Will Harris is many things to many people. To chefs and foodies, he is a legendary farmer producing some of the world’s best pasture-raised meats infused with the terroir of South Georgia. To athletes, body-hackers, and health-conscious consumers, he is the owner of White Oak Pastures, which ships humanely-raised, non-GMO, grassfed proteins to their doorsteps. To the communities surrounding Bluffton, Georgia, he is one of the last good ole’ boys and the largest private employer in the county. To his colleagues in agriculture, he’s a renegade and an inspiration. But Will Harris’ legacy might turn out to be something else entirely. He may be remembered as the cattleman who figured out how to enlist cows in future generations’ struggle to reverse climate change.
Industrial-Sized Cow Farts
Almost everyone these days has been educated that carbon emissions from industrialized beef production are a startlingly large contributor to man-made climate change. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that livestock is already responsible for at least 14.5% of greenhouse gases being released worldwide. FAO also estimates that global beef consumption will exponentially grow until it reaches 105 million metric tons before 2050. Statistics on how bad beef consumption is for the environment are so ubiquitous that it is almost unthinkable for many climate scientists to advocate for anything but a vegetarian diet. Luckily for meat-eaters, scientists at Quantis, one of the world’s most respected environmental research and design firms, were not convinced that was the full story.
Quantis conducted a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) on beef raised by White Oak Pastures to “account for the energy and environmental impacts of all stages of a product’s life cycle, such as [the] acquisition of raw materials, the production process, handling of waste byproducts, and more. Using both soil sampling and modeled data from 2017, the LCA analyzed the farm’s overall greenhouse gas footprint. The study included enteric emissions (belches and gas) from cattle, manure emissions, farm activities, slaughter and transport, and carbon sequestration through soil and plant matter.
The research team was so astounded by White Oak Pastures LCA that they called in academics from other universities and institutes to confirm the methodology. Their results were so compelling that the lead researcher, Dr. Jason Rowntree of Michigan State University plans to publish them in a peer-reviewed journal later this year.
The LCA, funded by General Mills, confirms that “based on historical sampling, White Oak Pastures’ holistically managed fields went from 1 percent soil organic matter to 5 percent. Soil organic matter is a key indicator for soil health and among other factors, it influences soil aggregates and nutrient cycling.” according to Dr. Rowntree. “Aggregate stability indicates how well the soil holds together under rainfall, providing greater resiliency to the landscape. In the case of White Oak Pastures, aggregate stability increased 4x.”
The researchers zeroed in on White Oak Pastures because there are very few farms who have a 25-year history of holistically managed grazing. Harris has also acquired neighboring properties over the years, allowing the scientists to study fields that had been holistically managed for 20, 13, 8, 5, 3, 1 and 0 years to measure the effects of Harris’ management on the soil.
Radically Traditional Farming Must Be Commercially Viable
It has been more than 25 years since Will Harris began treating his great-grandfather’s pastures as the complete ecosystems they once were, an approach considered ‘radically traditional’ by most of his contemporaries. In that time White Oak Pastures has benefitted from improved biodiversity, better water retention in the soil and is more resilient against pests and disease. He accomplished this by raising many species of livestock using holistic management practices – cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, rabbits, geese, guineas, turkey, chickens, and ducks – not to mention the plants, wild animals (like bald eagles), millions of insects, and billions of bacteria and fungi in the soil.
“White Oak Pastures is one of EPIC’s key suppliers, and Will is truly a pioneer in the regenerative agriculture movement," said Taylor Collins, co-founder of EPIC Provisions. "Over the years, he’s inspired our brand to seek more suppliers who have multi-species, holistically managed farms that enrich the ecosystem. He’s also inspired our own land management practices as first-generation farmers. I’m thrilled that we finally have some data that proves what we’ve known all along—that raising meat the right way really can save the planet.”
“Our farm is creating more in terms of organic matter in the soil and microbial biodiversity than it is depleting,” points out Harris. “This shows that it is possible for humans to positively contribute to the environment through our food production system- using holistic management and planned grazing of livestock.” This is in contrast to carbon-emitting farms that strive to reduce costs by cultivating a monoculture to produce a specific commodity using artificial inputs like pesticides, chemical fertilizers, GMO’s, subtherapeutic antibiotics, and artificial hormones.
Saving More Than It Spends
The White Oak Pastures LCA study focused on one very important positive side effect: carbon storage in the soil. The study’s unprecedented conclusion was that the conversion of annual cropland to perennial pasture, holistic grazing and other regenerative management practices such as compost application had the side effect of storing more carbon in the soil than their cows emit during their lives, based on the LCA’s 2017 data. Contrary to all conventional wisdom, not only about beef production but about consumption in general, Will’s zero-waste farm operates on a “save more than you spend” carbon model. Instead of producing net emissions, his grassfed cattle sequester more than they produce. The Life Cycle Assessment data indicates that White Oak Pastures is offsetting at least 100 percent of the farm's grassfed beef carbon emissions and as much as 85 percent of the farm’s total carbon emissions.
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White Oak Pastures is a multigenerational 3,200-acre farm located in Bluffton, Georgia. Committed to returning the farm to its ancestral roots in regenerative farming, fourth generation farmer Will Harris transitioned his conventional farm operations in 1995 to a grassfed, pastured program. Today, White Oak Pastures is proud to be the largest Certified Organic farm in Georgia, raising 10 species of livestock: cattle, goats, sheep, hogs, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese and guinea fowl. Using prescribed grazing with livestock, White Oak Pastures takes great pride in providing customers with humane meat and poultry while regenerating dead soil into healthy, thriving grasslands.
As part of the farm’s zero-waste philosophy, White Oak Pastures produces skincare products, soap, and candles from beef tallow, along with pet chews and leather items from cow hides. Recognized as a leader in regenerative farming, White Oak Pastures received the Governor's Award for Environmental Stewardship in 2011, The University of Georgia's Award of Excellence in 2008, named the Most Respected Business Leader in Georgia, received the Growing Green Award in 2014, and the Georgia Organics Land Steward Award in 2016.
 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock. Rome, 2013 http://www.fao.org/3/i3437e/i3437e.pdf Accessed 4/29/19.
 Department Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. Environmental Impacts on Food Production and Consumption. 2006. http://randd.defra.gov.uk/Document.aspx?Document=EV02007_4601_FRP.pdf. Accessed 04/29/19.
 UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN). Life Cycle Assessment: A Tool for Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Farm Crops. 2015. https://asi.ucdavis.edu/sites/g/files/dgvnsk5751/files/inline-files/life-cycle-assessment-fact-sheet-2015_0.pdf. Accessed 04/08/19.