. Hungry humans take their meals in a newly completed open-air dining pavilion just down a hill from the abattoirs called “Pasture to Plate.” For now it serves as a lunchroom for his employees, who sit by beating fans along two picnic benches. Soon, it may welcome visitors, visiting chefs and culinary students who want to experience life on a working farm. Like he does many nights, Harris plans to meet his family here and microwave the leftovers for dinner.

Row by row, Harris is breaking the mold on farming in Georgia. His organic grass-fed cattle are slaughtered with methods animal welfare advocates call commendable, and steaks from his beef are cooked and plated in Atlanta’s finest restaurants. Whole Foods prominently features White Oak Pastures beef in its stores. And Harris, with 85 employees and what seems like half of Early County working for him, is now doing for chicken what he’s done for beef; raising pasture-fed birds and slaughtering them more humanely.

But 15 years ago White Oak Pastures wasn’t anything like this and Harris, a fourth-generation Georgian farming land owned by his family since the Civil War, seemed destined to farm the same way his father had, and his father before that. Harris’ father — a harsh, unyielding man — pushed the farm as far as he could, pumping any and all chemicals into the earth and into the animals to turn acreage into meat. Armed with an animal science degree and a quick mind, Harris set out to best his father, and he did.

But then, one day, without consulting anyone, he just stopped. He stopped feeding his cattle a mixed ration of grain and powdered dietary supplements they digested poorly, and he stopped implanting estrogen pellets behind their ears. He stopped buying bull semen and instead bought bulls. He stopped loading weaned 7-month-old calves into 53-foot-long double-decker hauling trucks to travel 1,400 miles in their own filth to a feedlot. Soon, he stopped spraying his pasture with pesticides and fertilizing them with ammonium nitrate, and as they turned brown and died, he knew he was risking everything. But he kept going.

“The thing is, those fields were already dead,” Harris says as he climbs into his beat-up 1995 Jeep Wrangler to make the evening rounds of the property. As he does every night, he brings a double-barreled shotgun and a bottle of Yellow Tail shiraz along for the ride. The sun slants with a hot, eerie stillness as the Jeep chuffs over a green hill and a flock of speckled guinea fowl, which look like giant potatoes with tiny heads and stick legs, disperse.

He casts a steady hazel-eyed gaze on visitors and avows he truly loves the animals — not just his dogs and horses, but also all the mooing, baaing, clucking and quacking things that roam so freely over the thousand acres of his storybook pretty farm. These are the same creatures that will one day find themselves headed for the two slaughterhouses on site. They are the lifeblood of this whole operation, and Will Harris is their badass Old MacDonald.

“Let me tell you a story,” Harris says, which in his south Georgia accent sounded like “stirry.” He had more than 1,000 acres to cover this evening. There was time to tell it, and it was a good stirry.

2. Tough love, history guide a young farmer

Harris shakes his head as his Jeep lumbers over the four-lane divided highway the Georgia Department of Transportation has been building through the center of White Oak Pastures. “Here’s your tax dollars at work,” he mutters.

Getting the cattle from one side of the road to the other would be no easy feat, so GDOT agreed to build a tunnel under the raised highway. One good thing came from this mess: When bulldozers cut into the pasture abutting the road, they uncovered a clearly distinct stratum of soft, brown topsoil above the hard, red clay. “Fifteen years ago, this wasn’t here,” Harris says.

Nor were the other markers of healthy organic soil: the mushrooms that sprout so suddenly on the pasture after a night’s rain; the black dung beetle that scurries from a cow patty when Harris crushes it with the toe of his leather boot.

But in 1866, when his great-grandfather arrived, the land was even richer. James Edward Harris was a Confederate who assembled and conscripted his own cavalry to fight the Union soldiers back from central west Georgia. After the war, the bank repossessed the farm and freed the slaves, who joined their former master as sharecroppers. Together, they traveled to homestead this new property in Early County — about as far south as you could go in this part of Georgia before the forested red clay hills give way to the flat landscape and sandy earth of the coastal plain.

Every Saturday the Harrises butchered enough meat — one cow, two or three hogs and several chickens — to last the family and the sharecroppers through the week. They raised their four children in a simple two-story log cabin, among them Will Carter Harris, who most likely took possession of the family farm upon his father’s death in 1909. The younger Harris married Beulah Bell, the sheriff’s daughter and a formidable woman who had a reputation for working black farm hands harder than anyone in the area. They built a new home next to the log cabin.

The family stepped up their production of beef, pork and chicken to sell in nearby Bluffton. They butchered the animals before dawn and made near-daily deliveries. They also opened a commissary beside their house where they sold dry goods and cigarettes alongside vegetables and meat.

The beginning of the Great Depression was doubly hard on the farm, as Will Carter Harris was rapidly losing his eyesight to cataracts. According to family lore, Beulah one day hopped in the family’s Model T, drove to the schoolhouse and withdrew her only child to come work on the farm. He was 8.

Will Bell Harris spent his days riding around in a horse-drawn carriage with his father. He was the bossman’s eyes, and his mission — reinforced over and over by both parents — was to inform on farm hands and cowboys who weren’t pulling their weight. He learned to be feared from an early age.

This third-generation Harris grew into a big man, tall and heavyset, with a dour disposition. As one of his granddaughters recalls, “He was always very quiet except when he was cussing.”

Harris wasn’t just a good cattleman, he was a local legend who could produce more meat per acre than anyone around. He got rid of the hogs, chickens and crops, and focused solely on cattle.

“My daddy was a man’s man and he was a profane man,” Harris recalls. “You could cuss around Daddy when Mama wasn’t there, but if you cussed at him, that became disrespect.”

When he was 12 years old, Will Harris III learned the distinction. He was helping his father corral some cattle that had escaped through an open gate and were wandering all over the road. His father, frustrated with his son’s progress, gave the stud horse the boy was riding a surprise crack of the whip. When the horse bucked, Harris exclaimed, “Goddammit, Daddy!” before he could stop himself. The cattle could wait: His father ordered his son down off the horse and whipped him. He never made that mistake again.

3. Will Harris breaks the family mold

Will Harris III, the first in his family to complete college, studied animal science at the University of Georgia School of Agriculture when fertilizers and antibiotics were revolutionizing American agriculture.

After the war, both pesticides and antibiotics became more commonplace, and farmers discovered a fringe benefit with the latter. Not only did antibiotics keep animals from getting sick, they made them larger and fatter when administered routinely.

In 1947 a giant federal munitions plant in Muscle Shoals, Ala., switched from making bombs to making chemical fertilizer, and the government began actively promoting ammonium nitrate to farmers as a way to increase crop yields and keep pastures green. Food policy historians, such as Michael Pollan, cite this as a turning point in American agriculture and beef production. With chemical fertilizers came an abundance of cheap grain. By the mid-1950s, Midwestern markets and packinghouses had risen to new-found prominence and were supplying the majority of American beef.

Cattlemen like Harris’ father would raise the calves until they were old enough to wean, about 6 or 7 months, and then ship them off to concentrated animal feeding operations — feedlots — to finish out their lives.

In 1959, the National Academy of Sciences assembled the brightest minds in agriculture for a conference at Purdue University titled “Beef for Tomorrow” to discuss the rapid changes in the industry and a two-thirds increase in per-capita beef consumption since the pre-war period. The conference objective read: “Authorities in industry and government have clearly indicated what this means to the producer of beef — he must produce more, more efficiently.”

At UGA, one of Harris’ professors, A.E. Cullison, wrote an influential textbook called “Feeds and Feeding” that detailed formulations for the total mixed rations (TMRs) that were increasingly replacing grass and hay as cattle feed. Because ruminants like cows and sheep don’t have the stomach acids to digest the corn and soybean meal in TMRs, they also needed routine antibiotics and drugs to combat acidosis, bloat, heartburn, liver abscesses and the host of other problems that awaited them.

Armed with this education, Harris went to go work for the family farm intent on putting his stamp on it. That proved difficult.

“Mostly what I did was bump heads with my father,” Harris recalls. “We could hunt, fish and eat together. But we were both alpha male, and when we went to work, it was really problematic.”

Then there was Jenni — the middle of the three girls Will and his wife, Von, were raising in a new home they built next to his father’s. She tottered around behind her father in a favorite pair of coveralls from the age of 4, accompanying him as he gave feed to the cattle in their confinement pens at the crack of dawn.

“My grandfather and I did not have a good relationship,” Jenni, now 25, recalls. “I was the tomboy, the son my father never had, and my grandfather resented me terribly.”

If Jenni wanted to tag along on the yearly visit to the video cattle auction at the county extension office — an event she says “was like the county fair” — her grandfather wouldn’t go.

Alzheimer’s disease soon started to mute her autocratic grandfather’s bark, and as he slipped into a fog of dementia, her father started to rethink his family’s farm.

“There was no epiphany,” Will Harris III says, though he began reading books about the American farming system he wasn’t assigned in ag school. He was particularly struck by “The Unsettling of America,” Wendell Berry’s 1977 book that argued agribusiness was destroying the cultural and family context of farming. It made him wonder what kind of system his father had prescribed to, and what kind of legacy he was leaving for Jenni and his other daughters.

He also began thinking about animal welfare in a different light. “If you weren’t intentionally inflicting pain and suffering on the animal, it was considered good animal welfare,” he said, reflecting a common sentiment among livestock breeders. “By that thinking, if you chain your kids to the TV and feed them a steady diet of potato chips, you’re not hurting them.”

One day as he was sending 80 calves off in a double-decker hauling truck, the thought occurred to him that the just-weaned animals on the bottom would make the cross-country drive with urine and excrement raining down on them.

Harris realized that he had become so focused on taking the cost out of production that he no longer considered the animals.

He formulated this thought: “Not allowing animals to express their instinctive behavior is working against nature.” It stayed with him.

4. Harris finds a market at Atlanta’s Woodfire Grill

When Jenni was 11, Harris sat her down and said he needed to talk to her about her future and the future of the farm. He had been reading about organic farming and wanted to try it. Things weren’t going to be like they were in her granddaddy’s days.

The next year was a disaster. Without any topsoil to hold the grass in place, it washed away in the rain and dried up in the summer heat. Harris had to buy hay just to keep his cattle fed, and he lost money. The thousand acres turned brown and rangy — an eyesore amidst the verdant row crops that surrounded the farm.

“The weeds were eating up my ass in the pasture,” Harris recalls. Cattle wouldn’t eat the foot-high stalks of pigweed that had taken tenacious root, but sheep would. So Harris bought a herd and took his first step away from the cattle monoculture his father had built.

While Harris still shipped calves off to western feedlots to make ends meet, he increasingly finished them on pasture and hay and took them to local slaughterhouses to be ground for hamburger. He marketed this ground beef relentlessly — handing out samples in food stores and fairs.

He realized that any real customer base for his product wouldn’t be folks in southwest Georgia who wanted to stock their freezers, but rather Atlantans involved in the burgeoning “good food” movement. So he signed up to attend a dinner that Atlanta’s Slow Food chapter was holding at Woodfire Grill, one of Atlanta’s A-list restaurants.

“What did they call that group? A ‘convivium?’ ” Harris chuckles. “Man, I was dreading it like a trip to the dentist. That dinner was $45! I had never eaten in a restaurant nicer than a Shoney’s and just pictured those people as a bunch of arrogant stuffed shirts.”

Instead he found his target audience and his impetus to keep pushing. Julie Shaffer, then the local Slow Food leader, says, “It was so encouraging to find someone in our state who was trying to farm animals in such a humane and sustainable way. I felt proud to know him.”

Harris saw there was a market for more than frozen hamburger. Atlanta chefs and regional Whole Foods markets wanted grass-fed steaks. He toured the state looking for a slaughterhouse that could process the animals economically, skillfully and humanely. It didn’t exist.

So he secured more than $2 million in loans from banks, Whole Foods and a Georgia Department of Agriculture outreach program and set out to build his own processing plant. He hired Temple Grandin, an animal scientist whose autism helps her better understand animal psychology and create less stress for them at slaughter.

“People ask me how I can care about animals and be involved in killing them,” says Grandin. “What I believe is we’ve got to give animals a decent life — one that’s worth living.”

Grandin insists it doesn’t take her mind to see what makes cattle happy. “Let those girls out of their stalls in spring, and they just start running all over the place, udders bouncing along.”

Harris completed the slaughterhouse in 2006 with the plan to process his own cattle to the tune of 30 a week.

“Those were the dark days,” says Harris. With such a small production, he couldn’t keep his costs down enough to make his beef even remotely competitive with the conventional product.

“In one year I went from being comfortable, never having taken a loan, to thinking, ‘I’ve really screwed this up.’ ”

So he worked out deals with more than a dozen nearby cattlemen. If they’d agree to take their pastures organic, he’d pay more than they could earn from the feedlot brokers. He stepped up production fivefold.

5. Harris returns family farm to prosperity — and its past

The trip from the old Harris homestead to Bluffton leads past a flock of aggressive, curious turkeys that come running from their roosts when they hear the Jeep’s engine. These aluminum-sided shelters line up like row houses and they can be moved about like hotels on a Monopoly board, letting the turkeys root for grubs and beetles and fertilize the ground before they arrive at the next destination.

“You might want to cover your nose,” Harris warns as he drives past the bone yard. Thirty head of cattle are slaughtered every day, and their bones — still pink and slick with the bits of meat and tissue that would get processed into so-called “pink slime” elsewhere — come here to dry. They will eventually get ground into bone meal for the compost used in his one-acre organic vegetable garden.

Like many old farming towns in the South, Bluffton today presents little more than a collection of homes in various states of care and decrepitude. There are no longer any schools, and the town post office is scheduled for closure. Turn off the main drag with its water tower and long-neglected park, and you come upon the town cemetery where the elder Harrises lie. After that, it’s row crops — peanuts as far as the eye can see.

What pulse remains may be due in large part to Harris. White Oak Pastures sells nearly $20 million of naturally raised meat annually and employs 85 people who pump their $2.3 million in annual salary into the local economy.

His business acumen and his environmental stewardship have earned accolades. He was selected as Georgia’s Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration in 2011. The Georgia Conservancy named him as its 2012 Distinguished Conservationist of the Year for his efforts in promoting sustainable and organic farming.

When Harris first switched to sustainable farming, “some people down in this area probably thought he lost his mind,” says Butch Wiggins, president of the Bank of Early, who loaned Harris the money for his abattoirs. “I don’t think they think he’s crazy now.”

Harris turns into a craggy pasture, and as the Jeep hits an unseen pit, Harris jerks the glass of shiraz in his right hand, which sloshes close to the rim without spilling. “That was close,” he laughs. He has clearly had practice.

Most of the 100 or more mama cows and calves stand in a companionable cluster as they munch on rye grass and red clover.

Harris scans the perimeter to look for any cows that have just given birth. When the time comes, they wander off to a secluded hiding spot where they can bond with their newborns. One eventually appears by the trees edging the pasture, still and wary, with a calf standing by her side. Judging by the still-visible placental matter, the calf is but hours old.

Are these happy cows? They are certainly curious and bright-eyed, with glossy coats. Miyun Park, the executive director of the Global Animal Partnership, a nonprofit charity group that rates farms based on animal welfare, says so. “I’ve been to farms and ranches across the country and around the world — some for profit and some not for profit. The life afforded to animals at White Oak Pastures far surpasses many of them. They’re given an opportunity to be cattle and sheep and goats.”

The log cabin that James Edward Harris built is long gone. But the house where Will Carter Harris then Will Bell Harris lived is an active construction site. Workers are building a new wraparound patio with an extended roof line. It looks like the kind of porch that can accommodate quite a few rocking chairs.

“I really do not want to run a bed and breakfast, but we’re going to need a guest house,” he chuckles. “This might as well be it.”

These days agritourism isn’t just a matter of apple orchards and corn mazes. Visitors on their way to Florida beaches stop by White Oak Pastures — a member of the Georgia Grown agritourism association — nearly every day to load up on grass-fed strip steaks, hamburger, chickens and lamb. Jenni Harris — a dynamo who now directs marketing for White Oak Pastures — fields requests from visitors who want to tour the grounds, hold the baby chicks, poke their noses into the garden greenhouses. Or the abattoir, which she will permit.

But first the old homestead needs, much like the pasture that surrounds it, to be restored. “My parents modernized,” Harris chuckles, with more than a hint of irony in his inflection. “They put shag carpets on the hardwood floors, installed fluorescent track lighting and covered the poplar siding with vinyl. I’m trying to return it to the way it was in the early 1900s, when my granddaddy lived here.”

Meet the writer and photographer

John Kessler is the chief dining critic for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A former chef, he came to the paper in 1997. In addition to restaurant reviews, he has written food stories and columns, feature articles and profiles of notable Atlantans. His food writing for the paper has earned a James Beard award and has been included eight times in the “Best Food Writing” anthology.

Brant Sanderlin has more than 20 years of experience as a photojournalist, working at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the past 13 years. His photographs from the front line actions of the Army’s 3rd ID during the early part of the Iraqi war were used in newspapers and magazines around the world. Brant shoots a variety of assignments, including sporting events, breaking news and human interest stories. Sanderlin grew up on the family farm in eastern North Carolina.

How we got the story

John Kessler first met Will Harris five years ago when he saw the south Georgia farmer in a local supermarket passing out meatballs. Since that time, Harris has been frequently in the news as an advocate for good animal welfare and sustainable farming practices. Kessler visited the farm twice to spend time with Harris and interviewed members of the Harris family, friends, colleagues, competitors and animal welfare experts. Brant Sanderlin met Harris a couple months ago while shooting photos for a story on food safety and USDA inspectors. Of the long list of slaughter houses he contacted, White Oak Pastures was the only one to allow the AJC to see its inspection process. Sanderlin visited the farm twice more to photograph it for today’s story.