The New York Times
by Kim Severson
Source: Southern Foodways Alliance
BLUFFTON, Ga. — Here in the cab of a muddy pickup truck, with a stubby Ranch Hand rifle on the console and windows so fogged it’s hard to see the ruts in the pasture, you tend to believe anything the driver says.
Like, for instance, that religion and social niceties have never been that important to the men who have raised cattle on this fertile slice of southwest Georgia since the end of the Civil War.
“We’re irreverent, profane, we talk too loud, we drink too much and we cheat to win,” William Harris III said.
The line is a particular brand of artful Southern swagger, one Mr. Harris has repeated countless times in his 60 years. It’s part of the charm that has allowed a man whose family business was built on conventional, chemical-driven cattle rearing to become one of the most successful purveyors of grass-fed, humanely raised beef in the country, certainly in terms of sheer popularity and name recognition.
Mr. Harris, who lists both the writer Wendell Berry and the Confederate general Robert E. Lee as heroes, has been the star attraction at Slow Food dinners and progressive agricultural conferences. He has been awarded just about every plaque and ribbon they hand out for agriculture and conservancy in Georgia.
If the Southern organic crowd were made up of teenage fan girls, he would be their Justin Bieber.
With two of his three daughters and about 100 cowboys and meat cutters, Mr. Harris operates White Oak Pastures, the largest organic farm in Georgia and the South’s most diverse. He grows vegetables and raises 10 species of animals, most of which roam around in a model of farming based on the way animals graze on the Serengeti plains. Goats goof off near a pile of sleeping hogs. Chickens wander past cows. Sheep hang out with ducks. The idea is that together, the animals make a stronger ecosystem. Some eat certain plants but not others. Some species eat the feces of others. All totaled, the animals and pasture are healthier for it.
Recently, Mr. Harris and some partners were among the first Americans to import Iberian pigs from Spain. He hopes to fatten them on nuts from old pecan trees and turn them into an American version of jamón Ibérico, which can bring in over $100 a pound.
“I can’t imagine going back to just raising cows,” he said. “It’d be like watching one channel of black-and-white TV.”
White Oak Pastures has another thing going for it. It’s the only farm in the country with federally approved slaughterhouses, or abattoirs, for both poultry and mammals. Temple Grandin, the animal scientist, helped with the design.
Slaughter has long been a bottleneck for the tiny grass-fed beef business, which accounts for about half a percent of the retail beef sold, according to data compiled by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
“The grass-fed industry is growing so fast, but it’s still just so young,” said Nina Biensen, who writes the grass-fed beef market report for the Agriculture Department. “And it’s having some very serious growing pains. Slaughter is certainly a big one.”
Most American beef is dispatched at a handful of large plants. Cargill, for example, can handle about 23,000 head a day. There are a few hundred small and midsize federally approved cattle abattoirs, but those often don’t have room for a rancher like Mr. Harris, who may kill only 100 head a week.
Mobile processors are one solution, but there are fewer than a dozen approved to kill cattle, and most can’t handle more than 10 cows a day.
“The big guys won’t touch it, and the little guys can’t afford to process any kind of volume because they have no market for the offal or the hides,” said Carrie Balkcom, executive director of the American Grassfed Association, a fast-growing trade and certification group with 350 certified members.
So grass-fed ranchers sometimes have to ship cattle hundreds of miles, a costly move that is stressful for both the animals and the people who raised them.
Watching his calves get loaded onto an 18-wheeler for the drive west to a feed lot and slaughterhouse helped convince Mr. Harris that maybe he should stop raising cattle the way his father did.
He knew that his animals would spend sometimes 30 hours on those trucks, with the ones on the bottom getting covered in feces and urine. “It’s like raising your daughter to be a princess and then sending her to the whorehouse,” he said.
That trip was just one factor that prompted him to reconsider his operations in the 1990s. His cattle monoculture wasn’t doing that well financially, and it was becoming less satisfying. He stopped some practices, like putting hormone pellets into his cows’ ears. Mr. Harris also noticed an emerging market, one in which people were willing to pay more money for beef that was raised differently.
By 2000, he stopped using chemical fertilizers on his pasture. But he was losing money, trying to sell his ground beef to uninterested shoppers at an Atlanta Publix by handing out samples.
“I had 25 pounds,” he said. “I ate five and threw the rest away.”
By 2006, he got his beef into Whole Foods, a process he says was a “harder than me trying to take a calculus class in Russian.” A year later, his sales had jumped to half a million dollars.
Mr. Harris, who grew up in a family that didn’t believe in debt, started aggressively borrowing money — about $7.5 million to date. He also took advantage of government and industry grants designed to nurture small operations like his.
“He took some real hard gulps and put the family farm on the line,” Ms. Balkcom said.
He kept adding species because it made the farm healthier. He opened his beef abattoir in 2008, and the chicken plant in 2010. Last year, overall sales hit about $28 million.
“To hear people talk, you’d think Tyson and Cargill have a lock on killing animals in this country,” he said, no doubt minimalizing the degree of difficulty in revamping an operation like his. “All you’ve got to do is go to the bank, borrow the money, pour the concrete, kill the cow.”
Anyone who thinks it can’t be done, says his daughter Jenni Harris, who manages the farm with the same focus and determination as he does, “has a lack of commitment.”
Her father can’t stand to waste anything, so workers haul bones and ground offal to a compost pile. Another group is trying to figure out how to tan hides, make pet food and turn beef fat into biodiesel. Whole Foods sells White Oak tallow soap. Top-flight restaurants buy his chicken feet. He’s even gotten a nice bump from the Paleo and brothing crowd; the company sells 32 ounces of guinea fowl or beef broth for $9.99 on the Internet.
And there is all that ground beef. His farm grinds about 8,000 pounds a day, most of it headed for restaurants and large food-service companies and grocery stores. He calls it red gold.
Mr. Harris has spent the last decade crafting his natural business charisma with the focus of a politician running for national office, except that most of his sentences begin and end with a profanity.
“My life has turned into explaining what I do,” he said. “This organism won’t work unless the consumer understands it, and I am the only son of a bitch who can explain it.”
He has developed a few critics along the way. He lumps them into two camps: “The only people who don’t like us are smaller than us or bigger than us.”
Conventional beef producers don’t like him, he says, because his practices make consumers question how the rest of the nation’s beef is produced.
“And with the starving-artist farmer types, the innuendo is that I let the environmental and sustainable side slip because I figured out how to scale up,” he said.
One critic is Daniel Dover of Darby Farms, who works about 50 acres of land near Athens, Ga. The star attraction is pastured poultry. It is, in a way, a very boutique version of the large, multispecies farm Mr. Harris runs.
Mr. Dover questions Mr. Harris’s choice of shelter for his chickens and how they are fed. He points out that not all his stock is born on the ranch and that his older animals are sold to big commodity slaughterhouses.
“Will is doing good work, but he has to be more transparent about what he’s doing,” he said. “It’s a lot of spin.”
About a year ago, Mr. Dover took his complaints to Facebook. He posted images of the movable chicken houses that dot some of the 2,400 acres Mr. Harris owns and leases, arguing that the birds were not truly pasture raised.
The accusations made Mr. Harris so mad that he drove to Darby Farms and knocked on the door. Mr. Dover says he was inside at the time but didn’t hear the knock.
Mr. Harris drove a series of doughnuts in his pasture, put his business card in the mailbox and drove his truck home.
“It wasn’t my finest hour,” he said. “But if he wants to criticize me and my operation, he should do it to my face.”
Many in the business defend his practices.
“I would never condemn a farmer or rancher for making a practical choice that is a reasonable decision and keeps their farm viable,” said Nicolette Hahn Niman, the author of “Defending Beef,” a book that argues in favor of small-scale farms and grass-fed beef.
“People can love or hate Will,” said Ms. Niman, the wife of the beef grazing pioneer Bill Niman, “but they have to realize this isn’t just some guy from an urban area who read Michael Pollan’s book and had a concept. This is a real rancher who I think a lot of people envy.”
And those who doubt him are more than welcome to join him for a drive around the land. He will drink red wine and talk with them deep into the night, then put them up in some cabins Jodi Harris Benoit, his youngest daughter, has refurbished.
It’s simply how the times have changed, he says, and the only way he can see to preserve the farm for another five generations. And it gives him a certain kind of peace of mind.
“Listen,” he says, “I sleep like I’m innocent.”
A version of this article appears in print on March 11, 2015, on page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Grass-Fed Pioneer.