Notes & Quotes: A Bold Return to Giving a Damn by Will Harris

The following are my favorite quotes from Will Harris's A Bold Return to Giving a Damn: One Farm, Six Generations, and the Future of Food.

  1. Reasonable people can probably agree that the way our food system has evolved--into one based on mass-produced industrial inputs; monocultures of foods that nobody, not even animals, should gorge on, unspeakable conditions for animals and undignified conditions for animals and undignified conditions for humans, and corporate monopolies controlling almost every link the chain--ain't working too good.
  2. At White Oak Pastures, what fuels us is an attitude we call "a bold return to giving a damn."
  3. I made myself a set of commandments about what I will do. I will treat the animals that I husband with respect and dignity, providing them with an environment that allows them to express their instinctive behavior. I will study the cycles of nature and learn how to not obstruct them. I will implement practices that leave the soil, water, and air better than I found it. I will heal the damage that my family's previous farming practices have inflicted on the land that I tend. I will provide a comfortable and wholesome life for my family. (This includes my biological family and the many at White Oak Pastures that I have come to accept as family.) I will provide the abundance that our land and herds produce to nourish those who need and appreciate it. I will nurture the village that we live in. I will get off my ass, seven days a week, and work as hard as I can, and invest all that I have to make all of this happen. I will openly teach what I have learned about these things to those who want to know.
  4. I rethought things and now have a farm that's a living system that follows nature's principles. This system, based on holistic land management and owning every step of the supply chain from field to fork, retains the value of everything it creates and regenerates rather than degenerates the land it occupies, and it has helped my farm become one of the largest pasture-raised livestock operations in the country. We've evolved backward in a way, going all-in on the des: de-industrializing, de-commoditizing, and de-centralizing agriculture.
  5. Though anybody that is worth a damn has a church, in my opinion, it's not necessarily in the form of a chapel, or synagogue, or mosque. Oftentimes, it's very different from that--it's a passion that they are fiercely devoted to, that is freely given for the benefit of others.
  6. Everything I was spending so much time and money on was actually just a symptom of deeper problems I was inadvertently creating by my farming practices. And you seldom solve problems by attacking the surface while ignoring the root causes.
  7. If you just sit still and shut up and pay attention, nature will tell you everything you need to know. She will provide you with everything you need to make your farm work. Nature knows everything, forgets nothing, and bats last.
  8. I zoned in on what was really going on with my cattle and my pastures as I never had before. When I looked more closely, with a little less of the bravado and bluster that had driven me until then, I saw that all the things I'd been doing to pull more productivity and more success from my farm were destroying the basic operating principles of nature.
  9. Cultivating food using the modern industrial system is like pissing your pants to stay warm. It's okay in the very short term but a terrible strategy for the long term.
  10. At some point, you figure out what actions you are taking that are doing your land and animals harm, so you quit doing them. You suffer the withdrawal pains of giving them up for a while, then you start using the tools available to you to try to make the conditions around you a little better. And when what you do the first time doesn't work, you make a new plan and try that one instead. One step at a time, by planning, implementing, failing, and replanning and reimplementing over again, you start to figure out how to fix your farm.
  11. We are truly the most destructive species that has ever resided on this magnificent planet.
  12. Presented with the same systemic problem, the soil biologist will diagnose that the bacteria-to-fungi ratio is off; the plant geneticist says the genetics are awry; the livestock specialist says I should purchase the seed stock they've got on offer; and give different people give five different solutions based on their discipline. None of them are thinking of the farm as a complex organism in which every part is interconnected and influencing the next. They're watching the whole ball game through a sliver of missing plank in the fence. I get why that is--our land grant agricultural colleges have been teaching this approach for decades. But I think when you get focused on your silo of knowledge, you learn more and more about less and less until you know all there is to know about almost nothing.
  13. Instead of scanning for what's wrong out there on my farm and in my fields, I'm looking for what's right. I'm looking for the biological activity that I can support and will maximize production, instead of killing biological competition to try and reach the same goal.
  14. Somehow, my craziest ideas have had a way of actually working out. My dad used to say, "Will, I do believe you could shit in a swinging bucket." I have done the business equivalent of that a number of times.
  15. These folks had never been told that what they thought they were buying when they picked up "USDA-inspected" supermarket beef--an all-American, small-town product steeped in feel-good special sauce--was no such thing. No wonder they were confused. The beef industry doesn't exactly label its product as "confinement-raised, pesticide-laden, soy-bean-finished beef." It had never occurred to them that there were hidden costs to the cheap meat they enjoyed, and that the cruelest of these costs were heaped onto the animals themselves.
  16. Authenticity is the deal. Folks recognize it when they see it. So they listened.
  17. When you see a living creature as a product, when you produce meat instead of raise meat, and when your holy grail is efficiency, you can rationalize a lot of sins.
  18. As a consumer, you rub right up against this when you shop for food in your local store. A budget-cost pork loin or bargain-priced skirt steak, wrapped and ready to toss in your shopping cart for dinner, can make even the most miserable meat appear pretty good. I have compassion for that--when you don't know where that meat came from, why wouldn't the price tag be the main thing you consider? But I can't help but think, if you could taste the suffering in that underpriced meat, you might not want to eat it at all.
  19. It's pretty simple: cows were born to roam and graze; chickens were born to scratch and peck; hogs were born to wallow and root. Deny them that right, and you have poor animal welfare.
  20. Think about it: through confining animals and restricting their natural movement and exploration and socialization, we've inflicted on them the level of punishment that in human society we would inflict only on those who had committed terrible crimes. But somehow it's a perfectly accepted way of raising livestock.
  21. I believe that if I want to take full responsibility for the welfare of my animals, I must also be responsible for where and how they die.
  22. Nothing that dies stays dead. It goes on to provide nutrition for another living thing. From death springs decay. From decay springs new birth, and then growth, and then death again. This is how nature works. I feel better about my own death when I think about it this way.
  23. I think the animals that we dispatch suffer less than almost any animal raised for food today. I've seen a lot of animals die in nature, too, and I think the animals we dispatch suffer less than the animals killed by predators. The fish grabbed by the spike-taloned ospreys from my pond, the rabbit mauled by a coyote--those creatures suffer, too.
  24. Improving the welfare of farm animals falls on a different group of people: the consumer. You. Do you care enough about the animals that provide you with nourishment to go out of your way to look deeper? If you don't, then carry on buying the cheap, factory-farmed meat. But if it does matter to you, even just a little bit, then you've got to find and support a different kind of farm.
  25. I stopped paying for pesticides, chemical fertilizers, hormone implants, subtherapeutic antibiotics, and the like, and instead I started paying for local labor. The labor builds the community. Instead of my money going to Wall Street and Silicon Valley and wherever else the entities behind industrial ag may be today, the money stays right here in the poorest county in America.
  26. Our employees make nearly twice the county average, and they get benefits and health insurance. I believe you have to pay people fairly, because one thing I've learned is that a dog that is so hungry he's hunting food for himself is not going to hunt for you. I also believe in compensating people fairly for their skill sets, which is why some of my employees make more than me. I think when the founder or owner works shoulder to shoulder with the skill set provider, he or she appreciates those contributions a helluva lot more than when they're worlds away from those providers, trying to run the operation from a stock company boardroom. Another reason I hate big companies.
  27. If you seek out nutritious food to build up your kids' health and your own, but if what you're buying leaves a trail of degradation on the people and towns that work so hard to produce it, or even wipes out the towns entirely, can you really call it "healthy"? That opens a can of worms.
  28. If you're not willing to take risks in your farming operation, then you're gonna follow the path laid out before you by someone else with their agenda--and that's never gonna be the best path for you. It's gonna be what's best for them.
  29. I have always taught my children that the God that I worship is generous, but relentless. He--or she--gives us opportunities, but when he does, he expects us to make them work. God wants to see you push the ball as far down the field as you can before he gives you the next one. So I've learned to milk the shit out of every opportunity I've been given. My God makes you prove you are worth it, every step of the way.
  30. Closing loops means meeting your farm's needs by using the resources already available to you instead of depending on outside providers to supply them. It also means keeping as much as you can inside your system, like using waste materials to support the life cycle on the farm--not tossing them out for other entities to deal with--just as my ancestors did two, three, and four generations ago.
  31. Any time a part of your business is out of your full control, you've got a vulnerability.
  32. The entities making the most money are not interested in letting the truth about the harms they are well aware of, nor the benefits of alternatives like us, be known. They have big platforms and loud voices and myriad ways to ensure they dominate the conversation. But if we don't try to remedy this, we'll be stuck with a system that rewards and incentivizes the wrong things in the ceaseless quest to make ever more abhorrently cheap food.
  33. When you put yourself in a position in which there ain't but one way out, you are free to quit worrying about future decision-making. You also change your idea of what winning even is.
  34. I've come to understand that meaningful change will result not from tidal waves but from bubbles--individual examples of independent and resilient food systems dotting the rural fabric of our country.
  35. Natural systems evolved to have redundancies built in so if one part of the system gets compromised, another part catches the slack. We need to be thinking about how to set up our small food systems to run the same way.
  36. Are you willing to rip the curtain back and see the impact of your food choices? Can you look at it and still continue to empower these destructive forces?
  37. If you want to make a difference, see a difference, or feel a difference, does it make any sense that you can continue to operate in the same way you always have? Do it different. Get out of the armchair, get out on the land. Touch the dirt. Connect.