Will Harris III, owner of White Oak Pastures
in Bluffton, Ga., may seem like a typical rancher: Stetson hat, gruff voice, beat-up Jeep he uses to drive his more than 1,000 acre farm. But, he "doesn't always sound the part," John Kessler of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
reports. For example, he quotes George Washington Carver on the order of nature, and Michael Pollan on the dangers of industrial agriculture. He's immensely proud of his farm's organic certification and of the new solar panels he's installing. (AJC photo by Brant Sanderlin: Harris inspects chicken)
"Row by row, Harris is breaking the mold on farming in Georgia," Kessler writes. His organic grass-fed cattle are slaughtered in ways approved by animal welfare advocates. Steaks from his farm are sold in Atlanta's finest restaurants, and Whole Foods
features White Oak Pastures' beef in its stores. But 15 years ago, Harris' farm was a far cry from organic. The fourth-generation farmer had to reverse decades of damage to the land perpetrated by his father, who "pushed the farm as far as he could, pumping any and all chemicals into the earth and into the animals," Kessler reports.
Harris is a first-generation college graduate, with a degree in animal science from the University of Georgia
. But it wasn't a book he read for one of his classes that made him want to change the family farm; it was Kentuckian Wendell Berry's 1977 book, The Unsettling of America
, that left a great impression on him. The book "argued agribusiness was destroying the cultural and family context of farming," Kessler writes. Harris said it "made him wonder what kind of system his father had prescribed to, and what kind of legacy he was leaving" to his children. It was the spark that Harris needed to change the direction of his farm. (Read more
UPDATE: Wendell Berry had this to say about Harris, and farmers like him, in a letter to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues: "[Harris] represents at a very high level what is going on all over the country: Local citizens, both rural and urban, who have seen something that needed to be done and have simply set about doing it, without official advice or approval or help and without writing a grant application. If the world lasts long enough, these people will find the real solutions to our problems. I think this is the great story unfolding now everywhere in our country, but only occasionally does some journalist notice that it is happening. So far, no politician of consequence has noticed it."