Will and Jenni Harris at White Oak Pastures in 2012. Photo by Julie Branaman/The Branamans.com
The Harris Hegemony
By John T. Edge
“I will fix this, if they let me,” says Will Harris of White Oak Pastures as he machetes through a briar-tangled bamboo thicket and scampers over a mossy boulder, plunging toward a ruined concrete-bordered public pool glossed with emerald slime and swarmed by dragonflies. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this bottom-of-the-bluff park at the heart of Bluffton, a farming town on Georgia’s southwestern fringe, was a symbol of civic commonwealth for white settlers who staked claims after Andrew Jackson killed off and kicked out the Creek Indians in 1814.
Now, like a goodly portion of Bluffton, which has shrunk from around three hundred people in 1900 to around one hundred today, the park is a weed-choked ruin, coursed by a spring that burbles through the timbers of a fallen dance pavilion. If Harris, a fourth-generation cattleman, manages to fix this town, two miles north of his farm, he will reverse a steep decline that began after World War II, when farming industrialized and communities like Bluffton atrophied.
People have quit this corner of the world before. Beginning around A.D. 350, the high ground hereabouts, wedged between the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, was home to a Native American tribe that farmed corn and beans, crafted elegant and expressive stamped pottery, and built an earthen mound complex. Rulers exercised power through what one archeologist described as an “elite hegemony.” The result was an advanced society, defined by excellence in the arts and pomp in funerary practices.
That society flourished for more than three centuries until around 1,300 years ago, when the Kolomoki people abandoned their village with its central plaza and flanking berms. The temple mounds eroded. White settlers of the nineteenth century buried their dead atop the funeral mounds and sank marble headstones in the tilth. In the twentieth century, amateur diggers plundered the mounds for ceramic ducks and dun-colored human skulls.
Over the ensuing decades, archeologists have returned here again and again to sift debris and try to make sense of why the Native Americans departed what was once perhaps the largest settlement north of present-day Mexico. The rangers at Kolomoki Mounds State Park say that the village likely fell out of use in A.D. 750, as native people shifted from a village-centered life of mostly hunting and some farming to smaller settlements focused intensely on agriculture. Read another way: agricultural methods changed, the economy declined, the place emptied.
Harris, whose great-grandfather began working land near the Kolomoki village in 1866 with the help of one hundred freed slaves, puts it succinctly when he speaks of Bluffton’s more recent decline. “Bluffton was no longer useful,” he tells me, as I finish a grass-fed-beef burger at the open-air pavilion restaurant he built behind his headquarters, downwind from a pit where compost piles before it’s converted to fertilizer. “After World War II, our economy centralized. Small-town gristmills closed. Hardware stores did, too. As we centralized, jobs and people moved to cities, and Bluffton became irrelevant. It was no fucking good to no fucking body.”
Like the Kolomoki before him, Harris relies on a hegemony in which doing things in lockstep with nature—instead of doing things hyper-efficiently to speed throughput—is the sun around which constellations of ideas and businesses spin. Around 1995, Harris made a bold bet for the time: believing that the world was going to run out of fossil fuels before it ran out of land, he ditched high-yield farming, dependent on chemical inputs. Over the last twenty years, he has shifted from raising cattle on an industrial model and refocused the family operation on grass inputs, organic outputs, animal welfare, and minimal waste. While Harris switched his cattle from grain-fed to grass-fed, he slowly converted his customers from commodity wholesalers to high-end consumers. In the process he has built a farm of 2,500 acres, along with two slaughterhouses.
More recently, Harris, now sixty-one and joined in the business by two of his three daughters, has added nine more species to the farm, including rabbits, guinea hens, and ducks. His farm has become a sort of showplace, drawing students of agriculture as well as a new generation of agricultural tourists who stay in tidy prefab cabins, installed on the edge of a pasture amid toothpick-straight pines. On a recent night at the pavilion, I ate tomato-sauce-swaddled meatballs, made with a grind of five different poultry species, and drank wine with families that were visiting from far-away Portland, Oregon, and close-by Fort Gaines, seat of government here in Clay County.
“Nature abhors a monoculture,” Harris often crows to visitors, who arrive here to parse his success. With a bottom-of-the-well brogue that inspires linguists to talk of Scottish retentions, and a talent for spersing conversations with aphorisms and bullet points and profanity, Harris is a good crower. Over lunch one day at the pavilion, he says, “I’ve been lucky. So lucky my father said I could shit in a swinging bucket.” Speaking of a banker who loaned him money during the lean years, Harris recalls, “He stuck with me like hair in a biscuit.” When Harris describes his cows as athletes, he teases the word into three pregnant syllables, focusing my attention on the idea embedded in the observation. Listening closely to his elisions, I often hear a new word—and then I grasp a new idea.
After a consultation with animal rights activist and educator Temple Grandin, who advised him on how to lessen the stress on animals before slaughter, Harris began guiding his abattoir-bound cattle through a spiral chute and killing his chickens beneath black lights. To get the most of his pastures, he now works a Serengeti Plains–inspired rotational grazing strategy, in which cows are followed by smaller animals like sheep and goats, and, finally, birds. Today, Harris products—like dehydrated cow trachea chew toys, peppermint-flavored beef tallow lip balm sticks, one-pound packs of ground beef, and two-and-a-half-pound packs of denuded turkey heads—are made under the watchful eyes of four certification programs, including the Humane Farm Animal Care association.
Like farmer and writer Wendell Berry, Harris is a counterintuitive thinker and drinker. Berry, who lives in Kentucky, where all manner of good whiskeys can be had, often drinks Scotch and refers to agribusiness as a kind of pornography. Harris, who invests just as deeply in alternatives to industrialized agriculture, drinks 1.5 liter jugs of Yellowtail-brand shiraz from Australia. “I get my wine and my gas at the same place,” he explains. His point, I think, is that we all have our limits, and it’s wearying to forever stay on message. When you live this far out in the country, you drink what the stores out on the highway sell—and what they sell is industrially produced wine with cute little animals on the labels. He’s saying: I’m complicated, don’t poster-child me.
When drinking, Harris turns loquacious. He talks of his great-grandfather, a cavalry officer in the defeated Confederate army, who, like Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen, “tore violently a plantation,” working black sharecroppers he paid in Babbitt alloy coins embossed with the Harris brand, which they exchanged for goods at the farm commissary. He tells stories of his father, who left sixth grade to become the eyes of his own cataract-blinded father and who continued to pay employees in Harris scrip until 1946 or ’47, when the U.S. Treasury Department lowered the boom.
Harris repeats these family stories like a repertory actor, delivering maxims as punch lines, laying on additional details with each telling, pausing to recollect and savor absurdities. He looks like he could still win a back alley bar fight with a stare. But as the bottle goes down and the sun follows, he sometimes turns sentimental. Twice during recent dinners together, he got so emotional talking about his farm and his daughters that I saw his eyes tear and heard his throat catch.
Harris keeps an office in downtown Bluffton in a deconsecrated Methodist church, lined with framed press clippings and family portraits, decorated with ram skulls and plow frogs and rusted Coke signs. Over the altar, where a backlit stained-glass Christ once glowed, looms a supersized Harris brand, backed by a blond cowhide. On a wooden communion table, inscribed with the words “Do this in remembrance of me,” sits a bleached white bull skull, his gray-brown horns turned upward like the arms of a prayerful supplicant.
Over the last two decades, as Harris has converted his farm from industrial processes and built a customer base through sales to Publix and Whole Foods and high-end restaurants, food obsessives have embraced him as their best hope for the humane treatment of animals and future-tense organic agriculture. But Harris claims he’s not saving anything. Other than his own ass. And maybe Bluffton, once a symbol of the small-town wealth that farm work yielded.
Jenni Harris, twenty-nine, his middle daughter, returned home to help manage the processes of a company that now employs around 130 people. She agrees with her father’s description of the farm as a sort of benign dictatorship. “You’re guaranteed a paycheck even if the tomato crop fails,” she says. “Ours failed the last two years. And everybody still got paid.”
Instead of ascribing valor to his work, Harris rejects the savior narrative in which farmers are the chosen inheritors of a yeoman legacy, beatified daily through their labors. “If you want to write a story about me and virtue,” he says, “it’s going to be a goddamn short story.” Instead of preaching virtue, Harris acts. Instead of citing Peter and Paul, he refers acolytes to agronomist George Washington Carver, who wrote, “In nature, there is no waste.”
For Harris, work is a sort of yoga. Mark his words and he begins to sound like a Buddhist in cowboy boots. Though he dismisses organized religion, when Harris opened the dining pavilion he painted the family mantra above the serving line: “We pray for plenty of good hard work to do and for the strength to do it.” Instead of forging a path forward for the nation, or even Southwest Georgia, he blazes a trail for his family and for the increasing number of young people who have found new purpose and enterprise in a place that has twice emptied and is now filling back up.
Will Harris has detractors. The sorts of farmers who valorize Jeffersonian smallholding think he’s too big, too brash, too full of bluster and brio. Some locals note that, as he refurbishes an abandoned Bluffton store and opens a modern farm commissary—outfitted with vegetable bins, beef and chicken coolers, and a leather shop where tourists may buy Harris hides fashioned as wallets and belts—he is becoming a latter-day sharecropper lord who controls every step of production, from pasture to slaughter to sale.
The demand for housing in Bluffton has surged as White Oak Pastures has expanded. “The only way to get a house now is when grandma dies,” Harris says. If White Oak gets a USDA loan, which Harris has applied for and local government has approved, he aims to repopulate the town with eleven new two-bedroom bungalows. His tenants will be young farm employees like the ones I have met on visits: a Cornell-educated entomologist who learned to breed black soldier flies in an old grain silo here, a biologist who earned his master’s degree from Georgia Tech in biology and now designs White Oak Pastures’ inventory systems, and Reid Harrison, the culinary school–educated chef who runs the pavilion kitchen and lives in a camper van.
As Harris buys up privet-tangled lots in Bluffton, he stabilizes houses to prevent them from toppling, builds new ones, and worries some of his neighbors who say—sometimes out loud—that their town will soon become a gulag for farm workers. When I stop to visit with a woman whose property abuts a Harris holding, she spews venom, saying that Bluffton was a fine little town until White Oak Pastures began housing some of its people here. “He told me he would put a nice family in, but he put a black family in,” she says, gesturing across the street. “Now he’s turning this into a ghetto, and these people are driving up and down the road with their music going bump a thump, bump a thump.” Her rant showcases how fears impede change in places like this, where an offer to clean up the park and a plan to repopulate the town can be seen more like a threat than a promise.
If the woman’s accusation is true, then Harris is building a ghetto where he expects his own children to live. One block from where Harris plans to build a rank of farm worker homes, his daughter Jodi Harris Benoit, who manages tours and tourism, and her husband, John, who manages poultry and hog operations, make their home in a trim cottage shaded by a pecan tree, with a sprawling yard and a dog run around back.
More than twenty years have passed since Harris recognized that, if this wedge of land between the rivers was going to prove useful again, he had to change the way he works it. To accomplish that, Harris has opened his mind to more than new methods of farming. He has embraced new notions of community and new definitions of family. Taking stock of the ways regressive thinking had previously limited his life and work, Harris put it this way to a friend of mine: “I was raised to be racist and homophobic, but then I realized that shit don’t work.”
This place is no panacea. Casual racism informs life. Whites who work at White Oak Pastures occasionally drop a register when they talk about blacks, as if they know what they’re saying is offensive, but they can’t help themselves. Both blacks and whites in this isolated corner of southwestern Georgia seem to be struggling through a thicket of mistrust, trying to find their way, notching trees as they go.
Harris is quick to say that he descends from a long line of devils who did everything in their power to retain the land they inherited and expand their holdings while fighting off challengers. Today, Harris tries his best to reconcile his past and lead by example. When he quotes his forebears, he often embeds parenthetical apologies, saying, “My father, who was a racist, liked to say…”
Chad Hunter, thirty-six, whose grandfather once amassed so much pastureland nearby that Ebony magazine profiled him in 1972 as the “1,000-Acre Tycoon,” returned home to Bluffton, in part because he saw possibilities in what Harris was doing. Hunter didn’t parse this world into black and white. Hunter saw green. Early in his life, that habit translated into a gig at a family trucking company, where money turned quickly, and dalliances at a neighboring funeral home, where Hunter learned to arrange flowers.
After a fitful run through college, Hunter resettled on his father’s farm, where he recognized that, if he worked with Harris, he could cut and vase flowers and bake cakes for the pavilion restaurant, while learning how best to convert his family herd from grain to grass. Earlier this year, Hunter slaughtered his first grass-fed Animal Welfare–certified cow.
When he printed business cards for the new company, he used a photograph of his grandfather on the obverse. In the original snapshot, John W. Hunter leaned against a fence with three grain silos in the background. To signal a new era, Chad Hunter Photoshopped out the silos and tagged the image with the logo for the American Grassfed Association. To telegraph his intent, he conceived a marketing slogan that could work for White Oak, too: “Same family, same farm, different rules.”
It’s hard to apply the old binaries to White Oak Pastures, where Jenni Harris, now pregnant with the first member of the sixth generation of Harrises to call this place home, lives with her wife, Amber Reece, in the house where Will Harris grew up. She’s proud to be out, but she’s no activist. “I decided a long time ago that it was better to live out all the reasons you’re the same,” she says, “instead of yelling about all the reasons you’re different.”
When Jenni talks about the rigmarole she and her wife navigated to conceive, she sounds like her father railing against ill-conceived USDA regulations. “Before we could inseminate, we both had to go through an hour of psychiatric evaluation,” she says, rocking on the front porch with Amber, who handles social media and specialty products for White Oak Pastures. “And then once our baby is born, Amber will have to adopt it. That’s just fucked up.” Jenni broadcasts a boldness and surety that will likely make her the next Harris to run White Oak Pastures. “Can you imagine two raunchy teenagers, who are going to make a baby in the backseat of a car, having to do all that?”
When I hear the Harris family talk about their lives and the prospects for Southwest Georgia, a Lou Reed song from 1989 floats into my head. In “Beginning of a Great Adventure,” Reed sings of raising a “little liberal army in the woods.” If the world is going to hell in a croker sack—and it sure looks that way right about now—then the only escape, Reed says, is to retreat, to fashion your own future out in the pines beyond the reach of the crazies.
White Oak Pastures is no liberal enclave. If I were to assign it a political identity, I’d guess Libertarian. That said, the people who live and work here do constitute a sort of army. They are young. (Only eleven of 128 employees are older than forty.) They are well paid, when compared to other workers in southwestern Georgia. (The average hourly employee at White Oak Pastures earns around $35,000 per year.) They live in the woods. And many of them seem to share Will Harris’s belief that honest farm work is a yoga worth practicing.
In the town of Bluffton, where the only place a soul can now spend money is the post office, Will Harris’s gambits foretell social and economic headway. That promise is on my mind when a second song floats into my head, this time from the speakers mounted in the White Oak Pastures boxing room, where, between conversations, I return again and again to watch a cutlass-wielding team of twelve in blood-smeared smocks break down beef and pork carcasses and pack them in pasteboard for shipment across the country. Work in the red meat abattoir, where men kill and gut eight-hundred-pound cows in rapid succession, is harder than this, more stark in a man-versus-beast way. These boxing room tasks, on the other hand, are collaborative and balletic, often propelled by a looping Killer Mike rap that rhymes the words pulpit and bullshit and keeps the little army churning, progressing, yielding a Bluffton that may yet prove some fucking good to some fucking body.