A Bold Return to Giving a Damn: One Farm, Six Generations, and the Future of Food

Image of A Bold Return to Giving a Damn: One Farm, Six Generations, and the Future of Food
Release Date: 
October 10, 2023
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Whether you are a vegan or you love beef—whether you grew up on a farm or have never stepped in manure—if you care about land, air, and water quality, humane treatment of animals, thriving rural communities, and the safety and quality of the food you eat--you must read this important, beautifully written new book by Will Harris, A Bold Return to Giving a Damn.

Over the last six generations, the Harris family has farmed and raised cattle on land in southwestern Georgia now called White Oak Pastures. When Will was a kid, his father used holistic techniques practiced by most small farmers of his era, farming the land much like his own father.

But when Will studied Agriculture at the University of Georgia in the early 1970’s he was taught a new, high efficiency, high productivity, industrial model of farming, highly dependent on scientific advances in pest and disease control (the “cides”—pesticides, insecticides, etc.) and specialization models that divided the life cycle of farming among parties that could maximize the output by intensifying the inputs.

“In my classes, professors with PhDs taught my classmates and me, the future agriculturalists of America, how to dial in the exact amounts of pharmaceuticals and hormones to get our livestock to grow fat more quickly and how to saturate the soil with killer chemicals so you could have a blank canvas, so to speak, for growing monocultures.”

Thus, came major changes in farming, not just at the Harris farm but at farms across America. The day of the small farm was over. Big Farm companies soon commanded the land and production processes. This power was soon consolidated in a few hands.

The new farming model had a farmer selling “off his cattle long before they reached slaughter weight, freeing him from the cost of raising them to several years of age. Now, after weaning from their mamas at about six or seven months of age, they were sent to massive facilities where they lived out the next two-thirds of their lives doing one thing only: consuming copious amounts of high-calorie corn instead of grass and converting that corn into beef with the speed and efficiency of a machine. Holding the cattle in confinement instead of grazing them also reduced the farmer’s need for labor.”

After employing the industrial model of farming for two decades, Harris awoke one day and said: “This sucks. This sucks real bad.”

“I wish I could say that God spoke to me or that I saw a burning bush; but it wasn’t that dramatic. It was just that something that had always felt reasonable and rational to me suddenly felt very wrong.”

“The problem, in my estimation, is not that technology is intrinsically evil. It’s just that in agriculture we misapplied the hell out of it. We never considered the unintended consequences that plowing might have on the land, or how those consequences might compound with each technological leap.”

Unintended consequences of the industrial model and the hidden costs of low-cost food at the consumer end became more apparent to Harris: the pollution of streams; the death of small rural towns that had depended on farming related jobs; the negative effects of antibiotics on animal and human health; the negative effects of the “cides” on the land, the animals, on humans; the “lowered resistance against diseases and pests in my livestock; the weaker genetics in the herd; and the reduction in the diversity of grasses and forbs and forage, and the pollinators that liked them.” Pretty high prices to pay for a cheap hamburger.

“So, I decided to stop sending my cows off the farm to feedlots and to stop feeding them unnatural feed on my own farm. I decided to not confine them in lots of any kind, and, instead, to let them live on pasture their whole lives and eat grass as nature intended. By 1995 this way of ranching was very much on the fringe.”

Today White Oak Pastures follows a regenerative land management model where production, processing, marketing, and distribution are integral components of the farm. The evolution did not happen overnight. Harris and his team found creative ways to have a zero-waste policy, and raise healthy animals without using hormones, antibiotics, and chemicals. Over time other farmers have made similar transitions, with resilient, independent farms now dotting the rural landscape.

The industrial model, though, remains the dominant way food animals reach market, with four large companies commanding over 80% of the beef, chicken, and hog markets. Change is slow.

Today more consumers are aware of the issues with the industrial production of food, but the vast majority of the public have not begun thinking about the sources of their food and how it has been produced. A Bold Return to Giving a Damn is more than a memoir—it is a full exploration of the history of food production in this country, with all its beautiful and ugly aspects. It’s the education we all need to embrace.

“I do think that good things happen when you do what’s good for your farm. I do what I do here because I love the land and the animals, just like some people love music or art. They are my passion. I’d steward them whether it paid me or not. Which is good because everything here is a work in progress.”