Greener Pastures

Dew Abides White Oak Pastures Will Harris
Courtesy of Flickr/Southern Foodways Alliance

It’s hard to believe the epicenter of this nation’s sustainable livestock farming movement is only an hour south of Columbus.

And we couldn’t be prouder.

Will Harris, owner and fourth-generation farmer at White Oak Pastures, spoke last week at The Columbus Museum, as part of the Spencer Environmental Lecture Series. The New York Times and The Bitter Southerner have already described the history and operations of a farm that cares as much about its workers, community and environmental impact as it does its product, so I’ll stick to highlighting a few of the evening’s gems:

  • Mr. Harris was completely non-judgmental about his father’s decision to embrace scientific farming with chemicals, saying any other direction in a post-WWII America, and the farm probably wouldn’t be in the family today. He was non-judgmental about others’ farming practices, too, focusing instead on doing what was right for him. A good reminder that sometimes we just need to shut up and be the change.
  • Temple Grandin, the prominent designer of humane slaughterhouses, was brought in when White Oak decided to slaughter onsite, but Mr. Harris took issue with how the major meat companies throw her name around as a consultant, as if they’ve made significant improvements. “Temple Grandin made theirs a little bit better. She made ours the way it oughta be.” On a good day, White Oak slaughters 30 cattle. An industrial abattoir will push through a staggering 400 head per hour, 16 hours a day.
  • An industrially raised cow will be slaughtered at 17 months, weighing 1250 pounds with three-quarters of an inch in back-fat. Converting that to a human scale, it’s the equivalent of a 5’11” man weighing 480 pounds. If released, that cow would succumb to obesity-related diseases long before reaching its 24-year life expectancy. Compare that to a White Oak cow which is slaughtered at 22 months, weighing 1000 pounds with two-tenths of an inch in back-fat. On its own, that cow would keep on grazing another 22 years.
  • White Oak strives for zero waste, using fat from the cutting room floor to generate bio-diesel for tractors, converting blood into fertilizer, and composting eviscerate and feathers.
  • “The smaller the animal, the more handily it lends itself to industrialization. I don’t think any animal has a harder [industrialized] life than a chicken.” Think about that, next time you see a pack of cheap, boneless chicken breasts in the grocery store.
  • The audience cracked up upon hearing, “When we started, we castrated anything that was male and not named Harris. We don’t cut anything anymore. If you were born with testicles, you’re going to die with testicles. If you were born with the ability to fly, you’re going to fly.” One more example of how White Oak’s animals live as, um, natural a life as possible.

Thanks to Will Harris and everyone at White Oak Pastures for creating not just a better product, but a better-educated consumer. Thanks also to the Spencer Environmental Center for organizing these shindigs — if you’re in the Columbus area, mark Feb. 19 down for their next event, a screening of Secrets of the Longleaf Pine.

Want to see White Oak’s land management in action? Check out the Southern Foodways Alliance short film “Cud”.

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