Published on 07/25/13

Will Harris named Georgia Farmer of the Year

By Sharon Dowdy

Organic farmer Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Ga., has been named the Georgia state winner of the 2013 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year.

Harris will represent the peach state in October at the Sunbelt Ag Expo, the nation’s largest agricultural exposition where one of nine Southeastern state winners will be named the overall winner for 2013.

A multi-generational farm

Harris has made great strides on the farm where his grandfather, Will Sr., once used a muledrawn wagon to deliver beef and pork to four general stores, a hotel and a boarding house. After World War II, Harris' father, Will Jr., raised calves and shipped them to the Midwest for finishing on grain in feedlots.

Today, the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences graduate runs the family farm his way. The genetics of his herd can be traced back to his grandfather's cracker cattle, but now the animals (cows and chickens) are grass-fed and processed on the farm’s onsite, USDA-inspected processing facility.

He believes the grass-fed system is better for the environment and the land. "My land is improved every year by the way we treat it," he said. "We don't use chemical fertilizers. We just plain don't use chemicals on the land."

Harris believes his forefathers would be happy with the changes he's made at White Oak Pastures. "My grandfather used to say, 'If you take care of the land and the cows, they'll take care of you.' That certainly defines the way we run our farm today,” he said.

From grain to grass

In 1995 he began switching his cattle from its traditional grain diet to a 100 percent forage diet. The result became White Oak Pastures grass-fed ground beef.

"I've had UGA run fatty acid and lipid profiles on my beef, and they found that it's high in the good fats, omega 3 and CLAs, and low in the saturated fats," Harris said. "It tastes better, but that's subjective. Honestly, a lot of high-end chefs have told me personally that they prefer grass-fed beef."

Harris said the farm had grass-fed beef and lamb customers who wanted pastured poultry. In response, he began to raise chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks and guineas. White Oak Pastures also raises egg-laying hens and grows certified organic vegetables.

A 'magical system'

“We became fascinated with the Serengeti Rotational Grazing Model,” Harris said. “We already had the large ruminants (cattle) and the small ruminants (sheep). We needed the poultry to get it right. It’s a magical system for the land and the animals.”

Harris takes pride in how his stock are treated. White Oak Pastures’ processing plants and systems were designed by legendary humane animal scientist Temple Grandin. "We treat our animals with dignity and respect all their lives. They're never confined, and they're never harvested in an inhumane manner,” he said. Harris also doesn’t use antibiotics or hormones on his farm.

White Oak Pastures’ products are sold through grocery and food service distributors as well as directly to customers through their online store and on-farm store.

Growing food for niche markets

Steve Brown, associate dean for UGA Extension, says Harris has been “extremely successful at understanding new opportunities and capitalizing on them.”

“Agriculture in Georgia has always been extremely diverse. As consumers continue to demand new food products with the characteristics that are important to them, new niche markets are created, which Georgia farmers, like Will, can fill,” he said.

Brian Cresswell, Early County Extension agent, says Harris has always been “forward thinking.” Cresswell nominated Harris for the award.

“He understands what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. It’s nice to see any business run by generations of a family. Will has always been on the top of his game, from running a regular beef cattle operation to where he is now,” said Cresswell.

Having worked in the county for more than 20 years, Cresswell sees first hand how Harris’ farm benefits the area. “A lot of folks come to the county just to see the operation and buy products from their store,” he said.

Recognition, cash and apparel

As the Georgia state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Harris will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International; a $500 gift certificate from the Southern States Cooperative; the choice of either $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed or a $500 donation to a designated charity from Dow AgroSciences; and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.

He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash award that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner, in addition to their state winnings, include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America; a $500 gift certificate and a Heritage gun safe from the Southern States Cooperative; the choice of either $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed or a $500 donation to a designated charity from Dow AgroSciences; and a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.

Swisher International and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 24th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $924,000 in cash awards and other honors to Southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.

Sharon Dowdy is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

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