A Matter of Conscience: Will Harris on Regenerating an Industrial Ranch

In his new book, Will Harris describes the moment when he saw that his industrial ranch was cruel to animals and bad for the land. Before he’d ever heard the phrase “regenerative grazing” he started doing it. The rest is history. 

Will Harris‘s ranch, White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, has been in the Harris family for over 150 years. His ancestors had a polyculture farm, but when industrial tools came to ranching, his father, and then Will, went all in. Corporate ranching allowed their family to make a good living, but one day, in a life-changing moment of clarity, Harris saw that the animals were suffering from the moment they left his ranch until their deaths and the land itself was suffering from an overuse of chemicals and extractive grazing practices. He set out then and there to change the way he ranched, and without even having heard terms like “regenerative agriculture” and “rotational grazing” started down a path that made him one of the pioneers of American grassfed beef. Now a Global Savory Hub, White Oak Pastures is helping to educate others about restoring land with livestock.

In his brilliant new book, A Bold Return to Giving a Damn: One Farm, Six Generations, and the Future of Food (which he authored with the help of the wonderful writer Amely Greeven), Harris tells the story of converting from industrial to regenerative practices on his ranch and the many challenges and adventures opened up by his decision to treat his animals and land with the respect they deserve. Helping to create a market for grass-fed beef, getting into supermarket chains and educating consumers, building a work force, helping to revitalize his rural town, educating solar entrepreneurs––these are just some of the topics he covers with his inimitable combination of simplicity, humor, and deep, land-based intelligence.
If you’re going to read just one book this year on regenerative agriculture, make it this one. And if you listen to the audio book, you will hear it in Harris’s own voice.


4’10 history of the Harris land
5’45 going full circle to pre-industrial practices
7’24 Will’s father industrialized the farm––from polyculture to cattle ranch.
9’26 first epiphany when one day he realized that what he was doing was cruel to the animals and he started moving away from that model
11’21 few models of regenerative agriculture in the mid-1990s, didn’t know anyone else who was doing it
12’26 stopped using pharmaceuticals on his cattle, stopped feeding them grain in confinement, stopped using chemical inputs
13’34 this was not a good economic decision at first. there was not a market yet for grassfed beef, but it started to develop around then and he sold to Whole Foods and Publix
17’29 he began to see the harm he was doing to the land as well as the animals…second epiphany when he saw how much better the soil was in the woods
19’26 transition back to balance takes a lot of time
20’38 not a church-goer, but found spirituality on the land
22’23 industrial = linear, regenerative = cyclical
23’55 so-called efficiency comes from moving costs to others, e.g. toxic pollution, climate, endangered species, plastics, etc., which others have to pay for
25’58 efficiency vs. resiliency…the more “efficient” you become, the less resilient
27’46 true cost accounting
31’27 in the industrial model he woke up in the morning and looked for something to kill
32’34 added sheep, goats, rabbits, hogs––adding life instead of trying to kill the unwanted elements
34’11 education was not integrated when he was studying agriculture; the soil people, the plant people, the animal people didn’t know anything about the others, so there was no understanding of the complex system
36’23 farming has to be done differently in different regions
37’19 difference between loving the herd and loving one’s domestic pets…and explaining this to the general public
41’46 giving the animals a high quality of life in which they can express their natural instinctive behavior
45’16 human diversity as important as biodiversity
46’44 attracting workers from all over the country and the world
48’02 intern program
48’23 Center for Agricultural Resilience
49’07 rural revitalization in Bluffton
54’07 their model is not infinitely scalable but infinitely replicable. Lots of regenerative farms, spreading the wealth

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