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.


Will Harris:

What's important is not the scale you operate on. What's important is keeping the three legs on the stool the right length. There is production and the pasture. This is the part that we all love. There's processing, which is the part that none of us love. Very capital intensive, highly regulated. Then there's the marketing and distribution and getting it to monetizing it. And keeping those three legs the same length, one not getting too long or too short, is essential and it's the hard part.


Farm Girl:

I'd like to go back to what you said about monoculture and you moved away from cattle and now you've got umpteenth species of animals there. Tell us why just having cows, for example, is not good for regenerative agriculture and how having all these animals contribute.


Will Harris:

Good question. So, regenerative land management is the emulation of nature. It's an imperfect emulation but it's emulation of nature. We call it biomimicry. And we try and get as close as we can, although we don't let perfection be the enemy of that. I don't believe that you can name me any ecosystem in nature that's a monoculture. It just doesn't happen. Not only are there a number of different plants, variety of plants and microbes, and animal species that's riding within those species, and those feed each other. It's called symbiosis. And we give that up when we go to a monocultural production system.


Will Harris:

We, my father's generation in mind, went to the monocultural system because it's so linear. And linear can be effective if scaled up to gain efficiency. That's the reason we do that. It's highly scalable. Nature is cyclical and it's highly replicable, though not really highly scalable, and it's resilient. So, what's happened to our feed production system is we have traded the resiliency of the cyclical system for the efficiency of that linear system and it was a bad trade. It was a really, really bad trade.


Farm Girl:

You mentioned earlier when you converted from the cattle that you were raising in the model that your father taught you, and you started raising grass-fed cattle, you sort of hit this marketing wave and were able to really attach yourself to that. And to get your beef into Whole Foods is a feather in your cap, certainly for that marketing wave. I'm curious, now we have this new marketing wave with plant-based meat replacement with the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger to name a few that yes, are plant-based, but also created in a laboratory. So, I'm just curious about the marketing generations here. The grass-fed beef marketing and now there's a lot of rhetoric around meat being bad and that we should be moving to these plant-based models. I'm wondering if you can talk to me a little bit about your thoughts there.


Will Harris:

I can. So, everybody is not my customer. That's lesson number one. There is a whole lot more industrial... Well, let's just talk about beef since we're talking about plant-based protein. There's a whole lot more, exponentially more, grain-fed, monoculturally produced beef consumed in this country than grass-fed. Sadly for me, I'm a small market. People like me have a small market. And so, I've got several things to say. But first of all, I'll say that I don't fear plant-based protein because I don't think that a huge percentage of the people that choose my production system will choose to move to plant-based protein.


Will Harris:

And in fact, people who are not my customers and eat industrially produced beef today, some small percentage of them might focus a little bit more on exactly what they're eating and move in my direction. So, I'm not really concerned about losing market share. I might, but I'm not agonizing over that. In fact, I lose sleep over a lot of things. That's not one of the things I lose sleep over. I'll say this, I am not one of the meat producers that disdains the vegetarian or vegan decision that people make. Whether or not to eat meat is a very personal lifestyle choice that any person should have the right to make without criticism. And if a person says to me they're a vegetarian or vegan because they can't bring themselves to eat the flesh of an animal that has lived, I respect that. That's not my sentiment, but I respect yours. No problem, let me get you a banana. If a person tells me that they made that choice because they don't like the taste of it or the mouthfeel, I respect that. That's fine.


Will Harris:

But I absolutely reject that they're making that decision because cows are destroying the environment. I will not accept that. I have scientific data and anecdotal observation over 25 years that show me, absolutely, that is not the case and I will not accept it. That's not okay. You can have your own opinion, your own choice, you can't have your own facts, that's wrong. It's interesting to me, sad, but interesting to me that for the last decade we've been told that ruminant animals are destroying the earth. And that notion has gotten traction about it as much as anything I know of. So many people believe that. And I believe it's an agenda that has been spread and it's not right. And it's just taken us a decade for us to be able to defend the fact that, "No. No, you got that wrong."


Will Harris:

And further, I would submit to you that there is no cost-effective way to regenerate degraded land without using animal impact, cost-effective. And if you're Bill Gates, you might put out a hundred tons of compost per acre every year or something ridiculous. But there's no real cost-effective way to do it without the use of animal impact.


Farm Girl:

So, when we're talking about the comparison between the predominant method of raising cattle in this country through conventional methods and the opportunity to shift more to plant-based, for example, let's just go with burgers. Is that a ridiculous argument, for example, for Bill Gates to make, to say, "I invested in the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger because cattle production is destroying the environment"?


Will Harris:

Well, it sounds as ridiculous. I think it's trading one form of land management that's bad for the environment for another form of land management that's bad for the environment. I don't see much benefit in that-


Farm Girl:

And the creation of these burgers, for example, you said... I know that you had shared some data from I guess Qantas from 2019 that kind of compared the spectrum of emissions from conventional beef, all the way down to, at the very high end to the very low end, and how you are producing all of your products, your meats et cetera. And then somewhere in between are these laboratory burgers. Do you want to explain that scientific data?


Will Harris:

No, I won't be explaining much scientific data. I told you I'm an expert in regenerative land management. I didn't tell you I was an expert in scientific approach. In fact, I'll say this. I'm really sorry that so much time and energy is spent in the scientific community bickering about which scientific method is the right one. I can see it from here, but I've got two big glass jars of dirt and soil. One is soil that came from my side of the fence. Lots of organic matter and it's just beautiful. The other one is hexinol organic matter that came from the other side of the fence, a neighbor. And it looks like it came from two different planets.


Will Harris:

Now, I don't need a lot of scientific method to tell me what's happening here. They're different colors. Mine is much darker. It's darker because you know what color carbon is when it's in the cycle? Black. So, it's just clear to me that what we're doing is working. And I'm very pleased to have some quantification through scientific method to demonstrate it. But I get tired of the scientific community bickering on what's the best measurement. I don't know that. I know I can ride by at 50 mph on the highway and you can see the difference.


Farm Girl:

Now, you talk about your neighbors. So, I'm curious to understand what their... I mean, obviously, you all have relationships. You've been living in the same community for 25 years or longer, your families.


Will Harris:

155 years.


Farm Girl:

155 years, there you go. Well, not you personally, of course.


Will Harris:

The family, the fam.


Farm Girl:

But your families. And I'm curious to understand what your conversations are about your methods versus their methods. Did they think you were crazy at the outset? And how successful have you been in convincing other conventional farmers, whether they're your neighbors or further afield, to change their practices?


Will Harris:

Well. First of all, I'm not an evangelist that's trying to convince my neighbors to do anything. My neighbors are my friends and relatives and they farm like I did. And I am absolutely not handing out bible tracks to get them to change the way they think. That's fine. In fact, I would submit to you that in many ways, they're smarter than I am because the risk to reward ratio in that farming method is better than it is in mine. I work without a net. One recall and I'm toast. There are a lot of ways that I could fail that is not a real issue for them. We both operate with very high capital outlay and very low returns but the risk mitigation with irrigated land and crop insurance and hedging with the future market is I know a number thing. So, I would feel really stupid driving up and saying to my cousin, "Hey, Cuz. You really need to change what you're doing here." No, that's not going to happen.


Farm Girl:

Do you have farmers from elsewhere, maybe not your cousins, who are looking at your farm as a model and trying to understand better what you're doing so that they can replicate it?


Will Harris:

There's quite a lot of that. And in fact, we have an intern program, where we take six interns per quarter, four times a year. I think we get 20 something applications every quarter for the six slots. So, there's a lot of people that are interested in this, almost none of them are farmers that are interested in rethinking their model pretty much. I think everybody we've ever had has been a non-farm person that is pursuing it. Education is something that we... We are a fairly robust agritourism business. We have cabins for lodging, a store, restaurants, there's [inaudible 00:35:25] a week. We do tours and such.


Will Harris:

And I bring that up because I never intended to be in that business. It was sort of thrust upon us in that people would drive here from Atlanta or Birmingham or Orlando and say, "I buy your product. I came to see what you do." And we didn't have time to fool with them. Everybody out here was busy. We were feeding hogs or working cattle or whatever. So, we built the tourism business because there was that demand and we're gracious southerners. We want you to come see us, and it's not... To give you what you came after. And that was 10 years ago.


Will Harris:

And the same is happening now with education. I didn't want an intern program, but we were fairly inundated with people that wanted to come here and work and do the work for free. And I can't do that. We've got 176 employees. We're the largest private employer in this county. I've got to have people on worker's comp and insured and be verified and all those things. And people think if they're working for free, they can do anything they want to and I can't run a business like that.


Will Harris:

So, the internship program was thrust upon us just like the tourism business. And in both cases, I'm glad it worked. In both cases it just... Neither one is necessarily profitable per se, but they cover their own cost and add a dimension to what we do. So, education is increasingly going to be a part of the program.


Farm Girl:

Very interesting. So, you're not an evangelist. However, they are coming to you.


Will Harris:

That's a good point. So, I'm not an evangelist. I'm not going to run you down and tell you what you ought to be doing. Hell no, I won't do that. But if you ask me about something that I think I know a lot about, one of the only three things I know a lot about, not only do I feel like should tell you, I will tell you. We're fiercely proud of what we do here and enjoy talking about it to people that want to talk about it. But I'm not so presumptuous to think that everybody wants to talk about it.


Farm Girl:

So, what inspired you to write this letter to Bill Gates?


Will Harris:

The fact that I thought that he was applying technology to correct problems that had been caused by technology. And I thought that was wrong and I didn't necessarily think that I could change his mind, but I couldn't let it go unchecked. As you pointed out, the man's got a quarter million acres of farmland and all those other things and it just needed to be said out loud, so I did. And, oh yeah, my daughter told me she wanted me to do it. That was the other thing.


Farm Girl:

Got to listen to her.


Will Harris:

Yeah. You're damn right.


Farm Girl:

Now, have you heard from him yet?


Will Harris:

No. No, and the likelihood of me hearing from him is thin to none. But I did what I could do.


Farm Girl:

So, I'm curious... A lot of farmers lease land from other landowners who aren't farmers, who are investors across the country. I know at least 60% of row farming in the Midwest is not owned by the farmers who are farming the land. I interviewed a farmer in California who grows organic berries and they said that barely anybody out there owns their own land, they're all leasing it. I'm just curious about that. Do you think this could just be Bill Gates owning land and making money, pulling in rent from farmers? Or in your heart of hearts, do you think he's up to something else?


Will Harris:

I don't know how to answer the question as it's asked. I'll say this. I don't think people should own land that don't know what to do with land. I don't think Bill Gates knows what to do with land. So, ownership of land is, I think, unique in many ways. I bought a little farm near here, and I paid a little under $2,000 an acre for it, which is what the market is nonirrigated farmland in western Georgia. I won't keep up with the price of gold because I don't have any gold or expect to own any gold.


Will Harris:

But I'm a news junkie and it just caught my ear that that day that I closed on that land, gold was 2,040 something dollars an ounce. And it just took my breath away that an ounce of gold was bringing the same thing as an acre of land. So, what they have in common is that they are both non-depreciating assets. And I really can't think of any non-depreciating assets except land and precious metals and gems and maybe art. I don't know anything about art, but there aren't many non-depreciating assets. And then when I think about comparing gold at $2,042 and land at 1,900 and something dollars an acre, I think about all the advantages that land has. The only advantage that gold has over land that I can think of is, it's more portable and it's probably a little bit more liquid, probably.


Will Harris:

But look at the advantages that land has. Not only is it non-depreciating, you can improve an acre of land. I've been doing it 25 years. My land is worth a lot more than it was 25 years ago because I've increased the productivity. You can't do that with gold. You can steal gold, it's hard to steal land. You can go and have a picnic and fish or hunt on your land. You can't do... A society that has an ounce of gold and an acre of land bring the same thing, takes my breath away. But then I thought about it enough, I figured out why that is. And the answer is most investors have no idea what to do with an acre of land. No idea. Everybody knows what to do with an ounce of gold. You put it in a safe place and hope it goes up.


Will Harris:

So, no, I don't think that Bill Gates or anybody else that doesn't know what to do with land ought to have it. Decisions made on land should be multi-generational decisions. Decisions made in corporate America where Mr. Gates lives, are based on quarterly reports or annual reports. We make generational decisions. I'm the fourth generation on this farm. I've got two daughters and their spouses helping me run it, that's the fifth. And they've got three babies between them that are the sixth, on the same piece of land.


Farm Girl:

That's nice. I have a question for you. When I first heard that Bill Gates had, like you said, a quarter of a million acres of land, and you're a news junkie so you'd been listening to the news and there was a pretty big lawsuit against the USDA in favor of black farmers. And a big justice for black farmers, a push now for debt forgiveness, and what have you. And I guess I was thinking about all of the descendants of sharecroppers and slavery, that they don't have their family's land. You have your family's land and you've been able to convert it from unhealthy land to healthy land. And like you mentioned, you needed a loan and there's a good old boys network for you to tap into.


Farm Girl:

And I guess I felt when I heard that, for Bill Gates to have all this land, he's not a farmer, he's not looking to farm the land, he's made an investment in it and that's on the one hand. And on the other hand, there are black farmers who want land and want to be able to farm it and want to be able to farm it in their way, hopefully, in a sustainable way. But I guess I'm just curious, especially, from you being there in Georgia and just thinking about this dichotomy, what your thoughts are about that?


Will Harris:

So, I do have thoughts and I'll give them to you. But I want to make it clear that I was trying to be very plain that I'm an expert in regenerative land management and compassionate animal welfare and rural community building. And we're getting into something now that's way out of my wheelhouse and above my pay grade. But I do have thoughts and I will give them to you. And I've already made it clear that people like... I hate seeing people like Bill Gates buy up land because they don't know what to do with it. I want to see people that know what to do with it and own land. Know how to cherish it and take care of it and make it better, restart the cycles of nature.


Will Harris:

So, we'll go back to the indigenous people that owned this land before we Europeans got here. And there is no doubt they were doing a heck of a lot better job here than we have done. What they were doing was perpetual, perpetual. And what we have done is very terminal. So, to be sure, that was a tremendous step back. To be sure, slavery is an abomination. I don't know any thinking, compassionate person that's got a different opinion on that. So, we're together on all those things. Now, the sociology of what to do about it... I know how to regenerate greater land and manage animals [inaudible 00:47:02] in which they can express instinctive behavior. And we've done a really good job real estate-enriching this impoverished community. So, we're all going to have to take care of that problem you're talking about.


Farm Girl:

This really wasn't a very fair question to ask Will Harris of White Oak Pastures. But it is a fair question to ask Mr. Bill Gates. And I hope that somebody else will ask it.


Farm Girl:

I've interviewed a lot of farmers across the country and another interesting thread that I have seen for bigger farmers and smaller farmers is this development of personal autonomy or farm first autonomy. You have it. You have the facilities there to slaughter your own animals because you couldn't find a system that worked for you outside of your own farm. There's a tremendous shift it seems, at least with the farmers I'm talking to, that big or small, autonomy is key to making money, to not being fed into these commodity structures where you don't have any say. Dairy farmers, too. So, it's super interesting to hear it from a farmer who has, well, not just been around, but you're doing it on such a big scale.


Will Harris:

Well, I think that what you are describing there is further finding ways to become resilient. Closing loops is resilient. Industrial commodity farming is not very resilient. If you're raising cotton in big acres of monoculture... Monoculture's usually on rotation, the step of monoculture. But every spring, you've got to go to the fertilizer store and buy fertilizer from somebody else that you have no control over other than to pay for it or buy it from somebody else. Same with seed. Pick a GMO seed. There's nowhere to get them except buy them from a guy that's got it. Equipment, fuel, all down the line, all the inputs. And then what you produce, whether it's live hogs or a bushel of corn, you've basically got to have somebody to come and get it. Maybe you could take it to them, but when you... At the farm gate, cut loose of that raw commodity, you're dependent upon somebody else. And all that dependence is a fallout from the linear scalability. And it's just literally the difference in terminal and perpetual.


Will Harris:

What we do here is perpetual. One thing follows the next, follows the next. I don't buy fertilizer. We generate about nine tons of packing plant waste a day. We compost it, and that's the only fertility that goes out there. It's cyclical, closing loops. I can list a bunch of things like that. Verus the terminal, which is like baking a cake. You go to the store and still buy sugar and flour and butter. You buy seed and chemicals and fertilizer. Then you mix them up. The mixer is your tractor and the stove, which is your land. And it cooks for 90 or 120 or 150 days. Then you harvest it and sell the cake. And then you wait for the next batch.


Will Harris:

And I'm not [inaudible 00:50:56] wrong with that. I did that for many, many years. And it is highly scalable, which lends itself to incredible efficiency which takes cost out of production. I'm not saying what I do is better than. I'm saying what I do is different than. It's not as efficient. If your metric is efficiency, I lose, I lose. If your metric is resiliency, I win. And that's why I'm not an evangelist. That's why I'm not trying to get people to come my way.


Farm Girl:

It seems like they're coming.


Will Harris:

I don't know. It seems like the big companies are greenwashing to make it sound like they're coming.


Farm Girl:

Interesting.


Will Harris:

The biggest deterrent to the spread of this kind of farming is greenwashing by big multinational food companies.


Farm Girl:

How are they doing that?


Will Harris:

Well, the USDA label system is flawed, horribly flawed. The certification systems that are available to us are so confusing. There's so many of them that are very low-hanging fruit or some very good [inaudible 00:52:32]. It's always confused, I don't know want to believe. The big multinational companies can hire really smart people to talk about what they do in a way that can be very pleasing to consumers. The only shield and so on we have is authenticity and transparency.


Farm Girl:

Thanks for joining me for this really enlightening conversation with farmer, Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia. Will Harris found a way out of factory farming and even though he says he's not a regenerative farming evangelist, his actions speak louder than his words. I hope that Bill Gates takes him up on his offer for a visit to the farm. I will republish Will Harris's letter to Bill Gates in my show notes on talkfarmtome.com. Thanks again for joining me. And if you liked what you heard, please share it or write a review on Apple Podcasts or drop me a note. You can also find me on Instagram with a lot more about farms and farmers on xoxofarmgirl or on Talk Farm to Me. We'll talk some more farm soon.


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