A Farm Tour of White Oak Pastures

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White Oak Pasture's future intern quarters

Those who dine in Atlanta are familiar with White Oak Pastures, which appears as a frequent byline on menus for their grass-fed beef. The president, Will Harris, led a group of young, energetic farmworkers and businesspeople through the process of raising their livestock. Stella Dillard, the butcher at Holeman & Finch Public House, recently attended a farm tour at White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, as part of the Southeastern Sustainable Livestock Conference.

Here Stella Dillard shares her experience. You can read a Behind the Scenes piece on her here. We warn you that there are some graphic descriptions of the kill process, so read at your discretion.

Stella Dillard

I’ve been on several farm tours, including a couple at livestock farms, but White Oak Pastures is something different. The tour started with Jenni Harris, the marketing manager, in the abattoir. Outside she described a beef kill: the animal is stunned with a captive bolt, which should render it insensible. After tested–touching the eye, which should not blink—it is hoisted and bled out.

Her frank explanation preceded a walk through the kill room, where a heifer was quietly pulsing blood into a wheeled tub–the first kill I’d seen after nearly two years of whole animal butchery. The man who had stunned, tested the beef, and cut the carotid artery turned to us. I realized that we were right to focus on the processing of meat at the Butcher’s Guild conference in January. The killing is where so much can go wrong in a system that otherwise devotes itself to animal care. I’m grateful that the first kill that I witnessed was so careful and calm.

At White Oak Pastures, the system is a living thing. An ongoing experiment has been the black soldier flies, which will soon feed the chickens, so Will can source his feed from his land. They will harvest kiwis and hops to brew beer. There will be hogs and turkeys in woodland and rabbits-when they figure them out- which is also the case with tanning the hides. Will admits, “We’re not very good at that yet. But we’ll get very good at it.”

White Oak Pasture's future intern quarters

White Oak Pasture’s future intern quarters

Diversity mimics nature. The farm has free-range poultry, sheep, geese, guinea hens and poultry. The starting point at White Oak Pastures is to do as best as possible what nature would do if left alone. It’s why the bones and offal are composted rather than rendered, to the horror of extension agents at University of Georgia. In nature there is no waste. There is a restaurant because the employees need to be fed. This farm is full of good food far better than fast food 45 minutes away in town.

The farm already has people: 102 employees who need somewhere to live. Bluffton is completely rural: the town reached its peak population in the early 20th century at 400 and declined so markedly as agriculture industrialized and centralized elsewhere that Will did not attend school in Bluffton as a boy.

The Harris’ are looking to build  housing in the town of Bluffton: currently a four way intersection with two empty stores, a post office, empty lots, empty houses in various states of decay, and the occasional single-story ranch, housing an increasingly elderly population. White Oak’s workers tend to be young and single, some with small families. The old, generous farmhouses have more space, cost, and work than they require, so the Harris’ are investing now. One of the empty stores in Bluffton will house their farm store next year–and they are hoping for the grant that will help them build it out.

Everyone on the farm gives the impression that regardless of whether they receive the grant, a populated Bluffton is coming. “Everything we’ve built, we’ve outgrown,” said Will.

Brian Sapp, White Oak Pasture’s operations manager, tells guests, “Will gets an idea, and that’s the way that it will be.”

The farm plans to bring in more jobs that pay a living wage, which is no small draw in the current rural economy, even before factoring in the half-price chef-cooked lunches and contributions to health care. For Will, housing is an extension of these incentives. “I feel like we’ve created a culture and a community. The higher purpose is the people.”

The combination of established systems and the natural progression of necessary possibilities unfettered by doubts, but cognizant of the hard work required to improve, is invigorating. It didn’t hurt that the weather for the weekend was gorgeous, or that my fellow attendees of the Southeastern Sustainable Livestock Conference was an enthusiastic bunch, if not quite the “party bus” Will promised in an email. The turnips and greens were delicious and served under a sign that read, “We pray for good, hard work and the energy to do it.”

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