How Sustainably Raised Cattle Help the Environment, with Will Harris
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RHR: How Sustainably Raised Cattle Help the Environment, with Will Harris

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The claim that beef production is always harmful to the environment is simply not true. In fact, sustainable, regenerative land management can sequester or remove carbon from the atmosphere rather than emitting it, while improving animal welfare and offering benefits to the local community. In this episode of Revolution Health Radio, I talk with Will Harris of White Oak Pastures about the benefits of sustainably raised and managed livestock.

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Why White Oak Pastures practices sustainable agriculture
  • How sustainable land management impacts carbon emissions
  • The problem with monocultures
  • What holistic, sustainable land management looks like
  • Animal welfare in sustainable agriculture
  • How sustainable agriculture impacts the community
  • What the life-cycle analysis showed about White Oak Pastures
  • Feeding the world with sustainable farming

Show notes:


Hey, everybody. Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, I’m really excited to welcome Will Harris as my guest on the show. Will is a fourth-generation cattleman who tends to the same land that his great-grandfather settled way back in 1866. Born and raised at White Oak Pastures, Will left home to attend the University of Georgia School of Agriculture, where he was trained in the industrial farming methods that had taken hold after World War II. Will graduated in 1976 and returned to Bluffton where he and his father continued to raise cattle using pesticides, herbicides, hormones, and antibiotics. They also fed their herd a high-carbohydrate diet of corn and soy.

These tools did a fantastic job of taking the cost out of the system, but in the mid-1990s, Will became disenchanted with the excesses of these industrialized methods. They had created a monoculture for their cattle, and, as Will says, and as we’ll discuss in the show, “Nature abhors a monoculture.” In 1995, Will made the audacious decision to return to the farming methods his great-grandfather had used 130 years before. Since Will has successfully implemented these changes, he has been recognized all over the world as a leader in humane animal husbandry and environmental sustainability. Will is the Immediate Past President of the Board of Directors of Georgia Organics. He is the Beef Director of the American Grassfed Association, and he was selected 2011 Business Person of the Year for Georgia by the Small Business Administration.

Will lives in his family home on the property with his wife, Yvonne. He’s the proud father of three daughters, Jessi, Jenni, and Jodi. His favorite place in the world to be is out in the pastures where he likes to have a big coffee at sunrise and a 750-milliliter glass of wine at sunset. I was really looking forward to this discussion with Will because I mentioned White Oak Pastures in a couple of my recent appearances [on The Joe Rogan Experience].

They were the subject of a life-cycle analysis that was performed by Quantis International that found that regenerative holistically managed beef can actually sequester or remove carbon from the atmosphere rather than emit it, which really, completely turns the plant-based narrative on its head. Because, as I’m sure you’ve heard, the claim is that beef production is always harmful to the environment. And as you’ll learn in this interview with Will, there are much better methods for raising cattle that are not only better from an animal welfare perspective, [but] they’re also much better from an environmental perspective and a nutrition perspective. So let’s dive into the interview. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Chris Kresser:  Will Harris, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast. I’ve really been looking forward to this.

Will Harris:  Well, thank you for having me, Chris. Been looking forward to being with you guys.

Why White Oak Pastures Practices Sustainable Agriculture

Chris Kresser:  So let’s, maybe let’s start with your, a little bit about your background and your story. I know you grew up at White Oak Pastures, and I believe [you] went right into conventional methods of raising cattle. And then something happened. So tell us a little bit more about your story and how you came to be a regenerative rancher.

Will Harris:  Okay, sure. So pardon my voice. I’ve got a little laryngitis today. But I’ll try to work through it. But the farm was actually started by my great-grandfather in 1866.

Chris Kresser:  Wow.

Will Harris:  And my grandfather would work the land in a way that was very respectful to the land and the animals and the local community. My father, post-World War II, took over the farm. And that was the generation that industrialized, commoditized, [and] centralized.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Will Harris:  I went to the University of Georgia, majored in, went into the College of Agriculture, graduated in 1976. Came back and further commoditized, industrialized, centralized, and operated that way successfully for 20 years and was financially comfortable. But [I] did become increasingly dissatisfied with the unintended consequences of that sort of farming, and then [I] started making changes in the mid ‘90s and [I] continue to make changes today.

Chris Kresser:  What was the source of dissatisfaction? What were the signals that you were seeing that led you to believe that the typical way of doing it that’s been in practice since World War II, and maybe even a little before, was not the best way to do it?

Will Harris:  Well, it kind of evolved. But the first thing that really disturbed me, came to be disturbing to me, was the animal welfare. I felt really good about the way, about my animal welfare until I focused on it and became dissatisfied and started changing it. And from that, that led me to question my land management. So I changed that, and regenerative land management became my passion and still is. But along the way, without really intending to, our way of farming had a tremendous impact on our little village of Bluffton, Georgia. And while I didn’t set out to improve the town, I’m really pleased with that unintended consequence.

Chris Kresser:  So, maybe for the listeners who are not familiar or very familiar with holistically, holistic land management, maybe you could just kind of define that in a nutshell. What is it that you’re doing at White Oak Pastures? And how is that different than a conventional feedlot operation?

Will Harris:  Well, the way we manage land now is very regenerative. The way we did it previously was very reductive. Basically, industrial agriculture breaks the cycles of nature. The carbon cycle, the water cycle, the mineral cycle, the energy cycle, the microbial cycle, many cycles of nature. And those cycles are broken through the use of chemical fertilizers and tillage and pesticides and GMOs and antibiotics and hormones, etcetera. The way we farm today, and farmed for the last 20 years, is a real focus on maximizing those natural cycles that I mentioned. And it has an enormous impact on the productivity of the land, the abundance returns.

According to the plant-based narrative, beef production hurts the environment. In this episode of RHR, we turn that misconception on its head in an informative talk with Will Harris, a sustainable cattleman. #chriskresser

How Sustainable Land Management Impacts Carbon Emissions

Chris Kresser:  It also has a significant impact on carbon emissions, or in the case of a regenerative operation like yours, even carbon sequestration. Can you speak to that a little bit? Because one of the ways that we got connected, of course, was [from] one of my recent appearances on Joe Rogan. I was countering the vegan narrative that beef production is a major, always has to be, a major emitter of greenhouse gases and is comparable to all of transportation, which is a claim that has been made by advocates of plant-based diets. And I mentioned a life-cycle analysis that had been done at White Oak Pastures as an example of where producing beef can actually sequester or remove carbon from the atmosphere. So how does that work in a holistically managed operation such as yours?

Will Harris:  Good. So the carbon cycle is one of the cycles I mentioned, and wow, individually, it’s no more important than the other cycles. With reference to the pressing issue of climate change, it arguably is more important. So the life-cycle analysis that you mentioned scientifically proved that this farm sequesters 3.5 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent for every pound of beef we produce. To put that in perspective with the plant-based part as you referred to, Impossible [Foods] literally releases 3.5 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent to every pound of Impossible Burger that they produce. So, ironically, they are just exactly as bad for the environment as we are good for the environment.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Will Harris:  Incredible coincidence.

Chris Kresser:  That’s remarkable. And just to be clear, that life-cycle analysis was performed by the exact same independent firm, correct?

Will Harris:  Yeah, both of the, to make it even more by the exact same environmental engineering concern, Quantis from Minneapolis, Minnesota. And during the same time.

Chris Kresser:  Right, so we can’t say there were different methods or different analysis procedures because it was performed by the same group in the same window of time.

Will Harris:  In Georgia, we would say weighed on the same scales on the same day.

Chris Kresser:  Right, right. So, just to reiterate for the listeners here, White Oak Pastures is removing as much carbon from the atmosphere per pound of beef that they produce as Impossible Burger, which is a plant-based fake meat burger emitting into the atmosphere with each pound of fake meat that they produce, which, of course is completely counter to the narrative that we hear all the time now about how going vegan will save the world. Or, if we just switch to plant-based alternatives like Impossible Burger, we’re going to have this profoundly positive impact on the environment.

And while we’re on the subject, Will, maybe we could talk a little bit more about other issues with products like Impossible Burger that rely on monoculture. Because I know you have said that nature abhors a monoculture. So let’s talk about that in the context of Impossible Burger, which is made with, I believe, GMO soy, and what is the problem with relying on industrial scale agriculture to fix problems that industrial agriculture caused in the first place?

The Problem with Monocultures

Will Harris:  Well, you laid it out with the best line, “Nature abhors a monoculture.” And if you think about it, a monoculture exists nowhere in nature. Nowhere in nature is there a sea in which there’s only one kind of fish. And there’s no natural forest where there’s only one kind of tree or plant. No forest in which there are only foxes or only deer or only bobcats. The abundance of life that nature gives us when the cycles are working comes from different plants, animals, microbes, [and] insects, all operating in symbiotic relationships with each other.

Symbiosis explains the abundance of nature is literally one plus one equals three. And that is the bounty that created the coal and oil and gas that’s reserved, sequestered in the soil. It’s  where the energy and the wealth, the true wealth of the world, comes from. And when you fly in the face of nature and create an enforced monoculture, you give up that symbiosis. And it’s giving up the gift of life.

Chris Kresser:  I sometimes wonder if, it seems like a lot of these fake meat products come out of or are started by people who come from a tech background. And it kind of goes along with the idea that technology can solve all problems. And there’s almost, it seems to me, a profound disconnection from nature and natural cycles and that kind of thinking. And maybe even hostility toward those natural cycles.

And really, if you trace back the birth of industrial agriculture and cattle practices, it also seems to really pick up speed with the increase in reliance on these new technologies. How has your operation changed over time in relationship with technology? Has that shifted? Or are you using technology just in a different way? Are you using less technology? More? What would you say about that?

Will Harris:  So, let’s be clear, I’m not anti-technology. But I do know that technology is overused and used out of its place. So, in holistic management, we talk about the difference [between] a complicated system and a complex system. A complicated system is like this computer that I’m talking on, on my cell phone, or my pickup truck that’s parked outside. And that means it’s a lot of things going on in it to make it work. And if any one of them shuts down, the system will stop. That is a complicated system.

A complex system is like your body or the United States government or my farm, White Oak Pastures. In a complex system, there’s a lot of things going on within it to make it work. But if one component shuts down, the other components morph, and the system continues to operate. Now, reductionist science works beautifully on complicated systems. That’s why this computer works and why we were able to put a man on Mars, and all the other miraculous things we’ve done.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Will Harris:  Reductionist science does not work nearly so well in complex systems. That’s why we’ve had drug recalls and pesticide recalls, and herbicides that cause cancer, and all these other unintended consequences, because reductionist science tried to apply their system to a system in which it’s not, it doesn’t work well. So, at White Oak Pastures, we employ a lot of technology, but we ensure that we separate what is complex from what is complicated and apply the technology accordingly.

What Holistic, Sustainable Land Management Looks Like

Chris Kresser:  I really like that way of looking at it. It makes a lot of sense. Could you tell us a little bit more about what a holistically managed beef operation actually looks like? Again, for people who are not as familiar with the methods here, how is it different specifically? People have maybe driven by a feedlot and seen cattle standing in a feedlot, and that’s basically the extent of their understanding of what happens. But if you could give us kind of a, paint us a little bit more of a picture of how holistically managed operation differs, I think that would be helpful.

Will Harris:  Well, so, a holistically managed farm is, I call it biomimicry. It’s the emulation of nature. It is looking at the ecosystem, the biome, and determining how this would look if we didn’t interfere in it and man did not break the cycle. And that leads me to bring up animal agriculture, because animal production is a big part of what I do here. We raise cows, hogs, sheep, goats, rabbits, poultry, bees, and another number of things. And it really troubles me when I hear people say that livestock, in general, cattle, in particular, are destroying the environment.

When, as an expert in land management, I can tell you with authority there is no possible way to cost-effectively regenerate degraded land without the use of animals. The earth evolved with animal impact as an essential component to its evolution. It probably goes back to [the] Brontosaurus being moved by [the] Tyrannosaurus rex. But to be sure, it goes back to buffalo being moved by wolves, or caribou being moved by polar bears, or gazelles being moved by lions. But the creation came from herbivorous creatures having a hard impact on the land for a very short duration of time and a very long recovery period. And the plants evolved to thrive in that environment over millions of years. And the animals evolved to thrive in that environment. And we emulate that.

And it simply increases the productivity; it increases the organic modern land. That’s how we sequester 3.5 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent for every pound of beef. The plant photosynthesizes; it breathes in greenhouse gases. Much of that is sequestered beneath the surface in the roots. Herbivores come along, bite off the tops, defecate, [and] much of that winds up in the soil. Some goes up in enteric emissions, to be sure. But more of it, is literally more as proven by Quantis, goes into the soil, and that is literally the way that the reserves of gas and oil and coal got down there, through the system I just described.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Will Harris:  Herbivores [were] moved by predators. And in our system here, we emulate that every day. We humans replace the predators moving the animals, but it’s biomimicry.

Chris Kresser:  So the animals are being, the cattle are being rotated, and then you’ve also got some synergy and interplay with the other animals you’re raising, like chickens. How does that relationship work?

Will Harris:  So there are symbiotic relationships between all the species of animals that we raise. They’re all rotated around the landscape in different orders. No one linear, I reject linear management in a holistic, complex system. The animals are moved. I call it prescriptive grazing. Their pieces of land sometimes need the impact that hogs provide. Sometimes, they need the impact that sheep or goats provide. Sometimes, they need the impact that poultry provides. And as the land manager, having done it all my life, I make the prescription and we use the animals to provide the land with the impact that we think it needs at that time.

Animal Welfare in Sustainable Agriculture

Chris Kresser:  And how does the experience of the animals differ in this system? At the risk of pointing out the obvious, they’re spending a lot more time outdoors on pasture in their natural environment. But you mentioned that animal welfare was one of the, was the initial impulse for you to, in your interest in holistic management. So, tell us a little bit about how this kind of method affects the lives of the animals and how that differs from the conventional operation.

Will Harris:  So I mentioned earlier that the first facet of my operation that I felt compelled to change was the animal welfare. That predated me recognizing the ills of my land management practice. The idea of, to put it in very plain terms, there was a time that I profitably raised cattle by feeding chicken manure, that I could buy very cheaply, to the cattle, mixing it with enough corn. And both chicken, which is very palatable to cattle. And, by the way, manure is not a natural feedstuff for cattle. They will avoid it. And corn is not a natural feedstuff for cattle. It’s like feeding the kid candy.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Will Harris:  Their ruminant is not set up to digest, the ruminant stomach is not set up to digest that higher carbohydrate product. But the corn was the sugar that I put on the manure to make them eat it. And I would literally put 50 pounds of antibiotics in it to keep them from getting sick. And, as bizarre as that sounds, there are publications from land grant universities that instruct farmers on how to do it. I was not the only person doing it. It was taught in the land grant university. Now, also, as bizarre as it sounds, you can put incredible weight gains on cattle by feeding them those unnatural feedstuffs. There’s a lot of reasons, physiological reasons for that we can get into, but there are profits to be made in doing that. Now, that was all done in confinement, so that you could shut them up and make them eat it. And confinement is the industrial form of raising livestock. And it preempts the opportunity for the animals to express instinctive behavior.

Cows were born to roam and graze. Chickens were born to scratch and peck. Hogs were born to root and wallow. And industrial confinement prevents those instinctive behaviors. And what that does is it puts the animal at a low level of stress 24/7. We tell ourselves we’re keeping them fed, keeping them watered, keeping them in a comfortable temperature range. But if they can’t express instinctive behavior, it’s like me tying you to a chair keeping you fed and keeping you watered and keeping you at a comfortable temperature range. It’s a stressful environment.

Chris Kresser:  Yes. And I know a lot about the effects of stress on human beings and their health. I haven’t done a deep dive on the science and the literature on that with cattle, but I imagine that that doesn’t, it’s not good for their physiological health to be under that kind of stress.

Will Harris:  Well, I’m not a doctor or a psychiatrist or a researcher. I’m a farmer. But I can tell you that [if] I confine my cow, shut up in confinement in a feedlot, fed an unnatural diet with corn and whatever you put in with it, [that] creates an unnaturally obese creature that would never, never exist in nature. That animal would not live a normal life expectancy if it was granted a presidential pardon and just kept in that feedlot.

If it weren’t slaughtered when it was 18 or 20 or whatever months of age, just left in, it would not live nearly to the 20-something years that would be the normal life expectancy of a cow. I’m not a nutritionist, but I really don’t know why we think that eating a creature that is dying of the diseases of obesity and sedentary lifestyle is good for you. It doesn’t make much sense to me.

Chris Kresser:  Do you think that might create a vicious cycle where the animals are less healthy because they’re living in those kind of confinement conditions? And then they require more medication and other kinds of interventions because of that?

Will Harris:  I believe that’s exactly what happens. Yes.

Chris Kresser:  So, with the holistically managed cattle, would you say you have a lot less to do? You have to move them around and do the things that go along with that kind of management, but is less intervention required, in general?

Will Harris:  It’s certainly far less medication involved. Yes.

How Sustainable Agriculture Impacts the Community

Chris Kresser:  Yeah. So I also want to follow up on something you said earlier about how the changes to the local community that again, that was not necessarily your intention setting out, or you weren’t anticipating that as a beneficial side effect. But that there have been some positive impacts on the local community from the type of farming that you’re doing now, and maybe some negative impacts that were also unintended before. So can you talk a little bit about that?

Will Harris:  Yeah, I’ll be happy to. So the centralization, industrialization, commoditization that we discussed earlier, another unintended consequence of it is, it caused rural America to be irrelevant. The villages like Bluffton, Georgia, became irrelevant under that style of farming. It’s not unique. It’s not even regional. North, South, East, West, Midwest, you don’t have to get very far out of the cities to find small rural farming towns that are in decay. They’re impoverished. And that occurred when we changed agriculture. And nobody needed the little town anymore.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Will Harris:  I live in a county that peaked in population in 1900. Every census since then, the population has declined. It’s one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states. It’s the poorest county in one of the poorest states in the nation. And it literally dried up. The only thing you could buy in Bluffton, Georgia, 10 years ago was a postage stamp. And the post office was open about an hour a day. Today, White Oak Pastures is the largest private employer in the county with 160-something employees.

My employees made twice the county average last year. I write checks, payroll checks for over $100,000 every Friday in a town of a little over 100 people. And the town is, again, relevant. And we’ve opened a store and a restaurant, and bought a dozen houses that we fixed. We renovated the old courthouse, renovated one of the old churches, a number of other things. Bluffton is an old town, [and] it is a delightful little town again. And it had fallen to a greater level of decay of any little farm or community I know of.

Chris Kresser:  That must be really gratifying.

Will Harris:  It was a positive. It was not the goal, but it was a positive unintended consequence. Most of the unintended consequences in my life have been negative. But this one was not.

What the Life-cycle Analysis Showed about White Oak Pastures

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, those are the best ones, right? You and I have mentioned the concept of a life-cycle assessment. And many of my listeners will be familiar with that. But for those who aren’t, let’s break that down. I’m switching gears here a little bit, but we talked earlier about how White Oak Pastures removes, was it three and a half or 3.7?

Will Harris:  3.5.

Chris Kresser:  3.5 tons of carbon per pound?

Will Harris:  Once I have pounds of CO2 equivalent for every pound of beef we produce.

Chris Kresser:  CO2 equivalent, right? And this was, the important thing about this analysis, it was a full life-cycle analysis. And I want to differentiate that, between, sometimes when you see these comparisons between the emissions that come from transportation and then the emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, that come from beef, they’re somewhat disingenuous. Because they’re only comparing what are called direct or tailpipe emissions of transportation, which is just the very final stage.

The last stage of the transportation emissions. It’s just what comes out of the tailpipe of the vehicle. It doesn’t account for any of the manufacturing or the distribution of fuel, or anything like that. And then, they’re comparing that with the full life cycle of beef, right? Which considers all the inputs and the machinery, equipment, and then the methane that comes out of the cow. So why is this life-cycle assessment so important?

Will Harris:  Well, it’s a couple answers. It’s important because it flies in the face of everything we’ve been told about animal impact on the environment for the last 10 plus years. So that’s why it’s important. It shows that it’s absolutely not what we’ve been told. I’m not saying, excuse me, let me retract that. The story we’ve been told about livestock impact on the environment has been based solely upon industrial centralized confinement feeding. They did not tell the story of raising livestock the way I raise it.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Will Harris:  I’m in a different industry. I’m not in the confinement animal industry. And my life-cycle assessment is very different from what theirs would look like, and it is. So that’s why it’s important. And I think I should tell your listeners a little bit about the origins of this life-cycle assessment. We were selling some products, some beef and pork and turkey and maybe chicken, to a little company called EPIC, E-p-i-c, a meat company bar from Austin, Texas.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, many of the listeners will be familiar with that. They probably eat a lot of EPIC bars themselves.

Will Harris:  Okay, good. We were doing business with them when they were privately owned by an entrepreneur. A young couple that I had met. In fact, I met him in Zimbabwe when I was taking my holistic management trainings. First time I met those people. We started doing business and did business for a couple years. And they called one day to say that they had sold their company to General Mills. And I was happy for them because I feel like that was an economic benefit for them. But I figured that would wind up my relationship with EPIC. I didn’t think I would sell product to General Mills because that’s just not usually the way it works.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Will Harris:  Our rural family farm to fit in with a big multinational corporation. But they continued to buy from me, which was nice. And I got a visit from their VP of sustainability. And he made them all, he was clear that he had some trepidation about the claims that EPIC people were making and me, too, through that, about our regenerative practices. And his feeling is there’s no paper in the file to prove it. And he was right about that. It was pretty anecdotal. So he made me an offer. He agreed to pay for this life-cycle assessment, which I’d never heard of before, and it was a lot of money, like $60,000, if I would participate and provide the information, which probably cost me $20,000. And we’d jointly own the information.

And I agreed to do it, and he chose this Quantis and sent those people down. And it was a tough, tough year. I mean, we had to prove everything to them. How much electricity we burn, how much gas, how much waste we put out, how much water we use. It was a lot more in depth and troublesome than I thought it would be. But we were in, all in. And, of course, the rest is history. When it came back, it showed that not only are we not a problem, we are part of the solution for climate change. I was very glad we did it. But I can’t get, because I don’t know. There’s not a secret. I don’t know. I can’t explain the scientific procedure to you. It’s above my paygrade.

Quantis can and will, and the life-cycle analysis is available on our website, WhiteOakPastures.com in the environmental section. So that is the report. And I can tell you all you want to know about how to sequester carbon, improve the land, improve the water, improve the air. I can’t talk to you much about the scientific procedure of quantifying it.

Chris Kresser:  Sure, sure. No, that’s fine. It’s just, I think [it’s] important for the listeners to understand the concept of life-cycle analysis, which includes all the, it’s kind of a cradle-to-grave analysis that looks at not just the emissions at the end of the cycle, but all the steps that come in the cycle previously. And the problem with some of these previous comparisons that have been made, as I mentioned before, with greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and greenhouse gas emissions from beef, is that they were using only the tailpipe or direct emissions from transportation and then comparing that with the full life-cycle analysis, not of holistically managed beef, but of conventionally managed beef.

So I think the numbers that are typically used are 14 percent, transportation accounts for 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. And that cattle, conventionally raised cattle, is about 14 percent. But that’s the standard life; that’s the full life cycle of cattle versus just the tailpipe or direct emissions for transportation. And then, if you only look at the direct emissions, globally, cattle accounts for 5 percent and transportation for 14. And again, that’s conventionally raised cattle.

And in the [United States], that number is 3.9 percent for conventionally raised cattle. And then, if we go many steps further to holistically managed beef, not only are there no direct emissions, or even life-cycle and full life-cycle emissions, there’s a negative [emission]. It’s sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. So that’s a huge, huge paradigm shift from the typical narrative, and I think it’s so important for people to understand that, and yet very few people do at this point, unfortunately.

Will Harris:  We say it ain’t the cow, it’s the how.

Feeding the World with Sustainable Farming

Chris Kresser:  Exactly, exactly. So, I want to finish up by talking a little bit about the, probably one of the most common criticisms or questions that is raised about holistically managed beef, or any holistically managed animal operation, is: “Okay, well, that’s great that this is working for you on a small scale. But can we really scale this up to be able to feed the world, and is this really practical on a larger scale?” What are your thoughts about that?

Will Harris:  The short answer is yes. One thing you’ve got to consider is the fact that this is very cyclical versus linear. White Oak Pastures is highly replicable; it’s not highly scalable. White Oak Pastures is about [a] $20 million a year farm, and that may be about as big as we need to be. But there could be one or two or three White Oak Pastures in every agricultural county in the nation, and there probably should be. So a linear business, like, if you are in the business of making [Ford] Taurus automobiles and the demand doubles, you just put twice as many assembly lines in. It’s highly scalable. You just keep doing that.

A business like ours is full cycles [and] is not that way. But you can have more and more of them quite easily. Keep in mind that White Oak Pastures was built by a proud C student from the College of Agriculture at the University of Georgia with bank debt. You’re not talking about a Fulbright Scholar with a trust fund. So what we’ve done here is highly replicable. We’ve got a pretty active internship program and have a lot of, we have interns here all the time. Structured program.

And I think we’re creating more White Oak Pastures every time we do it. So I’m not sure that you’re going to see, let’s point fingers and place blame here just for a second. I really don’t think that you will see one or two or three White Oak Pastures in every county in the nation, even though we’d all be better off. But it’s not the fault of the farmer. It’s the fault of the consumer.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Will Harris:  If this kind of agriculture does grow, it won’t be because there’s regulation that requires it. And it won’t be because farmers just think, “Wow, I really ought to change up and do that.” And it won’t be because, I know it won’t be because of anything in the world other than consumer demand. Wendell Berry is a role model of mine and he’s … you know Wendell Berry? You know who that is?

Chris Kresser:  I do. I love Wendell Berry. Yes.

Will Harris:  He’s a role model of mine, and he says something like, “Consumers vote every day with their purchasing dollar on how [they] want the world to be.” And there’s never been any truer statement because I feel Americans are hopelessly addicted to obscenely cheap food. We probably won’t see it happen. But we should. But we can’t blame it on the fact [that] it’s not scalable. This is highly replicable.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah. One of my favorite Wendell Berry quotes, which I’m sure you can relate to, is, “Eating is an agricultural act.” So, yeah, and I know others, like Allan Savory, have argued that holistically managed beef may be the only way we can feed the world because of how it regenerates soil and that the erosion of soil and the decline of soil quality around the world is one of the biggest environmental threats that we’re facing now. And, as you pointed out earlier in the interview, that you cannot effectively, we don’t know of any other way right now to regenerate soil quality without animals and ruminants.

Will Harris:  Right, right. Industrial, commoditized, centralized farming versus holistic farming, it depends on what we’re going to run out of first, what resource is exhausted first. Industrial farming is intensive in terms of use of petroleum. It uses up the antibiotics that the pathogens are not immune to. It uses up the life of the sea. It uses up our resilience against global warming. It uses up, and we just go through all the reductive impacts of that kind of farming and decide which one we think is going to be the most resilient. I think I know, but I guess I’d be happy to have that debate with anyone that wants to have it.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah. I mean, this is a conversation that, really, I hope continues to be had and on a bigger and wider scale. I was happy to have the opportunity to talk about it a little bit on the Joe Rogan show, and I know there’s both a film and a book coming out, Sacred Cow. Is your farm featured in that film? I can’t recall.

Will Harris:  No, but Diana is the brilliant nutritionist that is a friend of mine, and she is representing all the farms that I have enormous respect for. So, while White Oak Pastures is not a subject of that book, I am a great supporter. Diana Rodgers is the real deal.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, and I know she’s, of course, very familiar with you and your work. And I had, you said earlier, it’s not the cow, it’s the how. I have T-shirt that says that on it from Diana. So I know we had her as a friend in common. But it’s heartening to me that this story is starting to get out there on a bigger scale, and I think Diana’s book and film are going to make a huge difference there on reaching even more people. Because that’s a medium that is so accessible and there’s a certain number of people that will read a book, but there’s a lot greater number of people that will watch a film.

So I’m really looking forward to this message getting out there because it’s something that can make a huge impact on a number of the challenges that we face ranging from nutrition to climate change to the health of local communities and all the other things that we’ve talked about today. So, Will, thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you, and I just want to express my admiration and respect for what you’re doing at White Oak Pastures and serving as a model for so many other farmers out there who I know would like to move in that direction.

Will Harris:  Thank you very much for having me on today. It’s been an honor and a privilege.

Chris Kresser:  Okay, everybody. Thanks for listening. Send in your questions to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion, and we’ll see you next time.

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