Photo Credit: White Oaks Pastures

Field to Plate: A Q&A With the Farmers Who Grow Your Food

Meet two wonderful, hardworking farmers who grow the food we eat.

By Nancy Coulter-Parker

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As you walk through grocery store aisles, do you ever wonder where the food comes from? We do! Welcome to the first of our series on farmers who put in the sweat and toil to grow the ingredients that end up on our tables. These are the people who have chosen to be stewards of the land, advocates for animal welfare and the glue for communities that other businesses may have abandoned.

Here are the tales of two farmers whose products you’ll find on store shelves.

Will Harris
Meet Will Harris

The owner of White Oak Pastures took a chance on a new way of farming that is paying dividends for his family, his community and the environment.

When Will Harris talks, it’s hard not to lean in, because he’s so thoughtful about what he has to say. It’s also because his Southern drawl is so thick; if you aren’t from that part of the country, you have to listen carefully to make sure you’re hearing him right. Harris’ 3,000-plus-acre farm, White Oak Pastures, is based in Bluffton, Ga., located in Clay County, the poorest county in the state. The farm employs more than 160 people, who made over twice the county average in pay last year. But Harris is quick to point out it wasn’t always that way.

White Oaks Pastures is 152 years old. Harris is the fourth-generation farmer; his daughters and grandchildren, who also live on the farm, make it a six-generation family business. But up until the mid-1990s, Harris had only three minimum-wage employees and a monoculture commodity operation of cattle. He decided to take a chance and transition his operation to a living ecosystem, where humanely treated animals live in a symbiotic relationship with one another.

“The three tenets of our farming practices focus on regenerative land management, humane animal husbandry or animal welfare, and revitalizing and enriching our local rural community,” Harris says. Today, Harris and his family raise cows, hogs, sheep, goats, rabbits, chicken, turkeys, ducks, organic vegetables—and the list goes on. The farm enforces a zero-waste production system, in which all parts of the animal are used. His daughter calls this “radically traditional” farming. Whatever you call it, Harris says, “it is the best feeling in the world. I love what I do. I feel blessed.”

What is now proving to be even more radical is that the farm just underwent a life-cycle analysis, which showed that it sequesters 3.5 pounds of carbon dioxide for every pound of grass-fed beef it produces. In other words, the farm stores more carbon in its soil than its animals emit during their lifetime. “We are a carbon sink and becoming part of the solution for climate change,” Harris says.

In addition to selling online and to local markets, the farm sells meat and products into Kroger. General Mills uses the farm’s meat in its Epic bars. “I talk to a lot of consumers that are very pleased that there are farmers like us who are farming with a higher degree of regard for the animals, land and community,” Harris says, “and they wonder how there can be more farmers who farm like White Oak Pastures.” He notes that the more support and demand for this kind of product in the marketplace that comes from consumers, the more farming practices will improve.

Want to check out the farm for yourself? Book a stay in one of White Oak Pastures’ six cabins. The farm also offers tours, has a store and runs a restaurant that serves meals three times a day, seven days a week. “It’s advanced-level transparency,” Harris says. More at whiteoakpastures.com.

Meet the Zimbas

Owners of the first organic dairy farm in Michigan say once they learned of the benefits of organic, there was no turning back.

Ed Zimba of Zimba Dairy is a second-generation farmer. He likes to say he’s been farming legally since he was 18, because he was raised working on his dad’s dairy farm, which he eventually took over. But Zimba’s way of farming is quite a bit different from how his dad ran things. In the 1990s, Ed and his wife, Melanie, decided to transition the farm to organic, becoming the first organic dairy farmers in Michigan.

It took three transition years to qualify as USDA-certified organic, which is a way of producing dairy products without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or antibiotics. Although the Zimbas were an anomaly among farmers when they transitioned, he says the decision was easy.

“When we started understanding about soil health and the life and living organisms in the soil and how that relates to crops, healthy cows and back to healthy people, we realized we could never go back to another way.” He adds, “We are what we drink and eat. Good food and milk is good medicine.”

The Zimbas now have two dairies in Deford, Mich. Together, they have approximately 1,000 cows and farm roughly 3,700 acres with 500 to 600 acres currently in pasture. Both dairies are certified organic, as well as certified grass-fed under the American Grassfed Association, which means their cows have even more days out in pasture than organic certification requires, and a large percentage of their cows’ feed comes from grass. “It’s just another level of doing a better-quality job,” Zimba says.

Grass-fed milk contains higher levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs) and antioxidants than regular milk. Zimba says he loves the challenge of trying to improve mineral levels in his farms’ soil and the nutrient levels in the milk his cows produce. His hard work has not gone unnoticed. The Zimbas have partnered with Danone’s Horizon Organic for just over two decades, and their organic grass-fed milk is used in Horizon Organic’s certified-organic, grass-fed milk products.

And these days, Zimba Dairy is not as much of an anomaly. “Now we have organic farmers around us because of what we do. When we started 30 years ago, we were looked at like we were crazy. But now other farmers are asking questions,” Zimba says. Noting that the results of organic farming have included improved soil health, more worms and more biological activity in the soil, as well as healthy cows that live longer, Zimba says, “I think organic is the future for the younger generation of farmers. The more we do this the better we can do—for healthy people and the planet.” More at horizon.com/our-farmers/zimba-dairy.

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