Company, with 44 employees, produces all natural Grass fed Beef

Will Harris III was honored as Georgia’s 2011 Small Business Persons of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.  Harris’ farm operation, White Oak Pastures, is one of the largest producers of organic, grass-fed beef in the country.

Harris received his SBA statewide awards from Terri Denison, SBA Georgia District Director,    at an Atlanta luncheon hosted by the Georgia Lenders Quality Circle, a group of active SBA bankers   and other small business lenders. Harris was nominated for his award by David D. Dunn at the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center in Albany.

Harris will represent Georgia as the state’s top entrepreneur at the U.S. Small Business Administration’s National Small Business Week events, May 18-20, in Washington, D.C.  The week’s  events and educational forums will mark the 58th anniversary of the agency and the 48th annual proclamation of National Small Business Week.

Harris has taken his family farm in Early County, Georgia, passed down over five generations, and coupled it with modern technology to meet the growing demand for grass-fed beef. Today, White Oak Pastures is the largest certified organic farm in Georgia. Its grass-fed beef is available in Whole Food Market stores as well as Public Supermarkets in five states.

After earning his degree in Animal Science from the University of Georgia, Harris returned to his family’s farm and continued to raise cattle with conventional methods. He would start his cattle   on chemically treated pastures and when they were big enough, ship them to large feed lot operations in the Midwest where they would be finished on grains containing antibiotics and growth hormones.

Harris, however, grew dissatisfied with the business. He read scientific studies that showed that grass-fed beef was healthier than its corn-fed counterpart. And as consumers became more aware of the downside of “factory-farmed” cattle, Harris began to believe he could find a market for grass-fed beef.  In the mid-nineties, Harris began the conversion. He stopped using chemicals. He stopped shipping his cattle halfway across the country, and he started focusing on the land. Harris even brought in sheep to take care of bothersome weeds that were sprouting after he eliminated herbicides on his land.

As he planned both management and production changes, Harris received consulting services from the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center (SBDC) for over six years.

There have been other challenges as Harris diversified his farm to new ways of producing its beef. As demand was growing for his grass-fed beef, Harris was using valuable time and money to transport his cattle to a processing plant 100 miles away. His solution to this issue was a huge gamble—he built a $2 million state-of-the-art processing facility that opened on his farm in June of 2008. Fortunately, the gamble has paid off. Now Harris saves on transportation costs, and his cattle do not have to endure the stress caused by loading and hauling.

As one of only two on farm USDA inspected grass-fed beef plants in the country, White Oak Pastures was already distinctive. But it became even more so with the installation last year of the largest solar barn in the Southeast. This project was another collaboration by Harris with Hannah Solar, an Atlanta-based solar and renewable energy firm. Earlier, the firm installed a solar thermal system atop the White Oak Pastures’ processing plant to provide for large amounts of hot water for sanitation and equipment wash-down.

The solar barn contains a solar voltaic unit, with 50,000 watts of capacity, on the Harris farm which turns sunlight directly into energy. One of Harris’ goals is to make his plant functions totally on natural energy, and he is fast approaching that point. Today, nearly half of the processing plant’s energy consumption is produced by the sun.

In late January 2011, Harris broke ground for a new USDA-inspected poultry plant to process his other free-range chickens and turkeys. This facility, also housed on his farm, is expected to be operational this fall and employ an additional 25 people.

Harris plants 500 white oaks every year on his farm. They provide shade for the cows and are aesthetically pleasing. Harris owns 1,000 acres of farmland and leases another 1,500 acres to support his livestock.

As his unique farm continues to expand, Harris finds time to give back. He is President  of the Georgia Organics Board of Directors as well as the Beef Director of the American Grass-Fed Association. As such, he recently was asked to speak before the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry to share his views on the national organics program.

Tags: Environmental News Georgia