Relearning Land Care

In Review: A Bold Return to Giving a Damn: One Farm, Six Generations, and the Future of Food

Many people like to talk about “farm-to-table” and responsible meat-eating, but perhaps considerably fewer people have thought about what exactly that means and what a sustainable farm actually looks like. Even fewer likely think about what it takes on a practical level to create a sustainable farm, and the costs incurred in doing so, especially before the venture becomes financially successful. In A Bold Return to Giving a Damn, Will Harris, a fourth-generation farmer and the owner of White Oak Pastures, one of the largest pasture-raised livestock operations in the US, explores these topics.

a man in a field with livestock

Regenerative ranching involves restarting broken cycles of nature. But, Harris writes, it can be hard for regenerative farmers to operate at a profit. Photo courtesy of White Oak Pastures.

In his book — a memoir braided with critiques of the farming status quo, as well as a manifesto for the consumer to start looking at how the food industry works — Harris describes what he does at his farm as “regenerative farming” or “regenerative grazing.” It involves “restarting the cycles of nature that the industrial, monocultural, input-heavy methods of modern land management broke.” In other words, it’s a way of farming that naturally yields abundance, that in turn helps to bring in money to support the better farming practices.

It wasn’t always this way. Back as a young farmer, Harris got sucked into industrial farming and became very successful at it. For years, he produced fat livestock using cheap feed and plenty of pesticides. But at some point he began to become disillusioned with the process and wanted to try and return to the pre-industrial methods of his great-grandfather, which he began to think were more earth-friendly and humane. But, as he writes, “The industrial system has gone so far, we’ve just about reached the point where we can’t operate without its tools. You can’t operate at a profit without them — not for some years, at least.”

Still, he took on the challenge of shifting to a regenerative model — a leap his previous success and family land allowed him to take. These days, he looks to his ancestors — who believed that if you took care of the land and the herd, they would take care of you as well — to guide his farming practices.

At first glance, Harris might be an unexpected proponent of sustainability practices: He’s a “down-home” kind of guy, a fiscally conservative, pro-Second Amendment man who peppers his speech with cusswords. But he’s also an environmentalist and a supporter of gay rights, and he considers himself neither Republican nor Democrat. And what he prizes most of all, what he looks for in people, is gumption, or what he calls “a bold return to giving a damn.” Because, he believes, giving a damn is the only way things are going to change.

At its heart, that is what this book is all about — a call for consumers to care enough to educate themselves about our food systems, their environmental impact, and just how much it costs to put meat on their tables. Harris also explains why some brands are able to keep costs so low, and refutes some arguments by animal rights and climate activists, explaining that many of the plant-based food products they tout come from industrial-scale farms with high pollution and emissions footprints.

book cover thumnail

He also urges the consumer to take some responsibility for what’s being put on the shelves. He asks us to perhaps break away from the big grocery chains and cheap meat in favor of smaller, more environmentally friendly farms, even if it means making changes in household budgets to accommodate it. He suggests taking trips to local farms or pastures to see where your food is coming from and asking about production methods. It’s not always comfortable to ask these questions, but the consumer is a player here, too.

It made me think about how the demand for food from regenerative farms can grow, as well as issues of accessibility: The average person may not be able to afford to go to multiple food stores and spend more on groceries after all. I’m interested to see how this shakes out in the future.

Overall, though, A Bold Return to Giving a Damn is a personal, informative, surprisingly entertaining, and thought-provoking look at the potential of regenerative farming as an alternative to industrial agriculture. Farming is in Harris’s blood, and his passion for the industry is palpable on every page. No matter where you stand on eating meat or sustainable agriculture, it is worth a read.

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