Ledger-Inquirer: Georgia farmer promotes sustainable agriculture — Will Harris shows a better way …

Georgia farmer promotes sustainable agriculture


Georgia farmer Will Harris wants to believe the food at White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Ga., is healthier and tastes better because of the way it’s produced. He said he can’t say for sure.

"That’s for others to judge," Harris said. "I’m not qualified. I’m not a dietician or nutritionist."

He is sure his style of farming is better for the land and more humane for animals.

"No chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used on the land. No grain hormone implants or antibiotics are given to animals," he said.

Harris, 55, was in Columbus earlier this month to speak at the Columbus Museum as part of the 2015-2016 Spencer Environmental Lecture Series. His topic was "Sustainable Stewardship of Land and Livestock: 150 Years to Come Full Circle."

Sustainable agriculture focuses on producing crops and livestock while having minimal effect on the environment.

The lecture series is sponsored by the partner organizations of the Spencer Environmental Center which are Chattahoochee Valley Land Trust, Trees Columbus, Coalition for Sound Growth, Chattahoochee Valley River Warden, Chattahoochee Fall Line Conservation Partnership and The Nature Conservancy.

More information on White Oak Pastures can be found at www.whiteoakpastures.com.

Harris’ work at White Oak Pastures has been honored. He was named the business person of the year in 2011 by the Georgia Small Business Administration. In 2014, Georgia Trend magazine named him the most respected business leader.

The University of Georgia graduate said he loves farming so much, "I hate to go on vacation."

He is raising sheep, cattle, goats, hogs, poultry and rabbits as well as certified organic vegetables on the farm his great grandfather James Edward Harris founded in 1866. His daughters are the fifth generation of the family involved in the business.

All of the animals roam freely in the pasture unlike those raised at factory farms with enclosed permanent housing. There are no pens or cages.

According to its website, the farm supports nature’s food chain, using only sun, soil and rain to grow organic sweet grass for the animals to eat. The farm rotates complimentary animal species side-by-side through the pastures. The cows graze the grass, the sheep eat the weeds and the chickens peck at the grubs and insects. The animals naturally fertilize the land.

White Oak Pastures is the largest USDA certified organic farm in Georgia. The animals are put to death in USDA certified abattoirs and the plants are zero-waste facilities.

All blood is digested to make liquid organic fertilizer, all bones are ground to make bone meal, and all eviscerate is used as compost. All of these organic fertilizers are used as soil amendments for the certified organic pastures. Hides are salted and shipped to a tannery to become leather. White Oaks has its own water treatment plant to turn the wash down water into irrigation water for the pastures.

Harris said his system produces high quality animal protein products without cruelty. "Animal welfare is important. Our animal slaughter operation is non industrial," he said. "For a long time good animal welfare meant not intentionally causing pain but it is more than that. We create an opportunity for an animal to express instinctive behavior. A cow is meant to graze. A chicken is born to scratch and peck. They should be able to do that. When you have dominion over an animal you are responsible for its welfare. It is wrong to take cattle and starve them to death. Our animals are treated humanely." He said a growing number of consumers are becoming sophisticated about how the food they eat is produced. "Some people are passionate about it," he said.

He does not say other farmers should change their ways or people should stay away from their product. "I am not an evangelist," he said.

Harris called the way his land is handled regenerative, not reductive.

"We leave land in the shape we found it," he said. "What we do is better for the land in the long run."

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