Carnivores, take heart — all it requires is a complete reinvention of farming and farm financing.
Eating beef. A guilty pleasure at best for climate-concerned carnivores. But it’s bad, right?
Jenni Harris, part of a fifth-generation to make her living on the White Oak Pastures family farm says, categorically: Nope.
“I believe that the earth evolved into this pretty green-blue planet teeming with life because of animal impact and I don’t think we can maintain this really pretty green-blue planet without animal impact,” she says. “I think that our farm is proof of that.”
She has a case. White Oak Pastures, a 5,000-acre operation near Bluffton, Georgia, has embraced regenerative agriculture practices at scale. And, quite unlike most of the large beef producers across the country, their “radically traditional” operation has positive impact on the soil, water, rural economy and — huge bonus — they can demonstrate that it sequesters carbon in the soil instead of pumping it into the atmosphere.
Harris is part of a growing movement of farmers who are pushing back against conventional wisdom that all beef production is bad, and all plant-based food is good. White Oak Pastures’ approach results in beef and other animal products that are higher quality food, absent the chemical additives, and minus most of the cruelty inherent in conventional farming. So, unless you have ethical, religious or health reasons for swearing off all meat, this is “good” meat — and arguably better for the planet than some new plant-based “meat” products, depending on how the ingredients were processed and transported.
It has not always been so at White Oak. When Jenni Harris’ father Will began running the farm in the 1970s, he picked up where his father left off, solely focused on raising calves for the U.S. industrial beef production system. The animals, raised in a confined animal feed operation, or CAFO, were pumped full of hormones, steroids and antibiotics, and corn-fed from fields heavily fertilized and treated with pesticides, before getting shipped off to be slaughtered and distributed to the market.
This way of producing most food generates close to a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions according to the IPCC.
It’s what gives beef a bad name — a means of production that started taking shape after World War II and dominates to this day. It is industrialized, centralized, commoditized — part of a system that vastly expanded agricultural production to feed millions, but also robbed the soil of nutrients, polluted lakes and rivers, drove deforestation, normalized cruelty to animals and resulted in dead zones in the ocean. Not least, this way of producing most food generates close to a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2019 IPCC report.
White Oak Pastures U-turn
By their own account, the Harrises were especially heavy-handed with the chemical inputs at White Oak. As Jenni tells it, that is likely why her father became disenchanted with the system relatively early.
“That excessive use of chemical fertilizers, confinement feeding and steroids, hormones and antibiotics led him down a path where he saw those unintended consequences more quickly than others,” she says. “There was so much waste — animals standing knee-deep in manure. The extreme and quick weight gain of animals, the lack of resilience, the fragile system of the inputs, and when those inputs weren’t available, how quickly things broke apart.”
“There was so much waste — animals standing knee-deep in manure.”
In 1995, Will Harris started White Oak on a long U-turn. Over time, he discontinued the use of chemical fertilizer, pesticides, steroids and hormones. White Oak cropland was returned to pasture, covered year-round with mixed grass and other vegetation instead of being tilled for annual mono-crops like corn and soybeans. Rather than being fattened with corn, the cattle graze on sweet grass, as ruminants do in nature, alongside poultry and other livestock, each species playing its role in fertilizing the soil and controlling pests.
Proponents of regenerative farming say that this approach — tailored to individual ecosystems — would make a huge difference in achieving climate goals. There’s no perfect way to measure the climate impact of complex farming systems. But the non-profit Rodale Institute, which has been studying regenerative agriculture since the 1980s, estimates that compared to conventional industrial agriculture, regenerative practices — those that “prioritize soil health and good farming practices like cover cropping, crop rotations and pasturing animals, use 45% less energy and release 40% fewer carbon emissions than conventional agriculture, with no statistical difference in yields.”
There are also studies showing that this type of farming is more resistant to extreme weather, both flooding and drought, because the soil retains moisture better in the heat and erodes less in heavy rains. It also avoids the problem of supply chain shocks like the fertilizer price spikes caused by wars, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, since it doesn’t rely on inputs.
Slim green margins vs. big ag
But, just as Big Oil has its entrenched place in the economy, Big Agriculture is a juggernaut — an extractive industry that prioritizes quantity over quality, with little consideration for environmental impact or health outcomes. In the post-World War II era, farm policy, government subsidies, credit and insurance products have all grown up around this industrialized approach to agriculture.
“Our return on investment sucks. It will consistently and forever suck.”
“Consider the case of grass-fed beef and grain-finished beef,” says David LeZaks, a senior fellow at the Croatan Institute, a nonprofit research group focused on finance for a just economy. “There are very limited Farm Bill safety net programs for grass-fed beef operators … compared to if you are going to be growing corn, you have very good insurance programs, you have lenders who are very familiar with cash grain systems. It’s easier to access credit.”
The companies dominating the agricultural market are huge, many of them listed companies that do answer to shareholders. In the U.S. market, just four companies slaughter and distribute about 80% of all beef — JBS US, Cargill, Tyson Foods and National Beef Packing.
“Our return on investment sucks. It will consistently and forever suck.”
Meanwhile, regenerative farms hold a minuscule slice of the market. White Oak Pastures is one of just a few meat producers in the U.S. that operates on a large enough scale to run their own USDA-inspected beef and chicken abattoirs, and are therefore able to ship to customers across the country. They have taken on enormous risk, and millions in debt, to build out their own processing infrastructure. Only by convincing Whole Foods and Publix to buy White Oak Pastures beef was Harris able to get the market volume to make this model work — just. And, to be clear, even with consumers who are willing to pay significantly more for their products — say 20-30% more for White Oak Pastures beef — than they would for industrially produced, and subsidized beef, their margins are slim.
“A corporate executive at a publicly traded corporation would not tolerate the thin profits that we operate on. If they did, the company’s board of directors [investors] would fire them,” writes Will Harris in a blog on the company website. “Our return on investment sucks. It will consistently and forever suck.”
Still, the White Oak Pastures team is evangelizing for a transition to regenerative farming — a continuous process of restoring nutrients to the land — and away from the extractive farm system driven by shareholder interests. In 2021, they launched a nonprofit that aims to bring together farmers, investors, economists, city planners, academics — anyone interested in what they have learned on their journey. One of the happy outcomes from this venture was their acquaintance with rePlant Capital, which refinanced some White Oak Pastures’ debt at lower rates and longer repayment terms.
Policy initiatives to nudge the agricultural industry in a climate-friendly direction are woefully lacking. But the Harrises see market demand helping to propel this movement, and believe more private investors are looking for climate –– and environmentally –– friendly ways to make their money work.
“I think that there are more investors that aren’t necessarily looking for the fastest and highest return, but want to feel good about where they are putting their money”
“I think that there are more investors that aren’t necessarily looking for the fastest and highest return, but want to feel good about where they are putting their money,” says Jenni Harris. “I think there’s way more traction to be made in that direction than there is in policy.”