Alongside COVID-19, is another looming global crisis, equally as dangerous and potentially more terrible in the long-term: anthropogenic climate change. Both climate change and the coronavirus are bringing the problems of our industrialised food system into the light, be it through the breakdown of food supply chains based on ‘just-in-time’ logistics or on a more fundamental level, as farming becomes more difficult in an increasingly unpredictable climate.
The climate crisis and the changes it brings is dramatically impacting farmers across the world. As temperatures rise and rainfall becomes increasingly unpredictable, production is dropping, and businesses are struggling. However, in the United States, anthropogenic climate change still divides opinion. Many still question its scientific validity, including the President who said climate change was ‘an expensive hoax’ and pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement. However, in opposition to those climate-deniers, there are passionate and engaged people across America who are desperately working to keep us within the limit of 2 degree Celsius. In light of that division, we wanted to talk to farmers across the US to understand how they view climate change and what steps (if any) they were taking to address it.
The SFT will run this series featuring farmers across America over the coming months.
This week, following on from last week’s podcast, we interviewed Will Harris who is the owner of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia. The farm was established in 1866 and has been in the family for six generations. In 1995, Harris moved the farm’s practice from conventional to organic and regenerative – it is now a mixed farm with diverse livestock including cattle, sheep, poultry, pigs and also vegetables, fruits and nuts. It has its own on farm abattoir to process meat, so animals live their lives in one place – animal welfare is a key priority on the farm. A life-cycle analysis of the farm shows that the farm sequesters more carbon in its soil, than its cattle emit in their lifetime. White Oak Pastures employs over 150 people and is the largest private employer in the county, helping to regenerate its rural community.
What climate issues have you encountered in your region? Have you had any particularly severe weather events that are climate change related?
The most serious concern that I would have, would be the fact that climate events seem to be more extreme than they have historically. My farm is about 100 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico and about 300 feet in elevation. Hurricanes are a way of life in the Gulf of Mexico. We get six to eight a year that are category 1-3 – we are in the path. But, by the time they get to where we are, a hundred miles north and 300 feet up in Bluffton, Georgia, they’ve always degraded to a tropical storm or depression, to a rain event. Hurricane Michael came through in October 2018 and it was a category 4 and it did incredible damage – $3 million in damage. This had never happened before. It was always about the tsunamis and droughts and floods and fires. In my lifetime, my childrens’ lifetime, my grandchildrens’ lifetime, I don’t know that the change of climate would be so adverse were it not for the extraordinary events that it seems to stimulate. We get 54” of rain a year, historically, but the periods between rains are longer and the rain events are harder.
What have you done to prepare for more aggressive changes in weather and climate as global warming continues to intensify and what have you done as a business or individually to prepare?
Everything that we do, is to build resilience. We have left any dependence on chemical fertiliser, pesticides, hormone implants, therapeutic antibiotics, GMOs – we do without those things. We’ve been through holistic management and using animal impact to emulate nature. We’ve increased the organic matter in our soil, from .5% to 5 %. We have moved our soil’s capacity to hold water from a ½” event to being able to absorb a 5” event. We also like closing loops on the farm. I think the way to make something stronger and more resilient is to bind it to itself. We raise ten different species of animals and we hand-butcher them here on the farm in two USDA inspected slaughterhouses that I built. We then take what is considered the ‘waste material’ – I call it the nutrient stream (the eviscera, gut fill, bone) – and we compost them. We have a very large composting operation to provide our own fertility back to the soil, again closing loops. And, we have the capability of making our own diesel fuel with fat from the animal. Being able to close loops and build resilience is what’s important for us.
Is climate change the biggest threat to your financial viability or are other economic issues of greater concern?
Climate change may be the greatest long-term threat, but it’s certainly not the greatest short-term threat. The greatest short-term threat is cash-flow, operating in the market. We have moved this property, this farm, from a cog in the industrial food machine to a microcosm of the biome; it’s a separate organism. There’s a high degree of vertical integration and there’s a lot of risk in that. In the American industrialised food production system, the margins are incredibly narrow, but there’s a lot of safeguards built in – like federally subsidised crop insurance. We don’t have the advantage of those kinds of protections that industrial, centralised, commoditised agriculture has. This is because we are outside of the industrialised food system. The Farm Bill, for many, many years, has been put together to promote industrialised, centralised, commoditised farming and it has been incredibly successful to the point that nearly 100% of American farming is industrialised, centralised, commoditised. When you step outside of that system, you are literally working without a safety net. So, that’s a hell of challenge.
Do you get any support from local or state government to help you negotiate climate change impacts on your farming?
We do actively participate in anything that is available to us, but there’s not nearly enough available. In terms of climate change, the programmes are not set-up to afford actions that would mitigate climate change. It’s been avoided on a policy level.
What do you think needs to be done to help mitigate climate change and how do you see farming playing a positive role in this?
I think that we have demonstrated through a peer-review third-party scientific study [the lifecycle assessment] that this farming is an essential part of mitigating climate change, but I’m not optimistic that this sort of farming will proliferate, because it’s too overwhelmed by the broader industrial complex. Consumers have got to be willing to pay a little bit more for their food. Consumers are just hopelessly addicted to obscenely cheap food; so, while there is a philosophical agreement that this kind of farming is better, when it comes time to pay more for the food, it’s a fairly narrow percentage of the population that are willing to do that.
What is your major priority for future US farm policy?
At the very least, stop subsidising the wrong things; in a perfect world, we’d subsidise the right things. I really don’t think that movement towards [regenerative farming] will be driven by government or regulation. If it happens, it will be driven by consumer demand and a willingness to pay more for a food produced in a system that they feel good about. Wendell Berry says that the consumer votes with their dollar on how they want the world to be. I think if it came, that’s where it would come from.
I think that there are an increasing number of consumers that are focused on climate change and a smaller number on the way that our food is produced. The biggest enemy of that movement is ‘green-washed’ products – big multi-national food companies that make claims that devalue what we really do. My farm makes less money today than five years ago and I can tie it directly back to ‘green-washed’ products on the market. [Companies are infringing upon green values] and it’s an almost evil thing because farmers that are trying to implement regenerative community-building practices can’t afford to do it because they can do it cheaper, and they don’t do it, but they claim they do it – consumers get tricked.
The three basic tenets of White Oak Pastures is compassionate animal welfare, regenerative land management and rural community-building. We haven’t talked about the last one. The next issue that I think consumers will face is the degradation of rural communities through industrialisation, commodification, centralisation, that made rural communities irrelevant. They became impoverished, they just dried up. You don’t have to drive very far in rural America – north, south, east or west – to find villages, towns that used to have a vibrant rural and agricultural economy, that are just absolutely impoverished. They will sink into oblivion – many already have.
The kind of farming that we implement, mitigates that – just like we mitigate climate change, we mitigate the impoverishment of rural America. We are the largest private employer in the poorest county in the state of Georgia, which is not a rich state. We have a 150 something employees. This little town of Bluffton (our farm surrounds Bluffton) – ten years ago in Bluffton, you couldn’t buy anything more than a postage stamp – today we’ve built and fixed up a dozen or so houses, now there’s administration offices, management offices in the old courthouse, a store, lodging – it’s a vibrant little town, getting better and better.
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