Over the years, Will Harris of Bluffton, Ga., has developed his White Oak Pastures into the largest organic farm in Georgia.

The fourth generation farmer has added meat processing to the operation and has become a provider of high-quality natural products to upscale grocery stores and restaurants.

As a result of his success as an organic farm owner and diversified livestock producer, Harris has been selected as the Georgia state winner of the 2013 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award.

Harris joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 15 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

A farmer for 37 years, Harris operates 1,200 acres of rented land and 1,100 acres of owned land. His enterprises include 700 beef cows, a sheep operation with 400 ewes, 50 nannies in his goat herd, 30 sows in his hog herd and 150 doe rabbits. Annually, he raises about 300,000 chickens, 3,000 geese, 3,000 ducks, 5,000 turkeys and 5,000 guinea fowl. He also grows irrigated organic vegetables on five acres.

“We ship fresh meat and poultry to grocery and restaurant distributors,” he says. “We also ship directly to restaurant chefs and independent stores. We have an on-farm restaurant and a retail store that sells our products. We want our farm to be a ‘food hub’ to attract visitors to southwest Georgia.”

His online store ships products to customers. “We also have a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) business,” he says. CSA consumers pay fees to farms that entitle them to certain amounts of food. “Our CSA business has separate buying groups for our organic vegetables, red meats, poultry meats and eggs,” says Harris. “We deliver this food to central locations in nearby cities.”

He sells vegetables fresh, canned, pickled or otherwise preserved. “We do all of this on the farm,” adds Harris. “Our eggs are candled, washed and sorted for sale daily.”

His other specialty enterprises include sausage products, a composting operation, honey bees, tanning hides for leather, mushroom production and an heirloom fruit orchard.

Essential to long-term plans

“These enterprises are a small part of our overall volume, but they are essential to our long-term plans and the core values of our family and farm,” says Harris.

“My family has raised livestock on this land for 147 years,” says Harris. “Members of our family’s fifth generation now work this land. We’ve created 85 full-time jobs for non-family members in an economically deprived county.”

Vertical integration, controlling processing and marketing of the products he produces, allows Harris to capture more of the retail value for his products than if he simply sold live animals on a commodity basis.

“We market our branded products to add value to our farm,” he adds. “We are the largest privately owned employer in this area. We are profitable, and the future looks bright.”

Harris is also proud of the animal welfare and environmental stewardship standards met by White Oak Pastures.

To make the farm an attractive workplace for his children, he started the transformation to its current grass fed emphasis during the mid 1990’s. This required borrowed capital, and he operated at a loss for several years. “Our business caught traction and began to turn a profit before we got into serious financial trouble,” he says.

This move included giving up feeding grain, using hormone implants and antibiotics. The transition also featured multi-species rotational grazing similar to that used on the Serengeti Plains of Africa. In this system, cattle graze first, followed by small ruminants such as sheep and goats, and then poultry.

By 2000, he stopped using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. “It was economically painful, but we did it,” says Harris.

In 2007, he built the beef abattoir and in 2011 he built the poultry abattoir. His farm is now the only one in the U.S. to have both beef and poultry abattoirs on the same property. He uses solar power to help run his processing plants. “Our red meat and poultry species are slaughtered in our own USDA-inspected meat and poultry abattoirs,” says Harris.

Nothing goes to waste. Blood, bones and viscera from the slaughtered animals are used to make soil amendments applied to his pastures and organic garden.

Ambitious undertakings

His plans call for building a pet food processing plant, a lodge to attract agricultural tourists and a vegetable canning plant. “We have purchased and renovated eight of the 39 dwellings in the town of Bluffton,” he explains. “We provide this housing to employees, and hope to eventually restore the village.”

Harris is active in agricultural and community organizations. He was named the Early County Farmer of the Year this year. He has been a trustee at Southwest Georgia Academy. He has been a member of the Pachitla Cattlemen’s Association and Early County Farm Bureau. He was selected for the Bulldog 100 signifying the fastest growing businesses owned by University of Georgia graduates.

The Georgia Conservancy named him Conservationist of the Year in 2012. He received the Les Dames Green Ribbon award in 2012 for his contributions to the food and hospitality industry.

His innovations have also been recognized by the Georgia Restaurant Association. He won the Governor’s Regional Environmental Stewardship Award and has been active in the Institute for Georgia Environmental Leadership. He served in 2006-2010 as president of Georgia Organics.

In 2008, he received a University of Georgia Agricultural Alumni Award of Excellence. He was a board member for the Georgia Agricultural Leadership Foundation, served as chair of the University of Georgia Agricultural Alumni Association for South Georgia and took part in Leadership Georgia during 1997.

On the national level, Harris has been a director of the American Grassfed Association. He has testified before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee. He served on the Organic Farm Research Foundation. He was selected Businessman of the Year for Georgia by the Small Business Administration. His farm was also the subject of a case study by the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

Will and his wife Von have three daughters, Jodi, Jenni and Jessi. Jenni is the farm’s marketing manager. Jodi manages agritourism on the farm, and her fiancé John Benoit works as livestock manager at White Oak Pastures. Jessi is a school teacher.

“I was the only child of a successful cattleman, and never wanted to do anything else,” says Harris. “I believe I was born to do this, and everything I have done was preparation for this. I have the best job in the world.”

Steve Brown with the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service is the state coordinator for the Farmer of the Year awards. Harris was nominated for the award by Brian Cresswell, county Extension coordinator in Early County, Ga. “Will stands out in how he transformed his farm in such a short time,” says Cresswell.

Rewards as Georgia winner

As the Georgia state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Harris will now receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., 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 include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate and a Heritage gun safe from the Southern States cooperative, the choice of another $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed or a second $500 donation to a designated charity from Dow AgroSciences, and a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, 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.

Previous state winners from Georgia include:  Timothy McMillan of Enigma, 1990; Bud Butcher of Senoia, 1991; James Lee Adams of Camilla, 1992; John Morgan of Mystic, 1993; Alan Verner of Rutledge, 1994; Donnie Smith of Willacoochee, 1995; Armond Morris of Ocilla, 1996; Thomas Coleman, Jr. of Hartsfield, 1997; Glenn Heard of Bainbridge, 1998; Bob McLendon of Leary, 1999; James Lee Adams of Camilla, 2000; Daniel Johnson of Alma, 2001; Armond Morris of Ocilla, 2002; Jim Donaldson of Metter, 2003; Joe Boddiford of Sylvania, 2004; Jimmy Webb of Leary, 2005; Gary Paulk of Wray, 2006; Daniel Johnson of Alma, 2007; Wayne McKinnon of Douglas, 2008; Bill Brim of Tifton, 2009; Robert Dasher of Glenville, 2010; Carlos Vickers of Nashville, 2011; and Barry Martin of Hawkinsville, 2012.

Georgia has had three overall winners, James Lee Adams of Camilla in 2000, Armond Morris of Ocilla in 2002 and Robert Dasher of Glennville in 2010.

A distinguished panel of judges will visit White Oak Pastures, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 12-16. The judges for this year include John McKissick, a longtime University of Georgia Extension ag economist from Athens, Ga.; farmer Brian Kirksey of Amity, Ark., the overall winner in 2008; and John Woodruff, retired University of Georgia Extension agronomist from Tifton, Ga., who specialized in soybeans for many years.

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