A conversation with Will Harris, owner of White Oak Pastures, six generations, 156-year-old family farm in Bluffton, Georgia, about being in the space for 25 years but barely making money, new people wanting to get into the space, the unfairness built into the highly chemical, fossil fuel, extractive agriculture systems and a lot more.
LISTEN TO THE CONVERSATION ON:
White Oak Pastures takes pride in farming practices that focus on regenerative land management, humane animal husbandry, and revitalizing our rural community. They know radically traditional farming creates products that are better for our land, their livestock and their village. They are proud of their zero-waste production system that utilizes each part of the animals they pasture-raise and hand-butcher on their farm.
What does it tell us when leaders who have been in the regenerative space for 25 years is barely making any money? What does it tell us if it is one of the leaders in the regenerative space not only in terms of operation, scale, highly diversifies, mostly vertically integrated, probably one of the biggest pasture raised and slaughtered companies and in the US?
What does it teach us? Not that he is complaining, they are doing fine, 180 FTE, he is able to pay the bills. But they are just making it with large operational loans every seasons.
What does it tell us about the sector now? What does it tell us about new people wanting to get into the space and what does it tell us about the incredible unfairness built into the highly chemical fossil fuel extractive agriculture systems? Big questions in the conversation with Will Harris of White Oak Pastures. We hope it gives you some food for thought and energises you even further to get to work for the transition we need.
EVEN FOR A REGEN PIONEER, IT ISN’T EASY MAKING MONEY IN THE CURRENT SYSTEM
Will entered the market by selling grass-fed beef to Whole Food markets. He was the first in doing so, and that was good business for them for a long time until they found other cheaper sources of imported grass-fed beef, and they were either displaced or had to lower their prices to the point that was not profitable anymore. And they ceased to do business with Whole Food markets last December 31st.
”Fortunately, during the pandemic, we discovered direct-to-consumer marketing. We added the online shipping via FedEx or UPS direct-to-consumer function of our business. We never had done much with it. We sell about 20-something billion dollars’ worth of the product a year, probably 24, I think, maybe 22, in that range. And we were up to maybe, I don’t know, a million and a half dollars direct to consumer, and it wasn’t moving. During the pandemic, it just went absolutely bonkers and we couldn’t keep up with it. And that opened our eyes to the fact that there’s another way of moving our product other than through wholesalers. We believe that we can probably sell enough product, direct to consumer to take care of the bulk of our financial needs.” – Will Harris
”When I started making the change, I had no debt and the business was consistently profitable, it wasn’t a big business, 1 million $2 million a year, but it was consistently profitable. So, we took all those risks and made our investments, and paid for some profitable years. But in recent years, we’ve been far less profitable. We’re working to improve our situation.” – Will Harris
IT IS MORE DIFFICULT FOR NEW PEOPLE TO START NOW COMPARED TO 20 YEARS AGO
They have an internship programme, which accepts six people per quarter four times a year, so that’s 24 people a year. According to Will, most are fairly young and really excited about doing things differently. ‘They come here to learn. I think they do learn […] very few of them seem to find the financing they need to go along with this’. The financing is the big bottleneck.
”Sadly, we have not changed agriculture in southwest Georgia, it was my hope along the way that we will have more impact on those lands than we’ve had. And my friends and neighbours or relatives who farm are good people, they’re good people. But they’re not financially rewarded for making ecological improvements. And the system is geared for and controlled by the big pharma, big food, big agriculture. There’s just no easy way to farm… when we started… I cannot start today and accomplish what we accomplished. It happened. Our growth and the money that we made, we made before big food adapted or changed to fill the void.” – Will Harris
”My bankers are good people. They’re good friends of mine, but they’re not really interested in what I do, they’re interested in getting paid back. They are in the business of lending somebody else’s money to me, and others like me. And if the amount of interest they can get from me, merits the risk of doing business with me, then they will do business with me. If I didn’t have equity in land, I couldn’t operate, simply stated.” – Will Harris
THE PRAGMATIC COMPROMISE AGROVOLTAIC COULD BE!
Sylvan Ranch is the beneficiary of a grant from the Department of Energy Will is participating and argues that with that grant they want to show the ecological benefit that can be attained. ‘What we’re doing is going to be very beneficial to the land as compared to what the solar company has been doing previously, which is very intensive, chemical use and very intensive mechanical mowing, and it’s better than what the land was prior to the solar company buying it’. According to Will, this is a healing period for the land.
”So, the solar voltaic is new to us, about three years old. Land is cheap here, so we’re attracting a lot of large industrial solar voltaic systems. And one friend of mine sold his farm, large chunk of land to a solar voltaic company, and then we knew they were going to put in the solar infrastructure. So, we approached them about controlling the vegetation using our sheep […] we invited the CEO down, and he liked what we said we’re gonna do, and we’re now on three different arrays in this area […] It really turned out very well for us and the solar company. I think they’re very proud of the way we’re managing the vegetation, they use it a lot in their promotion advertisements. And we’re very proud of what we are doing for the land, the land is getting better and better.” – Will Harris
”It’s better than spraying herbicides, which is what they were doing previously. It’s less than perfect. But the soil, or the food we’re producing and the energy they’re producing is pretty damn good. So, I think it’s not as ecologically pleasing as a beautiful silvopasture system, but a heck of a lot better than the peanut, cotton, corn it was producing before they put the system in. They didn’t clear up a beautiful silvopasture system. They took degraded land that has been in industrial agricultural, peanut cotton corn production all my life, I’m 69 years old, and it’s been in that industrial farming system, damaging system all my life.” – Will Harris
OTHER POINTS DISCUSSED
Koen and Will also talked about:
- The push against red meat is losing steam
- The role for the finance industry
- How to monetize the soil carbon
- Finian Makepeace – How to get regeneration at the heart of the next US Farm Bill
- Mariko Thorbecke – Let’s focus on making agriculture fossil fuel free
Feedback, comments, suggestions? Reach me via Twitter @KoenvanSeijen, in the comments below or through Get in Touch on this website.
Join the Investing in Regenerative Agriculture and Food newsletter on www.eepurl.com/cxU33P
The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.