Farmer Will Harris of White Oak Pastures Has Some Pointed Advice for Bill Gates


Bill Gates is now the leading owner of US farmland with nearly a quarter of a million acres in his portfolio. With investments in the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger, efforts toward carbon neutrality and international efforts to lend technological solutions to agricultural efforts on the African and Asian continents through Gates Ag One, speculation is swirling about what he might be up to in the US.


Will Harris, a third generation farmer who went from a monoculture cattle model to a multi species regenerative model on his farm, has a lot of wisdom to share with Mr. Gates and with you. He points out how a linear technological model, one that has been applied to the world of agriculture since WWII, is incompatible with the cyclical nature of, well, nature.


Have a listen. Will sticks with you.

GUEST

Will Harris, farmer and owner, White Oak Pastures, Bluffton, GA


MUSIC

The music in this episode was created specifically for Talk Farm to Me by professional musician and songwriter Douglas Haines via Fiverr.


SPECIAL THANKS

Always thank you to the amazing farmers who have been on any episode of Talk Farm to Me. Thank you Will for being here!


TRANSCRIPT


As always, a transcript of the episode follows. Please forgive any typos.


Straight Talk: Farmer Will Harris

Season 4, Episode 5


Farm Girl:

White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia is a third-generation family farm. The previous two generations farmed cattle pretty much exclusively. The current generation, with farmer Will Harris at the helm, with two other generations working and living on the farm, has reimagined and reengineered the farm in a way that is a tremendous philosophical shift from White Oak's history and its peers. Cattle, yes, but grass-fed herds and nine other species too, from chickens and ducks, pigs, sheep, rabbits, and it's working. Will Harris dragged his farm out of commodity farming, away from factory farming and feed-lots, and weaned his land off industrial fertilizers. His efforts brought the rural town of Bluffton back too.


Farm Girl:

But that's not exactly why we're here. On March 1st, Will Harris wrote a public letter to Bill Gates in response to the recent news that unearthed Mr. Gate's acquisition of nearly a quarter of a million acres of US farmland. This makes Gates the largest farmland owner in the United States, and Will Harris has a few ideas he'd like to share with the billionaire tech wiz. Welcome to Talk Farm to Me. I'm your host, Farm Girl, and I'm proud to bring the most interesting farmers right into your living room. If you're like me, you've gained some friends along the way, farmers you feel you know and are connected to. Thanks for joining. And if you like what you hear, share it, review it on Apple Podcasts or drop me a note.


Farm Girl:

This is episode five in Talk Farm to Me's Straight Talk series. It's part of season four, and this format has been so popular that it will continue right into season six that's launching soon. You won't want to miss it. Now, off to Georgia, where the weather is warm and the peaches are to die for.


Farm Girl:

I was very intrigued by the letter that you wrote to Bill Gates. I think that when the information was pulled together from across the country of the number of acres that Bill Gates has invested in, has purchased, it's 242,000 acres across many states. There has been a tremendous amount of speculation about what he is doing, what he plans to do, and I don't know that there's any definitive information from the Gates camp per se. But a tremendous amount of speculation, especially because he has a program in Africa and Asia called Gates Ag One. He's invested in Leading Harvest to determine standards for sustainable agriculture, he's invested in the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger, and he's expressed some sincere concerns about carbon emissions and has invested in various things. So, I think what we're playing here is a little bit of a dot-to-dot game, everyone's speculating. I'd like to hear what you're thinking about what he's doing now.


Will Harris:

I think that clearly, he's a brilliant man. You don't become a billionaire without having something going for you. And I think that he has seen, as I have, the ills of the factory farm model that we now are producing 90 something percent of our food in this [inaudible 00:04:04]. And I think he has applied his skill set, which is technology, to solving that problem. And I think that he probably can't understand that the problems that we have now are a result of technology. It's applying a very linear production model to a very cyclical system.


Farm Girl:

Explain that to us a little bit.


Will Harris:

We talk a lot about the difference in a complicated system and a complex system. This computer that you and I are talking on is a very complicated system. And your body, or this farm, or the United States Government, is a very complex system. In both cases, there's a lot of stuff going on to make it work. But in a complicated system, like this computer, if one component fails, it quits working, it doesn't work anymore. In a complex system like your body, or this farm, or the United States Government, a lot of things are going on to make it work, and if one component ceases to work, everything morphs, and it continues to operate in a fashion, maybe not exactly the way it was, but in a fashion.


Will Harris:

And Bill Gates is a linear thinker, reductionist science is very linear, it works great on complicated systems. It's how we put man on the moon, it's how you and I are looking at each other and talking when we're so far away. Reductionist science is fantastic for complicated systems. Reductionist science does not work so well on complex systems. There are often unintended consequences. That's why we've had drug recalls, that's why we've had pesticides that were marketed and then banned, that's how we've got all this climate change, greenhouse gas. All of the things that we applied, the complex systems we've applied reduction science to, often had unintended consequences and they were unnoticed consequences and they were undesirable consequences.


Will Harris:

I think in Bill Gates's mind, he continues to plow on down the road of applying technology to this complex system, which is food production. We advocate, people like me, advocate applying a more cyclical correction to restart the cycles of nature. Technology allowed man, [inaudible 00:07:08] to break the cycles of nature. The cycles of nature are, to list a few, the carbon cycle, the water cycle, the energy cycle, the mineral cycle, the microbial cycle, all the known cycles that we're not even smart enough to recognize. No species, from huge dinosaurs to... could break those cycles. But man, through technology, broke the cycle. We broke the water cycle, we broke the mineral cycle, we broke the carbon cycle.


Will Harris:

And that has resulted in desertification, diminished resources, pollution, less and less topsoil, a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and many, many, many ills. And we have demonstrated at White Oak Pastures that those cycles can be restarted and the land can be brought back to a level of high productivity.


Farm Girl:

So, let's talk about your authority. You are a farmer and your farm is White Oak Pastures. Tell us what you know from experience that gives you the authority to give some advice to Bill Gates.


Will Harris:

You are right. I am an authority on regenerative land management. I am an authority on rural community building and I am an authority on compassionate animal welfare. And I'm not an authority on anything else in the world, but I am an authority on those three topics. And the one you asked about is maybe my favorite topic, regenerative land management. And what's true is that I graduated from the University of Georgia College of Agriculture in 1976, Animal Science. And I came back home when my father was running this farm in a very linear manner. It was a monoculture of them, only cattle, using a lot of the tools that technology gave us. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, a lot of tillage, subtherapeutic antibiotics, [inaudible 00:09:34], hormonal implants...


Will Harris:

And I applied all those tools and ran the farm that way for another 20 years and was financially comfortable doing it. When I changed it was not financially motivated. We certainly weren't rich people but I lived very comfortably and I never had a year in which I lost money. We paid taxes every year.


Will Harris:

In the mid '90s I was enjoying that production model less and less. And almost exclusively because I had become increasingly aware of the unintended consequences of that production model. The effect it had on the land, the animals, and the community.


Farm Girl:

Can you give me some specific examples of what made you aware?


Will Harris:

I can. I will limit it to the land section just to scale it [inaudible 00:10:32]. I would walk in my fields and look at the soil and it was a dead mineral medium. And I would walk over to the edge of the woods and the soil, just 15, 20 yards away, and it was a rich, organic medium that was teeming with life. Dead mineral medium, rich organic medium. And I wanted this, to look like this.


Will Harris:

So. It was pretty obvious to me what the difference was. The difference was chemical fertilizer, tillage, and pesticides. So, I ceased to use chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and tillage. Fast forward 25 years later and we had a study done by an environmental engineering group from Minneapolis, Minnesota and it found that over the 20 year period, my land had moved from one-half of one percent organic matter to five percent organic matter.


Will Harris:

So, let me put that in perspective for you. One percent organic matter will absorb over 20,000 gallons of water. That's about a one inch rain event on an acre of land. So, today my land will absorb the rainfall from a five inch rain event. Not that I mean 30 minutes but it's happening for a while. Previously it would only absorb a half an inch rain event. Now, I live in the coastal plains of Georgia and a five or six inch rain event is not real uncommon. You get 52 inches of rain a year and some really large rain events. So, what that means, not only is my land more productive because it's more drought resistant because it holds the moisture, also that excess moisture doesn't flood across, taking topsoil and chemical fertilizer and pesticides into the streams, to the creeks, to the rivers, to the Gulf of Mexico. There's a huge dead [inaudible 00:12:51] spike in aquatic life that doesn't exist the way it used to. So, am I an expert of regenerative land management? You're damn right.


Farm Girl:

And you came to this by experimentation, really. You saw a big problem and you made some changes. Now, explain a little bit what it takes to convert conventional agriculture to this regenerative agriculture model. And if you don't mind, could you explain it a little bit in financial terms? Because I know that it takes some investment in order to make a conversion. And maybe not an investment that your predecessors, your father and your grandfather would have been keen on.


Will Harris:

Yeah. So, that's a very good question and it's a very big question. And I'll start out by saying that when I became dissatisfied with the results of the linear production farming model, monoculture farming model, that I did not have a grand plan to change everything. I just started moving away from the things I didn't like. And it resulted in me pretty much changing everything. But it was not done all at once and I did not have a burning bush moment. It was a gradual dissatisfaction that caused me to move away.


Will Harris:

So, financially, it was painful. I told you that I had made money every year of my life. Again, we were not rich people but we lived very comfortably. And when I started giving up the tools that science gave me to take cost out of production, like in fertilizer and pesticide, I added cost back to production. That just makes sense, doesn't it? I could not extract my added production cost from the commodity model. I guess I was tending to spend less on the crops because I was not buying the inputs. But I had less yield, so my cost per unit produced was higher. And I could not extract that higher cost from the commodity market.


Will Harris:

So, that caused me to have to find a market that would pay a premium to cover my additional cost. At that time, I was pretty exclusively a monocultural beef producer. I had a calf operation. I had a feedlot. So, we were very fortunate. And this is in the late '90s and grass-fed beef was just catching its traction. So, we started marketing White Oak Pastures Grass-Fed Beef. And I was lucky enough to be in the position that I sold Whole Foods Market the first pound of American grass-fed beef that they marketed as American grass-fed beef.


Farm Girl:

That's a big deal.


Will Harris:

It is a big deal. At that point in time, I had the production under control and the marketing under control, but I was using outside processes. Little small, local slaughterhouses. Using their excess capacity to slaughter my cattle. And they ran out of capacity before I had enough volume to really be profitable. I would call and say, "I need to bring 12 head next week." And they'd say, "No. You can bring six." I said, "I really needed to bring 12. I've got 12 ready, I've got 12 sold." But I could only take six, and I couldn't be profitable at that level.


Will Harris:

So, we took the big plunge and built a USDA inspected red meat slaughter plant on the farm. And that was $2.2 million and I certainly didn't have $2.2 million but I had inherited about a thousand acres of land and a herd of cattle. And I leveraged it by financing collateral-based, good old bore bank financing. And I started raising and slaughtering and marketing wholesale. By the way, at that time, I had never borrowed a penny in my life. And over the next few years, I borrowed $7.5 million to expand the farm and to expand the processing.


Will Harris:

So, we moved over to that model and have been doing it ever since. We later added other species. I now believe that monocultures are bad. So, we went from raising just cattle to today, we pasture raise cattle, hogs, sheep, goats, rabbits, and hand butcher them here on the farm in the red meat slaughter plant I built. We pasture raise chickens, turkeys, geese, guineas, and ducks and hand butcher them in a separate USDA inspected poultry slaughterhouse that I built here on the farm. We raise pastured eggs, certified organic vegetables, honey. Just a bunch of other things that are part of the organism that I think White Oak Pastures is being.


Will Harris:

The term factory farm is people... Industrial farmers bristle when they hear factory farm. "Why is my farm a factory farm? Your farm is bigger than mine. Why isn't it a factory?" And the answer is because a factory farm follows a factory model. You raise chickens in a chicken factory the way you make shirts in a shirt factory. Pigs in a pig factory the way you make shoes in a shoe factory. So, we moved away from that. And the hardest part of those transitions I just mentioned, is keeping everything at that right scale. I'm often asked, "What scale works best?" That's so highly situational. If you're in the right zip code with a high disposable income in Massachusetts or somewhere, you can have a big yard with vegetables and chickens and make a living. If you are in the poorest country in one of the poorest states in the Union, which is where I am, it's different. And so, we have to operate on a larger scale.