20 commitments for 2020: Can cattle farming really be sustainable? | The independent



Teating meat is not sustainable, is it? The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) says livestock are responsible for 14.5% of what it calls “human-induced” greenhouse gas emissions. Of this total, about 40 percent comes from cattle and 20 percent from cow’s milk production. According to the World Wildlife Fund, soy is the second agricultural driver of deforestation in the world, behind – you guessed it – beef. And about 75 percent of soy is used for livestock feed.

My omnivorous life seems unstable at best and in truth, untenable. I cannot lead a sustainable life and eat meat.

Where can I?

I first meet Will Harris, a fourth generation cattle rancher at a sustainability conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico in January 2020. I follow up with an email requesting an interview and his interview. answer returns to upper case. Normally boring, but somehow it looks good with Harris – a man who epitomizes the phrase ‘larger than life’.

Harris works White oak pastures, the family farm in southwest Georgia founded by his great-grandfather in 1866. Harris studied agriculture at the University of Georgia, graduated in 1976, and returned to the farm. Like most post-WWII farmers, he used a chemical cocktail of pesticides, herbicides, hormones and antibiotics, supplemented with a diet of corn and soybeans so he could fatten the cattle quickly. and at a lower cost.

But in the mid-90s something happened: Harris changed his mind. He turned his back on intensive farming and returned to the one his great-grandfather would have recognized. “We went back to traditional farming methods in a very radical way,” he says. The first objective was to improve the welfare of the animals. No more antibiotics and hormones. “I noticed a pretty quick difference in cattle,” he says. “They were healthier and less stressed, and I liked it better. They grew slower and it costs more to raise them, but I think the cattle were better off, and I liked it better. ‘

Cattle on the farm are pastured, as are sheep, goats, pigs, and poultry – in fact, ten different animal species in total. There is an organic vegetable garden, bees and laying hens. It’s a bucolic setting that’s a far cry from the grim images we’ve all seen of factory farming with caged animals in overcrowded conditions that never see the light of day. “I think of an industrial farm as a factory,” says Harris. “I think it’s an ecosystem.”

Jodi Harris Benoit is Harris’ youngest of three and works on the farm with her sister Jenni. She was a teenager when her father took the first steps in converting the farm. “But even in my teenage years, I didn’t quite understand what he was doing or the risks he was taking at the time. It wasn’t until I was in college that I said to myself, “Holy cow, what have you done? ”

I asked Harris if he had received any criticism from other farmers who questioned his decision. – No one ever said I thought you were crazy. Nobody ever told me that, but I’m probably not the person to say something like that to anyway.

The second change was to move to what is called regenerative land management. These benefits have been slower to see. “You stop using chemical fertilizers, pesticides and tillage and start using prescribed grazing,” he says. “It takes a long time – years for these improvements to show up to the point where we know it.”

But now he says that you only have to look at the soil health of white oak pastures compared to neighboring lands to see the difference. Regenerative land management focuses on soil health and fertility and rotates animals through a network of pastures. Cows eat grass, sheep and goats nibble on weeds, while chickens feed on insects and larvae. The results go beyond happier animals – an independent study found that white oak pastures sequester more carbon in their soil than their livestock emit.

And Harris didn’t stop there. There is a zero waste policy so nothing – and I mean nothing – is wasted. Organs like esophagus, penises, guts, and tracheae are dehydrated to be chewed by dogs. The skins become carpets or leather belts. The fat is transformed into lard and tallow. And all the really inedible pieces are composted. The farm is also one of the few in the country to have its own slaughterhouses, one for red meat and one for poultry. Animals don’t have to travel – which is the fate of most farm animals – and the entire supply chain is incredibly tight.

This tight supply chain has helped White Oak Pastures not only survive, but also thrive throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. People feel like they can trust White Oak Pastures even if they have never set foot on the property. And trust is a rarity today when it comes to food – both what’s on the packaging and what’s inside. “You can’t take anything for the face value you see on a package,” says Harris. “We could talk about grass food, but the most obvious would be you could buy a pound of ground beef at the grocery store and that says it’s a product of the United States when the animal was born and raised. been raised and slaughtered on another continent. He never took a breath of air in the United States, but it is a branded product of the United States. ‘

While their foodservice wholesale business vanished with Covid-19, online sales to consumers have grown exponentially. Harris is interested to see how well direct-to-consumer sales remain after the pandemic, adding dryly, “I have no idea what that is, somewhere between one and 100 percent I’m sure.”

Harris’ third goal was to turn to the rural economy of Bluffton, Georgia. When I ask Jodi Harris Benoit how small Bluffton is, she laughs, “They say there are about 100 people living in town, although it’s true I certainly can’t find them.” Until the general store opened in 2016, the only thing you could buy in town was a postage stamp at the post office.

White Oak Pastures has grown from four employees to 160, making it the largest private employer in the county.

Not everyone stays at White Oak Pastures and it’s great with the Harris family. “Most of these people aren’t here for a paycheck every Friday,” says Jodi. “They are here to learn and will eventually return to their hometown or the land they inherited and they will implement the same or they have decided to make it their career for the long haul.”

Will Harris likes to say his farm isn’t very scalable – it’s not going to grow – but it’s highly reproducible. As Jodi told me, “The United States doesn’t need white oak pastures to expand, but it does need hundreds, if not thousands, of white oak pastures across the United States. There must be one in every county.

Crazy? Maybe, but I dare you to tell Will Harris.

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