A visit to White Oak Pastures

Why Will Harris Holds the Key to Eating Meat Sustainably

Last week we visited White Oak Pastures, Will Harris’ fourth-generation farm in Bluffton, Georgia. Will raises cattle, sheep, goats, chickens turkeys, and geese. In the near future he plans to add rabbits and hogs as well. The farm is exemplary in terms of both land stewardship and humane animal handling.

Will Harris
This 2,500 acre farm is the largest organic farm in Georgia and the only farm in the United States that has both a beef and chicken abattoir on the property. Will’s farming methods are based on pasture rotation modeled after the natural animal migration patterns in the Serengeti Plains of Africa. At White Oak Pastures the cows graze the grass, the sheep eat the weeds, and the chickens peck at the grubs and insects. All the species naturally fertilize the land and participate in a sustainable and symbiotic ecological cycle.

White Oak Pastures
As Will explained to us, he strives to work with nature, rather than working against nature and trying to outwit nature. He says, “Nature produces no waste,” quoting George Washington Carver. On White Oak Pastures all of the fertilizers for the organic crops are made right on the farm from the natural byproducts of raising and slaughtering animals.

Will Harris, Chickens, White Oak Pastures
We asked Will if raising animals was essential for sustainability, and he feels strongly that it does, saying “sustainable agriculture is about emulating nature. . . and if you’re emulating nature, animals are part of that. Nature abhors a vacuum. Nature abhors a monoculture. Nature despises one species of plant or animal occupying a space exclusively. They want a symbiotic relationship.”

Cows, White Oak Pastures
It’s no wonder that White Oak Pastures received the Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Award for Agriculture from the State of Georgia in 2011. Given all of Will’s efforts toward sustainability, in addition to recycling each plant and animal byproduct on the farm, White Oak Pastures has its own water treatment plant that reuses the wash down water from the abattoirs to irrigate the crops. A 50,000 watt solar voltaic array is used to heat the water in the abattoirs and provides some of the electricity to power the processing plant.

As Will drove us around his lush, green pastures in his Jeep, he told us passionately that he’s “a land steward and a herdsman.” We saw how respectful he is when it comes to the animals. At one point in our day he carefully picked up a laying hen and handed it to Audrey, who was excited and tentative at the same time.

Audrey Kali and Will Harris
Will shared with us that when he first started to sell his meat from his farm directly to customers, he’d be asked how he can raise a calf or a lamb or a chick, from the day it’s born or hatched, feed it, care for it, nurture it all its life, and then kill it and skin it and gut it and eat it. His answer always was, “It doesn’t bother me a bit. This is the way things are. This is what happens.”

Will Harris hands Audrey Kali a Chicken
But he realized, “this is an unacceptable answer even though it’s true, because it sounds flippant. And it doesn’t really help that person understand the disconnect.” He thought about this reply a long time and came up with a better answer that would help connect the disconnect:

Will Harris and Audrey Kali among Turkey's on White Oak Pastures
“As a herdsman, I love my herd as much as you love your pet. Just as much. But I love the herd, not the individuals in the herd. And it is absolutely essential that we slaughter these animals for nourishment in a respectful and humane way, so that another generation can be born. It’s a river not a lake.”

White Oak Pastures Cattle
As we toured the farm, Will explained that cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and chickens have become food animals, and that the “most noble positioning of those animals, is to be in herds, on this farm, feeding the land that feeds them, and feeding the people that care for them. It’s a beautiful system!”

Will Harris
Will pointed out that the more organic a farm becomes, the more flora and fauna you will have on the farm. This frog we came across was described as “a good sign” by Will. He said that when he quit using pesticides, one of the surprises was that species of plants and animals that he remembered as a kid, came back. Every day, as he transformed his farm to an organic system, he saw something new that he remembered from forty years ago.

Frog on screen door
Insects, too, are a special part of Will’s polyculture. This multiple-species habitat, in perfect balance with nature, makes the farm thrive in a way that monoculture farms controlled with pesticides and herbicides cannot. Will showed us how dung beetles dig down 18 inches to lay their eggs. Dung beetles, that help the decomposition of animal manure around the world, consume large amounts of dung as adults and larvae. They reduce pasture fouling, add nutrients to the soil, aerate the soil, and compete for nesting habitat and food resources with flies (particularly the face fly and the horn fly). Face flies can irritate cattle to the point that they lose weight from not wanting to graze. Horn flies can cause painful bleeding sores, also causing cattle to not want to eat. We’ve seen a lot of cattle over the past two years of filming, and have never seen such a large herd at this time of year without faces full of flies!

Digging for Dung Beatles
We got to see the cattle (and, of course, all of the other animals) up close and personal. Will explained that all of his animals have no idea that a human being is capable of hurting them. They’ve never been hurt by a person and so they are all so trusting.

But Will clarifies that as much as he loves his herds, they are not pets. They are food animals, which is why he stresses that slaughter is an essential element of what he does. As he explains, “If you raise an animal and you can’t turn it into meat, then it’s just going to become an old and infirmed animal. And who would be benefiting from that? These animals are killed right in the prime of their life — they don’t volunteer to make that sacrifice, obviously — but what’s so wrong about that? They never suffer a day. . . they express instinctive behavior, all day long, every day. . . my food animals have a better life than most people’s pets.”

White Oak Pastures Meat Packing
The end product of all of the efforts at White Oak Pastures with the animals is, of course, meat. The handling of meat as it is being cut from carcasses at this well-managed and pristine cutting and packing room is a sight that people are familiar with from trips to the local supermarket.

White Oak Pastures Grassfed Beef Box
Before meat is packaged into a box like the one above, which in this case would be destined for Whole Foods Markets, the animals need to be humanely slaughtered in a USDA-inspected abattoir. Both of Will’s abattoirs, one for chicken and the other for beef, were designed by Dr. Temple Grandin, a highly respected advocate for humane handling and slaughter of farm animals for the past twenty years. Will, a true spokesperson for transparency when it comes to understanding where meat comes from and how it is processed, let us see and film in both processing plants.

Abattoirs on farm at White Oak Pastures
For many people, the abattoir is the missing link between pasture and plate. White Oak Pastures, by having the abattoirs literally connected to the farm office, storefront, and restaurant pavilion, is a testament to how important it is to bridge the disconnect that has kept so many from the full cycle of meat production. From the dung beetle, to the frog, to the cattle grazing among the chickens, sheep and turkeys, to the humane killing of the animals, to the animal byproducts fed back into the land for the vegetables — it’s all as Will says, “a beautiful system.”

Stunning Chickens at White Oak Pastures on-farm Abattoir
Will showed us the chicken abattoir. This facility is state-of-the-art for humane handling and slaughter. Although poultry is excluded from the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act in the United States, and it is therefore not mandatory for them to be rendered unconscious by stunning before being cut to bleed out, White Oak Pastures skillfully stuns each bird with an electrical stunning knife so it will not feel any pain. The lights are kept low in this section of the abattoir in order to keep the chickens calm. The manner in which they slaughter and process chickens at White Oak Pastures has earned their chicken a Step 5 rating from Global Animal Partnership.

de-feathering chickens at White Oak Pastures on-farm abattoir
Another important part of humane animal handling is the transport, unloading, and holding pen areas. As part of Dr. Temple Grandin’s design, this unloading ramp and holding pen for cattle assured that the animals stayed calm throughout the process.

unloading cattle at the White Oak Pastures on-farm abattoir
The chutes that lead from the holding pen to the kill floor inside, also designed by Dr. Temple Grandin, keep the cattle from being afraid of outside distractions with the high walls. The workers were all gentle in coaxing the cattle through the chute.

cows in holding pens at White Oak Pastures
Dr. Temple Grandin says “We’ve go to give animals a decent life, and when it’s time to die, a painless death. And we’ve got to give them a life that’s worth living.” Will Harris stays true to these humane standards every step of the way. This is just one of the many reasons that all of the meat from White Oak Pastures is approved by Certified Humane and Animal Welfare Approved. It is also part of Global Animal Partnership’s 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards program.

abattoir kill floor
When we saw the kill floor in the beef processing plant, Will carefully explained all of the details of both food safety and humane slaughter. Getting a better understanding of how slaughter is done here and being able to see the process first-hand, illuminates how Will respects the animals. This respect, as we learned throughout our time at White Oak Pastures, reveals the special character of White Oak Pastures and everyone working there.

pavilion at White Oak Pastures
During lunch time we joined Will and his workers at the Pavilion, where employees are served a hot lunch consisting of fresh vegetables and beef or chicken which was raised and processed on the farm. Your plate can’t get much closer to the pasture than having lunch at the White Oak Pastures pavilion, and true to their corporate ethos, regardless of whether you’re a manager or entry-level worker, everyone waits their turn in line for lunch. In every way, White Oak Pastures provides a living example of the future of sustainable agriculture, humane animal handling, and positive work environments, all components of an integrated whole, bringing us back to harmony with nature.

Calves on their Way to be Veal

We accompanied three calves en route to the slaughterhouse.

Early on Tuesday morning, August 7th, we accompanied Terri Lawton as she transported three calves and a steer to a slaughterhouse out of state.  It was about a 50-minute drive.  The calf chewing on my shirt on the July 15th post from the Lawton Farm is the one in the middle of the three pictured here in the barn waiting to go onto the trailer.

It was fascinating to watch Terri and her father set up a gated pathway from the barn to the trailer. The efficiency with which they worked made it obvious that they had done this many times before.

After the gate was secure, Terri gently nudged the calves out of the barn, and since the trailer had a nice supply of fresh hay, they climbed on board without a moo!

Even though they had never been on a trailer before, they were relaxed because they are so used to being around Terri on a daily basis. They trust her. She has kept them healthy. And even in these last moments, they were treated with respect. They were also used to being around each other, and even had worked out their special food pyramid!

Terri’s delightful 10 year-old son Joseph was added help throughout the morning.  He has a healthy understanding of his mother’s dairy and veal business, and even explained to us that this newly born girl would be beef at the end of her milk-giving career. Some might say that this is being desensitized, but I would argue that it’s actually being sensitized. Sensitized to one of many of life’s contradictions and paradoxes. Sensitized to life and death being cyclical and reciprocal. Sensitized to being connected rather than oblivious to the origins and processes involved in one’s food supply. Sensitized to that fully human feeling of being happy and sad at the same time instead of forcing contrary emotions into false or arbitrary compartments. Watching this calf suck Joseph’s finger can bring out such nuanced reflections. . .

For some reason Terri’s rearview mirror ornament made a lasting impression on the way to the slaughterhouse.  Perhaps this also reflects the courage to hold two conflicting ideas in one’s mind and heart at the same time. Peace and violence. And while some in the meat industry might take issue with the connotations inherent in the word violence, slaughter is violent. It has to be. But the violence of it doesn’t in itself make it immoral. The word violent is actually from the Latin – violentus – which means strength. The literal definition of violent is “something that involves extreme force or motion.” The word itself is morally neutral.

After we arrived at the slaughterhouse, we waited for a while in the parking lot until there was a space to pull the trailer up to the holding pen outside. It was a busy morning, and several trailers were ahead of us. As we peered in at the calves at this point, they were still quite unaffected, even after a long drive. One could probably say, “If they only knew what was about to happen. . .” But they don’t know. Is not knowing really so bad?  In terms of animal welfare, they had neither stress, nor fear, nor pain. In regard to animal rights, that’s another discussion in another context.

When it was our turn to unload, the calves were very, very happy to get out of the trailer. These little guys can really move! And of course there was a lot of water waiting for them to drink on this rather warm morning.

But while the calves were very fast and agile getting out of the trailer, the steer was quite wary about taking a step up. He had never seen a concrete step before, and didn’t quite know how to negotiate that challenge.  The scene reminded me of when I brought my adopted, retired greyhound home on that first day. He had never seen steps either, and I had to literally place each one of his four feet in front of the other to get him up the stairs. With a 1200-pound animal, it’s a different story, so we had to coax him out of the trailer with a grain bag!

When all of the animals were out of the trailer, the last order of business for the morning was to explain the order of meat cuts and what organs were wanted back. While I’m still not used to talking about loin chops, shoulder steaks and ground meat from a still live animal, it’s all in a day’s work for Terri.  This is how she makes a living and she has to know by looking at the conformation of live animals, what kind of meat cuts can be derived from them.

Before we left, I stood and took one last look at the calves. This one, the one who took pleasure in chewing on my shirt a couple of weeks ago, was the one who looked back at me.  Coincidence, perhaps. But I’m a sentimentalist and felt a pang of sorrow saying goodbye. The next time I see him will be when he is back at Terri’s Farm in a variety of packages. She will know which packages are him. And I will buy some of the meat and think about him honorably and thankfully when I eat.  So many people don’t want to know the animals on their plates. They would rather sustain the disconnect and the anonymity. I used to, but now that I know how it feels to embrace the wholeness, I won’t feel right to eat from a nameless, faceless, cellophane package of meat. At the very, very least, I now need to know which farm it is from. . .