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The future of Big Chicken

Georgia's orchestrating a makeover of the world's most popular meat. Which gamble will determine the future of chicken?

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POULTRY PASSION: After two decades of conventional cattle farming, Will Harris switched his farm to a grass-fed beef and pastured poultry operation. “I have the zeal of a reformed whore,” he says.
  • Joeff Davis
  • POULTRY PASSION: After two decades of conventional cattle farming, Will Harris switched his farm to a grass-fed beef and pastured poultry operation. “I have the zeal of a reformed whore,” he says.

On the bright morning that Doty and the chefs arrived at White Oak, Jenni Harris was waiting to hustle them into the slaughterhouse, where the last cow of the morning was about to meet its end.

A full-grown cow is a majestic thing. It weighs around 1,200 pounds. To see life pass away from the animal's eyes with the flick of a captive bolt is a sight that will humble you and maybe turn your stomach. The chefs stood there for the whole scene, through the evisceration of balloon-size organs and the peel of skin from flesh. I watched them watch, then turn away, then turn back, and then turn away again. A few blamed their hangovers.

Jenni, 26, is of the fifth generation of the Harris family to work on this farm. She didn't skip a beat during the slaughter, explaining each step and keeping nothing out of view. Whenever the chefs pulled out their iPhones, she'd say, "Go ahead. Take some pictures."

Much of the livestock industry operates on a no news is good news policy. It generally discourages visitors, bans photography, and hides quietly behind blandly industrial walls. In Iowa, Missouri, and Utah, the livestock lobby has been successful in criminalizing unauthorized photos at agricultural facilities. If the general public ever glimpses the inside of a slaughterhouse, it's usually because animal-rights activists are trying to expose egregious abuses and bad practices.

This is not the case at White Oak Pastures. The farm welcomes plenty of visitors because the place is proud of its methods. Letting people take pictures is one of them.

During our tour of the slaughterhouse, the vegetable farm, the solar barn, and the pastures, Jenni recounted her family's story. It's tempting to assume that a farm owned by a single family and operated continuously on the same land for nearly 150 years had simply kept good, old practices in place. That couldn't be further from the truth.

When Jenni's father, a stocky cowboy named Will, turned 40 in 1995, he looked around and saw a farm that he didn't like working at anymore. After two decades, he was tired of manipulating cows with hormones, tired of pumping chemicals into his land, tired of crowding cows into muddy, stinky feed lots, and tired of loading miserable, unhealthy cows onto trailers to cart them hundreds of miles to an industrial slaughterhouse. Most guys, when they have a midlife crisis, get a convertible and younger girlfriend. Will decided to get a grass-fed beef farm.

For the first time in his life, he took out loans and leveraged everything he could. He learned about raising cows the old way, without drugs or corn or any of the other factory-farming tricks he'd learned at UGA. With the help of Temple Grandin, the autistic pioneer of animal welfare, he built a slaughterhouse on his property.

When the neighboring farms heard about Will's plans, Jenni said the transition went over "like a turd in a bucket of Kool-Aid," as if their own farming operations were being indirectly criticized.

So, what do the neighbors think now?

"Most of those neighbors work for us now," she said.

Today, Will is something like the Southern poster cowboy for grass-fed beef. He is tall and thick; he wears a white goatee and a white Stetson stained with sweat from his bald head. He cuts the ideal image of an honest farmer and passionately evangelizes the messages of animal welfare and environmental sustainability, which are just a couple of reasons why magazines like taking his picture and Whole Foods, his biggest customer, likes to bring him in for events at its stores. When I compared his passion to a preacher's, he corrected me, saying, "I have the zeal of a reformed whore."

Everyone that knows him has a favorite "Will story." Mine involves a day, months later, when he was driving me down a highway in his open-top Jeep and talking about a local criminal he suspected of stealing from his farm. To demonstrate what he did to dissuade the criminal, he grabbed my head, slammed his forehead against mine and stared into my eyes for what seemed like a full minute, all while the Jeep barreled down the highway. His message didn't need to be spoken. No one fucks with Will Harris.

After operating in the red for years and almost losing the farm trying pay for the slaughterhouse, Harris' bet on grass-fed beef eventually paid out to the tune of $20 million in annual sales. That success led to his next gamble, stepping away from what he calls a "monoculture" farm. In 2011, he started bringing in chickens, a few hundred at a time, in a shift toward what some refer to as Serengeti model farming. Probably best known from Michael Pollan's description in The Omnivore's Dilemma, the approach involves, "A half dozen animal species ... raised together in an intensive rotational dance on the theme of symbiosis. [The farmer] is the choreographer and the grasses are his verdurous stage." What Pollan is saying in that bit of romantic poetry is that large animals, like cows, eat and excrete different things from a pasture than smaller animals, like chickens. With the right rotation of animals, a farmer can approximate the symbiotic grazing relationships that govern large natural pastures like the Serengeti. Today, there are nearly 10 different animals, including sheep, geese, ducks, guinea hens, pigs, cows, and chickens all grazing in a constant rotation on White Oak's pastures.

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