Georgia Farm Builds Successful Brand Through Diversified Livestock Enterprises & Agritourism
When considering diversifying a livestock operation, not many farms compare to the success White Oak Pastures has seen in this arena. Located just outside the quaint Georgia town of Bluffton, this multi-generational family operation currently raises 10 species of livestock and poultry, along with producing pastured eggs, organic vegetables and many other products. A farm with a storied history dating back to 1866, the operation also boasts its own abattoirs, two restaurants, a general store, six guest cabins, and employs approximately 141 people.
It was in the mid-90s when fourth-generation owner and current manager Will Harris III made the decision to diversify the farm into new enterprises and eventually transition it back to a more regenerative pasture-based form of agriculture.
“The idea of running my farm more as an emulation of nature became very appealing to me,” says Harris. “I started changing our farming practices gradually at first and liked it better than what I was doing before so I stuck with it.”
Across the whole of the agriculture industry, diversification has proved to be an effective way for farmers and ranchers to protect against financial risk and better utilize their land, labor, and capital. For pasture-based producers in particular, the ability to “stack” multiple livestock enterprises on the same land base is particularly beneficial and provides a viable option to scale vertically. In business in general, an element of scale is necessary for long-term sustainability.
In Harris’s case, his choice to diversify his operation has brought many benefits including growth and profitability.
“It’s allowed us to expand the farm from 1,000 acres to almost 3,000 acres in the last ten years or so,” says Harris. “All of the profits that we make, we put it back into land and infrastructure in the community.”
Harris started his path to diversification by changing his first enterprise, cattle, to a grassfed production model. In turn, he also began to sell his meat directly to consumers, instead of shipping calves off to the feedlot every fall as he had done before.
Eventually, Harris stopped using pesticides and chemical fertilizers on his pastures. Sheep were brought in to act as weed control and serve as an additional livestock enterprise. Later, goats, pigs, multiple poultry species and rabbits would join the fold. Harris completed the production side of the transition by adopting holistic management and grazing practices. Today, Harris explains the land he manages is healthier thanks to the added biodiversity and improved management. Additionally, many production problems, such as weeds and pests, which were formerly issues in the farm’s past conventional single-enterprise model, have been greatly reduced.
“Using animal impact has been the best way I’ve found to shape and improve the land,” says Harris. “We move the animals around as if the farm was a canvas and the animals were the paint to create the picture we want.”
Along with environmental improvements, diversification has allowed Harris to overcome production challenges while adding value to White Oak Pastures’ existing enterprises. “Building and growing this farm has been just as difficult as building and growing any new business,” says Harris.
The first challenge Harris encountered came about as livestock numbers increased on the farm. In time, it became harder and harder to find a meat processor that could handle the volume of animals White Oak Pastures needed to have slaughtered weekly to supply their customers.
“When I started changing things and direct marketing to consumers, I was using mobile, small slaughterhouses to do my processing,” says Harris. “Some of them didn’t do so well. Others were very limited in volume. I couldn’t make money with the amount of volume they would do for me. So I found myself in a situation, I had worked out my production protocols and found markets to go into, but I couldn’t make any money doing it.”
Out of self-preservation for his farm, Harris made the decision to build his own on-farm meat processing facilities. Incorporating these facilities into the farm business allows White Oak Pasture to process and package all of their meat products on-site.
Later on, an on-site restaurant and general store were added to improve the quality of life of employees.
“Our farm is 12 miles from the nearest place to get something to eat, a tube of toothpaste, a roll of toilet paper, and all the other essentials of life. It just wasn’t working for a lot of our employees or our visitors,” says Harris.
Harris originally built the farm’s first restaurant to serve his employees. As visitors to the farm increased, they started serving food to the public too. After a bit, a store was added to carry essential items employees and visitors might need, plus provide a place for visitors to purchase farm-raised products.
As more and more visitors to the farm continued to come, Harris added further infrastructure to take advantage of the agritourism boom. He purchased a food truck to serve as a second restaurant near the store for farm guests and six cabins were built to provide lodging. In total, Harris says he has spent nearly $7 million on building new infrastructure to make his operation more self-sufficient.
“It was a huge challenge for us financially to borrow that much money, invest it, and make it payback,” says Harris. “But it’s also brought a lot of new opportunities, including the best one, which is two of my three daughters can work in this business with me. It’s a great joy being able to work with my family every day. I wouldn’t have had that joy if I had continued to just run a cattle operation.”
For other farmers or ranchers looking to pursue a similar path, Harris recommends starting small and growing slow. It has taken him over 20 years to grow White Oak Pastures into what it is today.
“You don’t want to bet the farm coming out of the chute,” says Harris. “You want to do it a little at a time.”
Producers with limited land available might consider starting with poultry, Harris notes. If access to land isn’t a barrier, then small ruminants like sheep or goats or even cattle could be options. In the end, a combination of experience level and land availability will determine what enterprises fit best in each individual’s scenario.
Other things producers should consider when thinking about farm diversification, says Harris, are what options exist for meat processors in their region and where they plan to sell their products. Considering asking questions such as:
- How far is the closest meat processor?
- How do processing costs compare across various species?
- Which species bring a higher premium at market?
- What are your options to market and sell your products?
- How much product are you capable of and/or willing to produce?
Once these kinds of questions are answered, then producers can start making decisions on how to move forward.
Ultimately, the most important thing to remember, says Harris is, “Everything takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you thought. Before you start any new enterprise, make sure you have sufficient time, energy, and money. We think of money as being the hardest one to get but you can always borrow money. You can’t borrow time and energy.”
Learn more about White Oak Pastures story on their website, www.whiteoakpastures.com.