Regenerative farming replenishes soil nutrients, which in turn, boosts the nutrient content of produce and animal products. It also focuses on animal and land stewardship. However, most farming today employs industrialized practices that deplete the soil, discount animal welfare, and harm humans. Will Harris and Dr. Casey Means discuss regenerative farming practices, the symbiotic relationships in the farming ecosystem, and the need for change at the consumer level.
1:21 — Soil depletion in the United States affects overall health
Dr. Casey Means explains how modern farming practices have depleted soil of vital nutrients, which then affects our food supply.
You may have heard me say in the past that we really cannot reverse the chronic disease epidemic that we’re facing in the United States if we don’t reinvigorate our depleted dead soil in this country. This is because our entire bodies are fundamentally built of food and food is also the instructions that tell our bodies what to do. And the best possible food is grown in thriving, healthy soil. Unfortunately, our soil is being decimated by the centralized industrial conventional farming practices that have taken hold in the United States over the past 75 years and which account for 95 percent of the food grown in our country. The food we have today is truly an inferior imitation of what food once was when it was grown in healthy, thriving soil. Our food today has less vitamins, less minerals, less antioxidants, less polyphenols, less omega 3s, less of the disease-reversing, health-promoting good stuff that it used to have because of the way our food is grown and our farming practices.
15:27 — The birth of industrialized farming
Will Harris of White Oak Pastures explains how the linear model of farming came to fruition.
I think of it as regenerative farming as opposed to reductive farming. The way that we produce most of our food industrially today is in a very linear production model. Post-World War II, we took the manufacturing linear model and applied it to agriculture, and it did not apply well. Agricultural farming is meant to be very cyclical, not very linear. My dad’s generation made that post-World War II change in the way they managed our land. It had serious unintended consequences that didn’t show up for decades. You just didn’t notice it; it was very gradual. The benefits were immediate. Yields went way up, but the unintended consequences that were damaging to the land, the environment, the animals, the community were much later in manifesting.
30:04 — Regenerative farming can raise quality of life for communities
Dr. Means shares insights from Harris’s book “A Bold Return to Giving a Damn: One Farm, Six Generations, and the Future of Food.”
In reading your book, on thing that really struck me was just this idea that you have chosen to take on responsibility for these externalities, because you believe in a different way of doing things that obviously vastly increases the quality of life for the animals, for the biodiversity, for the people in your town, but also for you personally. You’ve said in the book your quality of life is much better just living this way, but you take on a huge cost financially—the externalities. It’s almost like pro bono work for everyone around you. Our financial system, the way it’s set up, it basically puts this onus on you to be responsible to practice conscious capitalism, or whatever you want to call it, but you literally don’t get paid for a lot of that work.
33:23 —Modern farming practices and antibiotic resistance
Some modern farming practices inject animals with antibiotics, and that has consequences for those who eat animal products.
The animals are not sick; it just makes them gain weight quicker. It’s a metabolic reaction they have. And that’s the best way in the world to render those microbes resistant to these precious antibiotics that we depend on. So, on and on, all these scientific developments—I’m not anti-science, but these scientific developments that were made and used to take cost out of food production just shifted the cost somewhere else.
35:11 — Change must come at the consumer level
Harris explains the issues with effecting change to farming practices.
We’re never going to fix this system by depending upon big ag and big tech, because that’s the way they make their living. They make billions, trillions of dollars doing what they do. We’re never going to do it through lobbying to the politicians, because so much of that money winds up going to the politicians. I can go on and on about how we won’t make change, and the only way we’ll make change is if consumers come to understand the damage they’re doing by eating super cheap industrial food. And I want to say this: I have a concern, and I don’t have the answer for this. I know there are people that can’t afford to pay more for food. I know that, and I get it, and my heart goes out. And we’ve got to feed them. Everybody’s got to eat. But if we’re going to have meaningful change, it’s going to be because the consumer recognizes the harm we’re doing with the food production system.
40:38 — The consequences of modern farming practices were not immediate
Modern farming practices can seem miraculous, but they have had long-term unintended consequences.
I love technology. But it can be misapplied. And when it’s misapplied, it can be damaging. And those damages don’t occur immediately. It follows a long time later. When my father first discovered ammonium nitrate fertilizer, it had been invented for decades, but it became available to him. And he put it out, and it was just a miracle. It’s just incredible what it did to the grass. Now, it also destroyed the microbes that build the soil. And it also oxidized the organic matter in the soil. It did several other things that were really negative, but you couldn’t see that. All you could see is the benefit. The unintended consequence came.
50:10 — Organic farming is not the same thing as regenerative farming
The term “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean that animals are raised ethically, nor does it mean produce is grown naturally.
I will start out by saying that most of the truly organic farmers that I know are wonderful, genuine, incredible people that are doing the best they can. And I’m not a better steward of the land and the animals than they are. I am not. But most of the food that is in the stores labeled “certified organic” is not grown by those people. It’s run by big multinational corporations, and the term “certified organic” is just a marketing tool for them. And you mentioned the two visits I made. I will not say what farms. But one of them was a USDA-certified organic dairy farm. And it was as poor on animal welfare as I’d ever seen in my life. It was just awful. The other one was a certified-organic potato farm, and the agronomic practices were as bad as anything I’ve ever seen in my life. And both of them were certified organic. Today, you can have certified-organic vegetables grown without soil or microbes; it’s in a hydroponic environment. There’s nothing organic about that in terms of my definition of organic. “Organic,” when I was in college, meant carbon-based, and I guess from that perspective, it’s okay. But organic has come to mean natural. There’s nothing natural about vegetables grown without soil.
53:29 — The importance of animals being allowed to express instinctive behavior
Animals may have some basic needs addressed at a feedlot, but that doesn’t mean they’re welfare is being taken care of.
You don’t have good animal welfare until the animal is allowed to express instinctive behavior. Cattle in a confinement feedlot are not hungry or thirsty, and they’re not hot or cold, but they are not allowed to express instinctive behavior, which is to move around and graze. Pigs are meant to root and wallow. Cows are meant to roam and graze. Chickens are meant to scratch and peck. And when you don’t allow them to do that, it is not good animal welfare.
56:14 — Regenerative practices in your backyard
With patience, regenerative practices can lead to abundance, even on a small scale
If you’ve got a yard that’s just a few feet wide and a few feet long and you create a great environment with the soil there, the microbial life—you have the right mix of insects, and you put the right mix of plants growing there with the energy from the sun and the rain—then an abundance will result. It may not do it the first day if the land has been degraded, but that natural abundance is all the wealth we have on this planet. That’s where it came from. And we have—through the use of reductionist science—made straight lines out of all those cyclical systems and given up that abundance.
Will Harris (00:00:07):
We’re never going to fix this system by depending upon big ag and big tech because that’s the way they make their living. They make billions, trillions of dollars in doing what they do. We’re never going to do it through lobbying to the politicians because so much of that money winds up going to the government politicians. I can go on and on about how we won’t make change and the only way we’ll make changes is if consumers come to understand the damage they’re doing by eating super cheap industrial food.
Ben Grynol (00:00:51):
I’m Ben Grynol, part of the early startup team here at Levels. We’re building tech that helps people to understand their metabolic health and along the way we have conversations with thought leaders about research backed information so you can take your health into your own hands. This is A Whole New Level.
Casey Means (00:01:21):
Hello everyone. This is Dr. Casey Means, co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of Levels. Welcome to A Whole New Level. I am so thrilled to be welcoming Will Harris to the podcast today who’s going to be talking about regenerative farming and how the relationship between soil health and human health manifests. For this introduction, I’m going to introduce Will, but also give a little bit of a primer about regenerative agriculture to set the foundation for this episode. So if you want to jump ahead a few minutes, you can dive into the episode or if you want to stick around. I’ll share a little bit about why I care so much about regenerative farming as a metabolic health focused physician. You may have heard me say in the past that we really cannot reverse the chronic disease epidemic that we’re facing in the United States if we don’t reinvigorate our depleted dead soil in this country.
This is because our entire bodies are fundamentally built of food and food is also the instructions that tell our bodies what to do. And the best possible food is grown in thriving healthy soil. Unfortunately, our soil is being decimated by the centralized industrial conventional farming practices that have taken hold in the United States over the past 75 years and which account for 95% of the food grown in our country. The food we have today is truly a poor, inferior imitation of what food once was when it was grown in healthy, thriving soil. Our food today has less vitamins, less antioxidants, less polyphenols, less omega threes, less of the disease reversing health promoting good stuff that it used to have because of the way our food is grown and our farming practices, which are totally modern and have really only happened over the last 100 years. The rise of mechanized farming that leans heavily on synthetic chemicals for food production has risen in lockstep with the chronic disease explosion that we’ve seen.
Soil that is alive generates life giving food. Dirt that is dead promotes disease and shortening of our lifespans. Our soil, which is meant to hold billions of microorganisms per tablespoon in the form of bacteria, fungal networks, nematodes, worms is now dead. And when our soil dies, we die. I’ve been studying biology since I was 14 years old and gone through undergrad, medical school, and residency and now at age 36, I am at a place where I really truly believe that the way our food has grown and the decimation of our soil health and the natural ecosystems and bio diverse ecosystems that help us grow food sustainably is truly at the root of our chronic metabolic disease epidemic. So if you care about metabolic health and if you care about truly improving your own health, human health and public health, really getting into understanding the agriculture industry in the United States, why it’s broken and how we can all take steps to fix it, I think is one of the most important things that we can do as metabolically aware individuals who care about health.
Regenerative farming is fundamentally about thriving interdependent ecosystems full of biodiversity that create sustainable natural cycles that create abundance. Human health exists within an interdependent ecosystem of all living things in the natural world where every single player from the bees, to the fungi, to the grazing animals on the land, to the plants, to the insects, to the bacteria in the soil, to the earthworms, to the humans, all have a role in making it work and making it produce and making it thrive for many generations. It’s literally regenerative in the sense that you are generating more rather than by engaging with the system, creating less and extracting from it. And that is what our conventional system does. It extracts. It creates a system that’s worse every year as opposed to one that continues to compound its thriving. And because humans are a part of that ecosystem, as we break that natural cycle of how food is produced, we also break human health.
In recent human history, we have gained this sense of hubris that we can outsmart nature and that technology can do a better job than nature and we pursued these linear mechanized systems and means of food production that basically cut through the natural circular systems in nature. And some of the ways that we do that for the sake of “efficiency and yield” is we use aggressive mechanical tilling with machines that basically break up the fungal networks in the soil and kill bacteria. We’ve stopped using cover crops which would go on the soil and the ground in between harvest to protect it from the harsh sun, protect it from wind, and actually impart nutrients into the soil in between harvests. We have started using over a billion pounds of toxic pesticides per year in the United States to basically get rid of all those pesky pests and really not thought about what happens when you kill a lot of the life on the farm and also how these pesticides are actually also having deleterious effects on human cells and our microbiome cells.
We’ve incorporated hoards of fossil fuel based synthetic fertilizers as well as nitrogen based fertilizers that are toxic to marine life, to water systems and to human health, and of course deplete fossil fuels and are a big contributor to our use of fossil fuels. We’ve also separated animals and plants in our modern industrial farming such that animals go into confined animal feeding operations and feedlots, and then plants are grown in monoculture with no animals nearby. And instead of those animals and plants interacting in the way that they’re meant to with animal urine and feces literally going back into the ground to create more thriving soil for the plants to grow and the animal hooves gently agitating the soil to create more porosity so that water can be sequestered into the soil for times of less rainfall, we’ve separated those two systems to the detriment of both.
This linear thinking and this linear solutions to scaling farming is starting to show cracks. We are seeing that our topsoil is being depleted in the country. Some estimates say that we only have about 60 harvests left because we are extracting from the system rather than regenerating the system. We’re seeing a literal mass extinction of biodiversity on our planet with just mass species lost. All of these species play a role in a sustainable system and we’re seeing mass extinction. We’re seeing climate instability, we’re seeing rising food costs and we’re also seeing the fragility of the food system. We saw this during COVID. When you have a super centralized system, if there are problems, those become big problems very quickly because there’s not enough redundancy in the system. All of this, I believe, is why despite spending over $4 trillion on healthcare costs, 20% of our GDP, we keep getting sicker. Because we are really not addressing the food. And even when we give people better food or promote healthier food, if that food that they’re eating is not grown in good soil, it’s not going to have the maximal positive impact.
The incredible Will Harris is on the front lines of all of this and reversing these trends that I’m talking about. He is healing soil, he is healing the local economy of the town that White Oak Pastures is in. He is healing the spirits of many in his community by reinvigorating the natural cycles that generate life. He is the owner of White Oak Pastures, a sixth generation, 156 year old regenerative farm in Bluffton, Georgia that is practicing radically traditional farming on close to 5,000 acres. What makes Will Harris so unique is that his 5,000 acre farm is profitable and he believes that a real solution to so many of the problems we face in the western world today is to create farms like his all over the country, outside of every metropolitan area, in a way that can touch every American in the country.
And he believes that his model can be replicated thousand, thousand times over and that this will truly help with the healing of our country, of the soil, of human health, of the economy, of the climate. Will was one of the first people to truly bring humanely raised grass fed meat to the mainstream and he is one of the most outspoken critics of industrial agriculture and is one of the most recognized leaders in the regenerative farming movement. In the 156 years that White Oak Pastures has existed, it has gone from traditional farming practices through the trend towards conventional, chemically based, feedlot based, industrial agriculture back to radically traditional farming. And he has stewarded that shift which is truly groundbreaking and revolutionary in the face of so many forces that are pushing farmers towards industrial farming. He went the opposite direction. He went back to traditional farming.
Will has been featured on every major outlet that you could possibly imagine from the New York Times to NPR. He did the most powerful Joe Rogan episode that I’ve ever heard. I highly recommend listening to it. And he just published a book called A Bold Return to Giving A Damn which is truly a tour de force about the future of food, our flawed linear thinking approaches to complex problems like health, food, soil and the environment, and a way forward for healing the cycles of nature that all of us are a part of and all of us depend on. This is more than just talking about farming. This is really a manifesto in a different way to think about complex problems like health and like farming and soil and the environment. And one that is truly inspirational and helps us realize why a lot of the approaches that we’re taking today in regards to climate, in regards to health aren’t working.
I really encourage you to buy Will’s book, A Bold Return to Giving A Damn: One farm, Six Generations And The Future Of Food because if you are interested in health, if you are interested in nature, if you’re interested in the environment and environmental causes, if you’re interested in social justice, if you’re interested in food security, in jobs for rural America, it all centralizes around this issue of how we grow food. So I highly, highly recommend it and I’d love for you to support Will.
Also, you can go to whiteoakpastures.com and actually buy Will’s incredible meat products that can get shipped directly to your door and you could even visit White Oak Pastures if you are in Georgia. What is so amazing about Will Harris is that he took over the farm from his father and at that time he was managing the farm in our modern industrial way with heavy use of mechanized tilling and chemical pesticides and fertilizers and he didn’t like the way that things looked. The way that we really weren’t respecting the natural systems of the soil and the ecosystems that food is grown in. And he went on a quest to convert the farm back to what he calls radically traditional methods of regeneration. And he has done that and he’s done that on a 5,000 acre farm and he’s done it in a way that has made it profitable. So this is really an incredible feat. It’s bucking the system. It’s bucking the conventional mechanized industrial, heavily chemical dependent farming system that’s creating nutrient depleted food that is really not as healthy and nutrient rich as it could be. And he has converted back to a system that is creating soil that is bio diverse, thriving ecosystems, nutrient rich food focused on animal welfare and plant biodiversity and he has figured out how to make it profitable, which is an amazing feat.
And he believes that he can really spread that model that he has developed on his farm of converting from conventional farming practices to regenerative practices which is better for humans, better for the environment, and show others how to do that on their farm. So he is truly a soil hero, a health hero, a regeneration hero, an environmental hero, and he’s all doing it by deeply investing in the land in Bluffton, Georgia at White Oak Pastures. He was one of the first people to bring truly humanely raised grass-fed meat to the mainstream and is one of the most outspoken critics on industrialized agriculture and really one of the key recognized leaders in the regenerative agriculture movement. So I hope you’ll love this episode. I hope you’ll learn a lot. Thank you so much for being here, Will.
Will Harris (00:15:50):
Well, thank you very much for having me. I’m delighted to be on your show.
Casey Means (00:15:54):
Our audience is actually mostly people focused on metabolic health. Health seekers who are trying to really get to the root cause of their health issues. So for those that aren’t aware, what is regenerative or resilient farming and how does it relate to human health?
Will Harris (00:16:11):
I think of it as regenerative farming as opposed to reductive farming. The way that we produce most of our food industrially today is in a very linear production model. Post World War II, we took the manufacturing linear model and applied it to agriculture and it did not apply well. Agricultural farming is meant to be very cyclical, not very linear. And when my dad’s generation made that post World War II change in the way they managed our land, it had serious unintended consequences that didn’t show up for decades. You just didn’t notice it. It was very gradual. The benefits were immediate. Yields went way up. But the unintended consequences that were damaging to the land, the environment, the animals, the community were much later in manifesting themselves.
Casey Means (00:17:19):
That is such a helpful framework and I think that one of the things that I love so much about your writing and your podcasts and just the way you talk is that you’re really actually focused on a totally different way of thinking about problem solving. And you speak about these two different worlds that we can really live in approaching problems and one is linear, reductive, industrial, extractive, scalable. And there’s this other world that is complex and cyclical and closed loop and circular and holistic and replicable and abundant and resilient. I’m pulling from different parts of your book. There’s these two visions of how to solve problems. And I come to this from the healthcare space as a physician who left the conventional healthcare system basically for the same reasons that I think you left the conventional farming system for a regenerative system. So tell me a little bit about why you think so many areas of our culture and really our western thinking today has moved towards this former system, this linear way of thinking about things that’s getting us into so many unsustainable dead ends. What is pushing our way of thinking to go in this direction for so many of our major industries?
Will Harris (00:18:42):
There are a number of reasons why my dad’s generation moved that way in agriculture. And I think you’re right that a similar situation occurred in medicine. The linear model is very, very efficient. It’s very easy to teach. It’s very easy to move from one geography to the other. In the land grant university system, if you were teaching animal genetics or soil fertility or microbiology, it’s very easy and very common these days for a professor to move from the University of Georgia to the University of California to Maine all over. Just this transfer, transfer, transfer. And that’s because we’ve turned the art of farming into this science that is so easily taught and moved around with very little focus on the ecology of where we’re doing it. The way I run my farm here is different from even 20 miles or 40 miles or 60 miles away. Certainly from coast to coast it would be different. Certainly from 300 feet elevation to 3,000, 10,000 feet elevation, it would be different. But we have made it so consistent because it was so much more transferable.
Casey Means (00:20:13):
I would love to just as a case study of this, to just talk about what you’ve done at White Oak Pastures because I think in changing the farm from how the generation before you was doing it to how you’re doing it, there have been so many other positive externalities that have arisen from this. Can you talk about how converting your farm to a fully regenerative system, what it’s done for Bluffton, Georgia, what it’s done for the environment, the economy, even the spirit of the place? What are the transformations that have shown up?
Will Harris (00:20:51):
I made the transformation from being a very industrial monocultural cattle operation to the multi-species managements more holistically today with focused on the welfare of the animals and on the ecology of my land. The health of my land. And that was my only two focuses in doing that. And the economy was never on the table for me. I was born in 1954 in Bluffton, Georgia, population 102 or something at that time, and it had been in decline all my life. And I think that like so many other rural towns, it was just understood that this is a dying town. It’s a decaying town that will eventually not be here anymore. And I had no idea that we could do anything to better that situation and no intention of trying. But when we changed the way we managed the land of the animals, we needed more people and talented people and people that wanted to be here.
And I can remember having a visitor when I was 10 years into it that said, “This is a nice little town.” And it really surprised me because I was very painfully aware that it was in decline. And I looked, I said, “This is kind of nice.” And what made it kind of nice was all the really talented, wonderful people that we had brought here to work on White Oak Pastures. My employee list went from four minimum wage employees to over 100, now about 170 I think, employees that make well over the county average and that’s what makes a community. So it really changed the town and it’s a highly replicatable model. It can be done over and over again without a lot of government funding or without a lot of think tanks. It’s just a matter of changing that linear agricultural model that’s so focused on efficiency at all costs to a more holistic approach and the rest of it happens almost magically.
Casey Means (00:23:27):
If you’ve heard me talk on other podcasts before, you know that I believe that tracking your glucose and optimizing your metabolic health is really the ultimate life hack. We know that cravings, mood instability and energy levels and weight are all tied to our blood sugar levels. And of course all the downstream chronic diseases that are related to blood sugar are things that we can really greatly improve our chances of avoiding if we keep our blood sugar in a healthy and stable level throughout our lifetime. So I’ve been using CGM now on and off for the past four years since we started Levels and I have learned so much about my diet and my health. I’ve learned the simple swaps that keep my blood sugar stable like flax crackers instead of wheat-based crackers. I’ve learned which fruits work best for my blood sugar. I do really well with pears and apples and oranges and berries, but grapes seem to spike my blood sugar off the chart.
I’m also a notorious night owl and I’ve really learned with using Levels, if I get to bed at a reasonable hour and get good quality sleep, my blood sugar levels are so much better and that has been so motivating for me on my health journey. It’s also been helpful for me in terms of keeping my weight at a stable level much more effortlessly than it has been in the past. So you can sign up for Levels at levels.link/podcast. Now let’s get back to this episode.
You talk about how you’re not trying to save the world, you’re trying to save White Oak Pastures. And from those of us on the outside looking, it really does appear that you are in the front running for saving the world by what you’re doing with saving the land under your two feet. Can you talk a little bit more about that? I think in my generation especially there’s this sense of I have to go out and save the world and in doing so we almost completely lose touch with what’s actually right around us. I’d love for you to talk a little bit more about how you think about the approaches that a lot of people are taking to saving the world and how we could reframe our thinking to maybe even be more effective and grow our just general spiritual fortitude and happiness during this lifetime.
Will Harris (00:25:52):
I hate to say I went through a phase, but I’m going to have to say it. When I started moving away from the industrial model that I was so part of and so in love with at one time, I started moving away from it intentionally with no thought of bettering anybody except me and my farm and my family and my animals. That was the focus. But along the way I realized that things are really getting better here in a number of different ways. And I went through a period of time that I would not have said it out loud, but I thought of myself, probably privately, as a early innovator in changing the way we farm and produce food in this country. And I like that. I didn’t get bible tracks and go on the road, but I did talk favorably about that approach to other farmers and I try not to be pushy, but I did advocate for that.
But now I don’t do that so much anymore because I have seen so many people attempt what we attempted, but they started later and it didn’t work for them. And I’m not saying it can’t work, but it’s very hard now. When I started making my transition beginning in the mid ’90s, grass fed beef was just first being discussed a little bit and I really didn’t have any competition to speak of and the competition I did have was other farmers that were doing the same thing I was doing, which is fine. Somewhere along the line in the early 2000, mid 2000, 2005 or so, big multinational beef companies started importing grass fed beef and changed a lot of the rules and laws. We can talk about that if you want to. But it became very difficult for farmers to do what I had done because of the timing issue.
It wasn’t that I was necessarily doing a better job of it. I just started earlier. I’m very pleased that I did what I did when I did it and put our farm in a position so that we can operate this way in this very local focus … A lot of emphasis on the humane treatment of the animals and the regeneration of the land. I also have seen other people starting later try it and not be so successful financially so I have to be very careful. There is growing awareness and acceptance of what we produce among the public, but there’s also that demand being filled by big multinational food companies and they’re not doing it in a manner that I consider to be satisfactory.
Casey Means (00:29:03):
Right now I think you’ve said that I believe over 95% of food is grown in our conventional industrial system. Is that right? And I think what people still just really don’t recognize is they see it as cheaper and food is food, beef is beef and aren’t really seeing the true cost of food and all the negative externalities that are created by growing food in the industrial model. And there’s an amazing chapter in your book that goes into this in detail. But I’d love for you to just talk a little bit about what would an honest accounting of the true cost of food look like? What are the externalities that every person buying conventional food needs to be aware of that go unaccounted for on the traditional scorecard?
Will Harris (00:29:54):
Yeah. That’s a great question. There are many, many things we could list. I’m about 80 miles from the Gulf of Mexico and the runoff from my farm and my neighbor’s farms go into the Chattahoochee River and ultimately flow into the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf of Mexico when I was growing up was a great oystering area. There’s just a whole industry of multi-generational oyster harvesters done now that had been in business for generations. Today there’s a moratorium on oystering in the Gulf of Mexico. And the reason is because of the chemical fertilizers and pesticides and other pollutants that have run down the Chattahoochee River to the Apalachicola River and fill the Gulf and destroy the oyster beds. We can talk all day. I talk a lot about the organic matter in our soil. The organic matter of my soil and my land had gotten down to one half of 1%.
That was through the repeated use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and tillage. It’s now 5%. That’s a 10X increase and it’s a difference in a dead mineral medium like a handful of glass beads and a living organic medium that’s just teeming with life. It’s just all the difference in the world. And it was farmed to that point. And we could just go on and on about the … I worry a lot about species loss. The number of species that are in danger or extinct that all have a contribution that they make. All of these creatures, no matter how big or how small have a place in this natural cycle .they do something that needs done, that needs doing. And when they become extinct because of the way we’re managing the environment, whatever that was is going to go undone. I think a lot of times at the microbial level we don’t even know what that was.
Casey Means (00:31:56):
Yeah. I’m so struck also, you talk a bit in the book about antibiotic resistance and the cost of that. How much of the overuse of antibiotics and the conventional system has a downstream effect on human health of course because you breed antibiotic resistance that then transfers into an effect on humans. I think many people just aren’t aware that when we buy the slightly cheaper food, there’s actually so much else that’s going on. And I think in reading your book, one thing that really struck me was just this idea that you have chosen to take on responsibility for these externalities because you believe in a different way of doing things that obviously vastly increases the quality of life for the animals, for the biodiversity, for the people in your town, but also for you personally. Like you’ve said in the book, your quality of life is much better just living this way, but you take on a huge cost financially, the externalities. It’s almost pro bono work for everyone around you.
And our financial system, the way it’s set up, it basically puts this onus on you to practice conscious capitalism or whatever you want to call it. But you literally don’t get paid for a lot of that work. And you had someone come to the farm, a consultant or someone came to the farm and wanted to work with you who estimated I think that your farm … If you actually took into account all those things that you contribute to the greater ecosystem, the farm is worth 10 to 30 times more than what it’s actually valued at in our current financial system with such a linear myopic view. So I’d love for you to speak to that a little bit and within our existing financial system, what needs to change about the way we think about economics in our country and maybe even on the policy level or the frameworks level to make what you are doing actually have value on a monetary level? What would have to change for that 10 to 30% increased value to actually be recognized?
Will Harris (00:34:08):
Good question. So when the very linear food production system that feeds most of us today evolved, it was all about efficiency. The whole focus was taking cost out of food production. Cheaper is better, cheaper is better. And we took incredible costs. I say we because my dad and I were part of those generations that were actively involved in that. And we took incredible costs out of production to the point that people eat so cheaply today from an out-of-pocket perspective that the true cost of the food production is not recognized. We’ve already mentioned several of these things. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, whether it be microbes or they’ve been poisoned by runoff. The environmental change from fossil fuels. What we’ve done with the purity of our water, air, welfare of our animals, on and on and on. These things that took cost out of production, but they didn’t necessarily take the cost away from the food system, it just moved it to someone else.
Those of us, including myself, that poisoned the Gulf of Mexico don’t have to pay for it. That’ll be paid for by society in general one way or the other. On and on and on. We can do so many examples. You mentioned antibiotics. We still legally can give animals on feed and confinement feeding low levels of antibiotics to make them gain weight quicker. The animals are not sick. It just makes them gain weight quicker. It’s a metabolic reaction they have. And that’s the best way in the world to render those microbes resistant to these precious antibiotics that we depend on. So on and on, all these scientific developments. I’m not anti-science, but these scientific developments that were made and used to take cost out of food production just shifted the costs somewhere else.
Casey Means (00:36:33):
If you had a magic wand and could change certain aspects of this rigged system, whether it’s USDA regulations or farm bills or political lobbying laws. If you had to wave your magic wand and pick a few things that if they changed it would have a really important trickle-down effect on creating a landscape for what you’re doing to be more possible for more people or something around investors and how capital is allocated. What are the top ones in your head that you’d like to see change or do you think that’s actually just a futile exercise and people just have to figure out how to work within the system because it’s not changing?
Will Harris (00:37:21):
No. I think the changes need to be made. I think there’s only one magical change I would make and that’s for consumers to actually understand the system better. We’re never going to fix this system by depending upon big ag and big tech because that’s the way they make their living. They make billions, trillions of dollars doing what they do. We’re never going to do it through lobbying to the politicians because so much of that money winds up going to the government politicians. I can go on and on about how we want to make change and the only way we’ll make change is if consumers come to understand the damage they’re doing by eating super cheap industrial food. And I want to say this. I have a concern and I don’t have the answer for this. I know there are people that can’t afford to pay more for food. I know that and I get it and my heart goes out. And we got to feed them. Everybody’s got to eat. But if we’re going to have meaningful change, it’s going to be because the consumer recognizes the harm we’re doing with the food production system and steps up to say, I want my food produced differently and I’ll pay a little bit more for it. It costs a little bit more. I want to tell you it just does and I can’t help it.
Casey Means (00:39:03):
The cost thing is such an interesting topic because I’m coming up from the other side of as a physician, seeing what happens when people don’t invest in food upfront. You pay one way or the other. You’re paying now or later. That’s often what I say. And healthcare costs are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States right now. And these are preventable conditions that we’re dealing with. They’re conditions that are tied to food. 80% of American healthcare costs and deaths are related to food. So as you said, I have so much compassion for people who are struggling with the raising costs of food, but I think it’s also important for everyone to recognize that we pay one way or another. I think about that a lot when I think about the fact that I pay more for food, but I never go to the doctor really. I rarely if ever go to the doctor and that’s short-term savings. That’s not actually having to pay copays for illnesses during the year and I think those are related and so that’s a message that I definitely try and share.
You talked a little bit about science and technology and I think you have such a fascinating perspective on technology because you’re not against it. You don’t want us to go backwards. Well, I shouldn’t say that. I think you want us to be radically traditional in our farming, but you believe that technology is being misused and there’s ways to use technology for good even in a traditional system. So I’d love for you to talk about your view on how technology has actually in part gotten us into this mess, but also how it could help us get out of it.
Will Harris (00:40:48):
Yeah. I certainly don’t want to be branded as an anti-technology person. I had the first drone of any farm I know of. I think we probably on our fourth drone. We buy them, we use them, we wear them out. I got a brand new telephone yesterday and it’s got all the bells and whistles on it and I love it and I use it like everybody else does. Sadly though, we have used technology to turn this very cyclical system into a very linear system and it has thrown aside the costs so that they’re not actually reflected in the cost of production. It’s everywhere else. It’s in polluted water, polluted air, diminished resources, species going into extinction, on and on and on. And if we’re going to make meaningful change there, we have got to stop operating this very cyclical system in that very linear manner. A farm is not a manufacturing plant. You don’t expand it by just growing more lines bigger and bigger and bigger. It’s got to fit the ecology in which it operates. And we use technology to bypass that, to circumvent that and it has been very damaging.
Casey Means (00:42:19):
Talk to us a little bit about … You use the word technocrats I think frequently in your book or in your speaking. What does that mean? What should people know about this concept of technocratic almost rule of our country right now? What does that term mean to you?
Will Harris (00:42:41):
In my mind, a technocratic is a person that thinks technology has the solution to every problem. I think it doesn’t. I think that there’s certainly a place for technology as I just pointed out. I’m really enjoying being on this call with you today as opposed to me you having to travel somewhere. I love technology. But it can be misapplied and when it’s misapplied it can be damaging and those damages don’t occur immediately. It follows a long time later. When my father first discovered ammonium nitrate fertilizer, it had been invented for decades, but it became available to him and he put it out and it was just a miracle. It was just incredible what it did to the grass. Now, it also destroyed the microbes that build the soil and it also oxidized the organic matter in the soil. And it did several other things that were really negative, but you couldn’t see that. All you could see is the benefit. The unintended consequence came much later.
Casey Means (00:43:56):
I live in California and I’m surrounded by a lot of people who are self-proclaimed environmentalists and what I find astounding is that rarely if ever in conversations with these folks is there an awareness about the impact of the way food is grown on the environment. And as far as the awareness goes, it typically lands on a conversation around how we need to be more plant-based to save the environment. I think something that’s really fascinating … You talk about various environmental movements happening right now that are unfortunately stuck, even though well-intentioned, stuck in a bit of a linear thinking and fundamentally missing a big picture around actually reigniting cycles of nature. But I’d love for you to talk a little bit about two topics that I think you speak really uniquely on. Solar farms and organic farming. I’d love for you to share a little bit about what you talked about in the book. A beautiful story around your interaction with a solar farm company and why solar farms are causing damage they might not be realizing and how your approach with them mitigated some of the unintended consequences of their work. If you wouldn’t mind sharing that story from your book. I think it’s really illustrative and interesting and then maybe we can talk a little bit about your thoughts on organic farming.
Will Harris (00:45:22):
I’d be happy to. My first exposure to solar farming was a large solar company, Silicon Ranch, Shell Oil companies, a lot of money behind it. Bought a really large farm from a friend of mine. It’s not very far from White Oak Pastures. And my friend and his family before him had operated as a very typical farm. Corn, cotton, peanuts on rotation and had done the same damage to their farm that I had done to mine or my family had done to mine and me too. And when I heard they were buying that land, it really was disturbing to me because I’d seen so many of these big industrial solar operations go in just literally mile after mile. This was over a thousand acres of solar panels. The grass under it mowed or sprayed with herbicide. Just very industrially managed. And I could almost argue that it would be as damaging as the industrial farming that had been going on prior to that. I cashed in some political chips and got the CEO of that company to come down and visit and he was a super guy.
His name was Reagan Farr. He is a MBA PhD lawyer. Just a brilliant guy, businessman. Incredibly talented businessman. He’s a young CEO of a big company. So I had my presentation planned to try to show him the benefits of managing land using livestock versus using the herbicides and all the pesticides and mowers, fossil fuel mowers. And I didn’t think I was making much progress with him. And we got to a certain place on my farm where we had done a little mowing. We don’t do much mowing. We had done some that day. And right by where we had had sheep grazing and I stopped and got him to get out of my jeep and said, “Now this plant material …” And I picked up some of that grass that had been mowed. I said, “This is not going back to the earth. Most of this is going to oxidize. Go up. This manure here …” And I took my foot and drug it through it so you could see it was good and fresh. I said, “It’s full of microbial activity right now coming out of that animal’s ruminant. And the soil microbes are going to interact and a lot of that is going to go into the soil. Dung beetles going to move it down.” And I explained to him how that worked. And I could see him get it. It was just very visual.
And we wound up doing the deal and we’ll be grazing about 2,000 acres of solar arrays for them this year so it’s been a great relationship. And he has really embraced it and actually formed a branch of his company of Silicon Ranch to do that. When they can’t find a guy like me to graze, they actually hire people and buy sheep and graze. It’s a really beautiful thing.
Casey Means (00:48:58):
It’s such a beautiful partnership. It’s so win-win. The way you’re describing in the book, you’ve got these huge solar arrays going in and then they’re just spraying pesticides and mowing around these solar arrays, creating total environmental destruction to the surrounding area for the purpose of another environmental linear offshoot. And what I love is that you didn’t come at this with anger or animosity or adversarial. It was more like inspiring this person, this CEO through genuine interest in the ecosystem of your area and brought him, showed him, got him walking on the land and the next thing you know … I’m sure it was very complicated to do this deal, but you have basically made this solar farm a twofer. You’ve got the solar energy stuff happening, but also you’re totally revitalizing that land with sheep and their poop and growing grasses and they’re mowing it with their mouths and in doing so also literally 3D printing carbon in the ground through the root systems of the grasses. It’s just so amazing. But really I think to me is such a beautiful example of how the partnerships and the inspiring other people is a big part of this. The approach that I think we can all learn from.
Will Harris (00:50:28):
We were just talking about complicated versus complex. And to develop solar panels, to have engineers who can develop solar panels that can take the radiation from the sun and turn it into utilizable electricity and put it down a wire is just incredible in terms of the complicated thought process. Those people can’t possibly be able to think in the complex system. I’m that guy. I can’t imagine engineering that solar voltaic system. So they engineered that system. It’s just an incredibly technological masterpiece. It works so well. But when it came to managing the land, that was no consideration there. None. It was just where the panels sat. So when I took my side of the equation to them with complexity and they embraced it, you got these two beautiful systems. One technology, linear, the other one nature, complexity, and it’s all working together there. And I’m not saying that the highest and best use ever is solar voltaic panels with sheep under them. But it’s so much better than either one alone. It’s a beautiful thing.
Casey Means (00:51:59):
You mentioned in your book that one of the worst animal welfare operations you’ve seen was an organic place and one of the worst land management areas you’ve ever seen was organic farming. And so I’d be just curious to hear your thoughts. Why is organic alone … And I don’t think it’s that you’re saying organic is the problem necessarily, but organic can be done very, very poorly. I’d love for you to talk about your thoughts on organic and why it is not the end all be all solution in its own right.
Will Harris (00:52:34):
I will. I’m going to start out by saying the most of the truly organic farmers that I know are wonderful, genuine, incredible people that are doing the best they can. And I’m not a better steward of the land and the animals than they are. I am not. But most of the food that is in the store labeled certified organic is not grown by those people. It’s grown by big multinational corporations and the term certified organic is just a marketing tool for them.
And you mentioned the two visits I made. I will not say what farms, but one of them was an organic dairy farm. USDA certified organic dairy farm. And it was as poor an animal welfare as I’d ever seen in my life. It was just awful. The other one was a certified organic potato farm and the agronomic practices was as bad as anything I’ve ever seen in my life. And both of them are certified organic. Today, you can have certified organic vegetables grown without soil or microbes. It’s in a hydroponic environment. There’s nothing organic about that in terms of my definition of organic. Organic when I was in college meant carbon based and I guess from that perspective it’s okay. But organic had come to mean natural. There’s nothing natural about vegetables grown without soil.
Casey Means (00:54:06):
One of the core values of your farm is around animal welfare. And something you talk about that I think is so beautiful is around letting animals or all living things really in the ecosystem express their instinctual behaviors. I’d just be curious to hear you talk more about that and also maybe speak to do you see a lack of instinctual behaviors happening in the human world as well and how is that impacting our species, our society?
Will Harris (00:54:47):
Well, I don’t know how much I can tell you about humans, but I can tell you a lot about the animals. When I was an industrial cattleman, I ran a cattle feed lot and I confined my cattle and fed them a very unnatural diet to make them gain as much weight as I could. I used all the drugs, pharmaceuticals, all the chemicals. It was all about production of beef. And I felt very good about it. And if you had told me that I was not performing animal welfare well for my cattle, I would have argued with you till you changed your mind. I was convinced my animal welfare was fantastic, but it was not. I was wrong. For me, good animal welfare in that era meant that the animals needed to be kept fed, never allowed to be hungry, never allowed to be thirsty. In a comfortable temperature range. And that was good animal welfare. If you did that, checked those boxes, you are good to go. But that is not good animal welfare. You don’t have good animal welfare until the animal is allowed to express instinctive behavior. Cattle in a feed lot, confinement feedlot, are not hungry or thirsty and they’re not hot or cold, but they are not allowed to express instinctive behavior, which is to move around and graze.
Pigs are meant to root and wallow. Cows are meant to roam and graze. Chickens are meant to scratch and pick. And when you don’t allow them to do that, it is not good animal welfare. I also mentioned in the book, I think, that it’s like taking your child, an eight-year-old child and saying, “I don’t want you to get hurt or abducted or whatever can happen, so I’m going to put you in this closet. And it’s a small closet, but it’s going to be 72 degrees no matter what. We’re going to leave the lights on and I’m going to bring you all the Snickers and lolly pops you want to eat.” And it’s great. It’s great welfare for the kid because he won’t get hurt. But it’s not. The kids want to get out and do something else and it’s not humane to not allow them to do it, but that’s what we do to our animals.
Casey Means (00:57:16):
Oh my gosh. It’s the most poignant and perfect example and it’s so important for everyone to hear. Is it that we need to let every aspect of the ecosystem express its instinctual behaviors from plants, to bees, to bacteria, to animals for a natural system that all those things are building blocks of to fully express its full potential? I guess why is it important? Is it because the instinctual behaviors feed into the system in a way that makes it greater than the sum of its parts?
Will Harris (00:57:52):
I think that’s part of the complexity. I think that all of these plants and animals and microbes are meant to interact with each other. And I think that there is a benefit, a net abundance that comes from there. I think that all that coal and oil and natural gas in the ground, that’s just pure solar energy that got put through this living system in the era of the dinosaur and sequestered way down there is a great example of the abundance of nature. And that’s wealth. That’s the only true wealth that exists. And I think that if you’ve got a yard that’s just a few feet wide and few feet long and you create a great environment with the soil there, the microbial life, you have the right mix of insects and you put the right mix of plants growing there with the energy from the sun and the rain, an abundance will result.
It may not do it the first day if the land has been degraded, but that natural abundance is … It’s all the wealth we have on this planet. That’s where it came from. And we have through the use of reductionist science made straight lines out of all those cyclical systems and given up that abundance. Now we still have an abundance that exists because the linear systems give them to us, but it also gives unintended consequences that we don’t recognize. So I’m not sure there’s a net abundance from that system.
Casey Means (00:59:48):
Many people when I bring up regenerative agriculture, say, “Oh, well that must be so nice for someone like you who can maybe afford that food and this and that. We need industrial farming in order to feed the planet and the growing population and people will starve if we don’t stick to large scale industrial farming. And that on top of that, we need to be more plant-based in order to have enough food to feed the world and for costs essentially. The use of glyphosate is just an unfortunate reality of the fact that we have an eight billion person population we need to feed.” I have definitely been on the receiving end of people … The sense that it is elitist to think this way and also elitist, naive, et cetera. I’m just curious to hear how do you respond when this comes across your plate and what is your reaction to that?
Will Harris (01:00:54):
Yeah. I’ve thought about it a lot and here’s what I believe. Sadly, we need to recognize the earth has a carrying capacity. I don’t know what it is, but it has a carrying capacity. It has a number of individuals beyond which they can’t be fed. And I don’t know if we’re over it or short of it. I don’t know that. That’s such a hard question. What we’re doing now is short-circuiting the system to temporarily feed people and eventually it’s going to run out. And to say which system is best … I’ve had this conversation a number of times with other industrial farmers and they say, “Well, you just can’t feed but so many people with the way you farm.” And they’re right. I can only feed so many people. What they don’t understand is they can only feed so many people with the way they farm as well.
So what happens when the fuel runs out? Or what happens when the fertilizer runs out? Or what happens when the pesticides don’t work anymore? Every scenario has an end to it. And I believe that my system, which is billions of trillions of years old, will last longer than their system that’s only about 80 years old. We’ve only been really industrially farming for about 80 years. Post World War II is really when that came … I’m not saying it’s when it started, but when it became a way of doing business. And it’s probably going to end poorly. I don’t know how it’s going to be. I think about it a lot. What will that look like? And I just don’t know. There’s only so much water. There’s only so much phosphorus and potassium in the soil. Everything has an end. And the way we farm is very perpetual as compared to the very linear endpoint of industrial farming.
Casey Means (01:03:18):
I think a lot about what motivates Bill Gates and people of that ideology as it comes to industrial farmland. The very patronizing view that I feel like sometimes gets espoused from him and others around traditional farming techniques and the need to marry technology and farming even more. I don’t think we’re going to figure out on this conversation what motivates Bill Gates or what the true intentions are, but what do you think is happening with this large scale buying up of farmland by him and others? There’s a lot of foreign investment in farmland in the US that you start hearing about. What do you think is happening and why should people be aware of that?
Will Harris (01:04:10):
Well, I certainly have no idea what the business plan is for Mr. Gates and these other very wealthy countries and individuals that are buying up farmland. But I do know that all of them that I’m aware of have this very linear industrial farming mentality. And I get it. Look how Mr. Gates, just to used him as example, made his fortune. In technology. Very, very linear. And Mr. Gates, there’s no reason to believe he would be able to think of things in a complex way because he’s been so accomplished in the complicated side of the world. So I wouldn’t want to speculate about how that’s going or what he’s going to do with it. But I do know that none of these investors that I’m aware of, and I know or know of a good many of them, are moving in the direction that I advocate, which is a far more complex food production system. And they could. And they could, but that’s just not who they are.
Casey Means (01:05:28):
You talk about how the solution this farming trajectory that we are on that by all accounts is going to end poorly if we keep going down the massive industrial centralized way, that the solution is actually really going to come from the ground up. It’s going to be bubbles rather than tidal waves. So can you talk about what that means and how someone listening can support the bubbles? I know there are a lot of people of my generation who are genuinely desperate to figure out how to support this regenerative farming movement. And I don’t necessarily think the answer … And I think you’d probably agree is for everyone to just go become regenerative farmers because I think it’s a lot harder than the average person thinks it is. But what do these bubbles mean? How can people help the bubbles?
Will Harris (01:06:24):
It is something I feel strongly about. And I think that it has to do with the locality of farming. Today we’re fed by a very small number of multinational companies. And depending on what industry you’re talking about, it can be three, four, five, six, seven, companies that are producing virtually all the food. And I think that is not the way it’s meant to be. I think that food is meant to be very local. Again, with the little bubbles versus the tidal wave. Today we’re fed by a tidal wave. I think that what I would like to see is a White Oak Pastures in every county in the country. And I don’t know what you do around big cities like LA. I don’t know how that needs to work, but I do know that we could be far more local in our food production and that would allow for this complex system.
On our farm here as a family, we’ve had the discussion a number of times about where do we want to go with our business? I’m 69 and my children who are helping to run the business in their 30s. Where do we want to go? How big do we want to be? And we sell about $25 million worth of product a year. And we’ve decided that’s big enough. We need to help other people do what we’ve done and we need to feed our community. And our community … $25 million more than Bluffton, Georgia. But it has a fixed jar. Today we ship product to 48 states, and I really don’t want to. I need the business, so I’m happy to do it, but I’d rather sell my $25 million worth of product in a much more geographically localized area and help other people do it in there areas.
I realize there’s a lot of growing pains that have got to occur. Everybody doesn’t have a farmer like us, but they could have. But we’ve got to develop it. In a perfect world, I envision our … I can’t do with much less volume than I’m doing today, but I don’t want much more than I’m doing today. But I want to do it on a smaller and smaller area and help other people grow in there area. And we do. Let me say this. First of all, we wrote the book to try to help with that. And then the other thing I would say is we formed a nonprofit a couple of years ago, a 501C3 called CFAR. Center for Agricultural Resilience. And we teach people. They come here and we teach them what we do.
Casey Means (01:09:20):
I know we have to wrap right now. Can you share, aside from buying the book, A Bold Return To Giving A Damn, how can people support what you’re doing?
Will Harris (01:09:29):
I think that you should find a farmer whose way of managing his land and his animals is pleasing to you and support him or her. There needs to be communication. What my customers want me to do is important to me. I can’t do everything every customer wants, but if people don’t like the way I’m doing something, I want to know it so that I can make a change if possible. So that kind of communication, that kind of relationship is what we need to see this smaller kinder, gentler agriculture feeding us.
Casey Means (01:10:11):
Beautiful. So find a farmer, communicate with the farmer, get involved. And then how about coming to your farm? You have places that people can stay on your farm. Have you found that that’s a huge way to get people excited about this whole world is just to come visit?
Will Harris (01:10:34):
It is and we really promote it. We’re in a very, very remote area. I’m 50 miles from a Holiday Inn. You can’t do that many places in this country, but I am. So we built lodging here on the farm. We have a restaurant. We serve three meals a day, seven days a week. We have an RV park. We have done as much as we can do to try to create a way for people to come to see us and get to know us and understand how we produce their food because I think that’s just essential to the relationship.