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The Biggest Ideas in Farming Today Are Also the Oldest

Georgia cattle raiser Will Harris left behind the destructive techniques of modern agriculture, charting a new path forward for the livestock industry.

Earth’s soil can sequester vast amounts of carbon — I’ve known this for years. But it wasn’t until I stood at the boundary between two farms in southern Georgia recently that I appreciated the enormous potential of that fact.

Will Harris, a fourth-generation cattleman, reached down and scooped up a handful of pale reddish-brown soil from his neighbor’s peanut fields: “Dead,” he pronounced it, “a lifeless mineral medium.” Then he walked a few paces and dug up another handful — inky black and unctuous — from his own land. “A thriving organic medium, teeming with life,” he said. “It’s 5% organic matter compared to 0.5%, side by side.”

In one palm Harris held the legacy of our industrial farming past, and in the other, evidence of how to do farming right in a climate-stressed world. For every 1% increase in organic matter, an acre of soil locks away about 10 more tons of carbon. The dark pigment in soil is, in fact, carbon — and generally speaking, the darker the soil, the more carbon it contains.

All told, the world’s farmland may be able to sequester as much CO2 as the total amount emitted from the transportation sector, or nearly as much as the global electricity industry. To achieve that level in the U.S. would require significant reforms of industrial farming practices in crop and meat production — changes that would be costly to farmers at first, even as they bring long-term riches such as healthier land and animals. To encourage the transition, the Biden administration, Congress and the agriculture industry must support reforms with tax credits and other financial incentives.

Harris and his Georgia farm, White Oak Pastures, illustrate the path forward, along with all the challenges of redefining modern agriculture. At 66 he tends the land his great grandfather bought in 1866, and that was worked industrially for decades before Harris became a convert to more ecologically sound practices, known today as regenerative farming. The story of his conversion reveals the painful reckoning that comes with facing up to the destructive techniques now ingrained in modern farming, and the need to consider gains in broader prosperity that surpass the simple terms of immediate profit and loss.

Harris’s livestock pastures are teeming with native perennial grasses and cover crops — rye, radish, crimson clover and white clover — that excel at pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, down through their roots and into the soil where the carbon feeds microbial life. As cattle graze and chew off the tops of the vegetation, they aerate the soil with their hooves and fertilize it with their manure, causing more plants and grasses to grow and pumping more carbon into the soil.

Spanning 3,000 acres, White Oak Pastures is a fascinating blend of the wisdom of the past and technology of the future. Harris’ 2,000 sheep graze among a 1,425-acre field of solar panels. He uses drones, cameras, software and 150 miles of state-of-the-art modular fencing to rotate about 3,000 cows daily through 30-acre paddocks. Harris also practices a conservation technique called silvopasture, integrating animals, forage and forestland; he plants thousands of live oaks, pecan and fruit trees in his pastures to provide shade for his animals and lock down more carbon.

According to a soil survey conducted by the sustainability consulting firm Quantis in 2019, White Oak Pastures sequesters roughly the equivalent of 3.5 pounds of carbon dioxide for every pound of grass-fed beef it produces. I spoke with other scientists who think that number would be lower after accounting for all the sheep, pigs, and chickens Harris raises and the feed those animals consume. But many, including a team of scientists from Michigan State University that’s done extensive research on White Oak Pastures, agree that Harris’s cattle operation is net carbon-negative and represents a consummate example of regenerative livestock production.

Harris grew up in Bluffton, Georgia, a town of 100 people in the poorest county in one of the poorest states in the union. For most of his life he helped his father run the farm,  then devoted exclusively to cattle. Together they adopted all the latest industrial practices with a singular focus on extracting every cent of profit possible from their herd.  “We went to bed thinking about how many animals we could kill the next day,” Harris recalls. “The more the better.”

 In those days, like most other industrialized livestock operations, Harris aggressively applied fertilizer and pesticides to his fields, and used antibiotics and hormone implants in his animals to maximize weight gain and fertility. If the recommendation was 2ccs of hormone, he injected 4ccs. “I was a heavy-handed, linear, more-is-better guy,” says Harris — a sensibility that pretty well defines industrial agriculture.

Harris’s conversion began soon after his father died in 2004, when he became the sole decision-maker for the farm. One pivotal moment came when he rode along in a double-decker truck hauling some of his 500-pound calves to be fattened and slaughtered in Nebraska. “The animals upstairs urinated and defecated on the ones on the bottom during a 30-hour drive,” he said. “That didn’t sit right with me.”  It also bothered him that after grazing his pastures for months, the calves grew to adulthood in a concrete feedlot while being fattened entirely on corn feed — all calories and no nutrition.

Freed from his father’s strictly profit-driven approach, Harris tapped into his college education in animal husbandry and agriculture science to find alternatives that honored the deep connection he felt to the farmland and his animals. His first big change: he abandoned feedlots and took out a $7 million loan to build his own slaughterhouse so that he could ensure his animals were raised and processed humanely.

He soon found that after pulling on one thread, the whole system he’d built with his father started unraveling. After Harris stopped feeding corn and grain to his cattle, he had to expand his pasture lands so that they could be exclusively grass-fed.  He eliminated the antibiotics and hormones, and then found himself becoming irked by the financial and environmental costs of the gross overapplication of herbicides and fertilizers on his fields.

Economically, the transformation was traumatic. Harris had taken an enormous risk by making so many changes in succession. For the first time, the family farm was not only in debt, but operating in the red. White Oak Pastures wasn’t able to produce nearly as much beef as it had previously. Without hormones to accelerate growth, it took two years to raise a cow to a weight of 1,100 pounds, while an industrial animal reaches 1,400 pounds at 16 months. His pig litters shrunk: industrially raised sows typically have 14 piglets in a litter; he was lucky to get seven. And his slaughter costs surged: an industrial plant would charge $100 per cow, while it cost Harris five times that.

There was an agonizing period — more than a year — when he thought he would lose everything. But slowly, all the pieces in his new system began to work together. To compensate for his higher costs he raised his prices, charging 30% more for his grass-fed beef than conventional product, and 40% more for his pork.

White Oak Pastures currently hovers at the edge of profitability after years of painful losses. Separate from the financial calculation, the benefits of regenerative farming have been profound. Vastly improved soil fertility, which continues to increase over time, has made for healthier and more abundant pastures and crops. By integrating crop and animal production — long decoupled by industrial agriculture — he’s restored the natural nitrogen cycle in which animal waste, rather than synthetic fertilizers, nourish fields.

Harris has tripled his landholdings, buying up depleted industrial farms that border his own and converting the land from pale, almost un-arable dirt to carbon-rich soils. His methods have significantly increased soil moisture, in turn counteracting topsoil erosion and building resilience to heat and drought in his grasses and crops. In the last 16 years, Harris has eliminated the use of thousands of tons of agrochemicals, ceasing fertilizer runoff, reducing algea blooms in local waterways and stopping the evaporation of fertilizer into the air, which forms nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than CO2.

Regenerative farming is much more labor intensive than conventional agriculture, which Harris counts as a good thing after watching his farming community suffer huge job losses over the decades from industrialization. At the height of its own profitability in the 1990s, White Oak Pastures needed four employees to raise 1,000 head of cattle each year. Now Harris raises 3,000 cows with 190 employees — nearly double the total population of his town. And he’s created a model of local, vertically integrated production that isn’t vulnerable to the kind of supply-chain disruption that plagued the centralized meat industry during the pandemic.

Harris has also restored the presence of native plants on his land and introduced more than a dozen cover crops that invite and sustain a diversity of bird and insect life. As much as any environmental goal, he’s committed to “freeing animals from the stresses and indignities of industrial operations.” He creates conditions in which his animals can express instinctive behaviors:  cows can roam and graze, hogs can root and wallow, chickens can scratch and peck — which for them, fundamentally, is a state of contentment.

In my visits to dozens of cattle farms and slaughterhouses all over the world, I’ve found none more attuned to animal wellness or humane slaughter than White Oak Pastures. 

Still, Harris struggles to remain profitable, and his story underscores the need for federal incentives to help farms like White Oak Pastures thrive. His cattle operation can’t yet receive compensation for sequestering carbon — even though private sector players such as Indigo Agriculture Inc. and Nori are paying farmers to do just that. Measuring carbon on livestock farms is far more complex than on farms that grow commodity crops, and carbon-market firms say they won’t be registering livestock operations until measurement technologies and protocols become more precise and widely accepted.

That needs to happen swiftly; the U.S. Department of Agriculture must fund non-profit research organizations like Comet Farm that are working to improve and expand measurement protocols. The Biden administration can also put money toward a farmer tax credit based on one designed for oil producers and power plants in 2017 to encourage the use of direct-air carbon-capture technologies. Soil, after all, is the mother of all direct-air capture.  

But the biggest immediate threat to small farmers like White Oak Pastures is the lack of regulation over labeling agricultural products as organic or grass-fed. Loose definitions of those terms allow major industrial producers to claim the label and charge far lower prices than regenerative farmers, even while raising their cattle overseas on corn feed. That forces farmers like Will Harris to lower their prices to compete, squeezing their razor-thin margins even further. Biden’s USDA has the power to rein in this damaging trend with stricter definitions and enforcement.

In the meantime, it’s essential to educate consumers, who are increasingly opting for plant-based proteins from brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, about the climate benefits of regenerative livestock farming. Harris looks at it this way: if a person avoids meat because they don’t want to eat a once-living animal, he respects that. Or if they just don’t like the taste, “I get it,” he said. “But if they tell me that they’re opposed to eating meat because it’s inhumane or destroys the earth, they can kiss my ass.”

Perhaps the most valuable lesson the public and private sector can learn from White Oak Pastures is that the answer to food security and climate-smart agriculture isn’t technology alone, but technology combined with the wisdom of ecology. Technology in cooperation — not competition — with the natural world. “Nature is so much smarter than we are,” Harris said. “We think we can figure out anything, except we can’t. Nature bats last.”

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