Lane and I have had fried chicken on our minds for some time. I’m talking about the real Southern kind, maybe fried in good old Crisco. Now, I have eaten and enjoyed chicken cooked about every possible way. Why, even one day I went into a diner and the special was, “Smothered Chicken!” So, I told the waitress, I said, “Now I’ve got to try that, most of the chickens I’ve ate had their necks wrung.”
We have been irregularly attending the First Methodist Church for some time. We like the congregation and the preacher, beside the fact it’s next door. Well, every so often they have a covered dish dinner after church and last Sunday they were having fried chicken. But, alas, we were out of town because Lane had a girl’s weekend with friends who have been together since high school and before. The meeting was in the North Georgia mountains so it’s my job to drive her up there and leave as they won’t let me attend. But that’s OK, I got to spend some time with my daughter and one of my grandsons at a cabin nearby.
When we travel north, we usually take US 27 up through Columbus, four lanes with very little traffic and 65 mph speed limit. One of the main reasons we go that way is because it lands us in Bluffton, Georgia around about noon, i.e., lunch time.
Bluffton, population 103, is the home of Will Harris’ White Oak Pastures. At noon, a wonderful lady named China prepares a real Southern meal served in the country store, mainly for the workers but all travelers are welcome. Lane heard somewhere that China fries chicken on Thursday so we were all set for some. But, alas, that wasn’t the menu, but a delicious meal anyway. We ate until we were full as ticks, which is OK to say in Bluffton. My mother would say, a lady should say, “I have eaten sufficiently or I have dined scrumptiously.”
So, Lane told China how much we were looking forward to her fried chicken and she said, “When are y’all comin’ back? I’ll fry y’all some.”
Lane replied, “Monday.” China said, “Lawd, chile, that’s my day off.”
Such a disappointment, but a little while later she came to our table and reported, “I switched my day off with my coworker so when y’all come back Monday, I’m gonna fry y’all some chicken.”
So, we did and she did. I’m telling you it was about the best fried chicken I’ve ever tasted. It was so good, “It’ll make you want to slap yo’ Mama!” I never understood that phrase because that’s the last thing I would ever do, and if I did I would hate to think what my Daddy would do to me!
I have seen Will Harris a number of times at the country store but he was always with a crowd and I didn’t want to interrupt him. That day he was eating by himself and we struck up a most pleasant conversation. Will invited us to visit his office in an old one room courthouse where he described the land he farms.
“OK, there is a strip of land that starts about 10 miles that way,” he begins and then turns and points southwest, “and goes about 15 miles that way. It is anywhere from a few yards wide to maybe a mile wide, probably not quite a mile. It is really good land because it's where the Appalachian Mountains went subterranean. Highway 27 right here, the old one, was built on the Indian trail that ran along that crest.”
He points east. “Everything on that side of the road drains to the Flint River.”
Now west. “On this side of the road, it goes to the Chattahoochee River. That's important because this soil is an uneroded mountain soil. This is uneroded because there's nowhere for it to run.”
He said that he always heard the Indians would travel this trail all the way to Apalachicola giving the area its name. Maybe so.
White Oak Pastures has been in Will Harris’ family since 1866. Through the years his family raised cattle using industrial agricultural methods, but in 1995, Will decided to abandon those practices, a bold move.
Influenced in part by the writings of Wendell Berry, he stopped using fertilizers and injecting his cattle with hormones. He later began reading the books of Berry, a Kentucky farmer and one of the South’s most prolific writers. Berry, now 80 years old, has published 28 books of poetry and 15 works of fiction, but people in the food world are most familiar with Berry’s non-fiction. He writes passionately, frequently and authoritatively about farming, especially in his 1977 book “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.” “Unsettling” is a polemic about the unintended consequences of industrial agriculture, in which Berry essentially argues the health of people and the health of the land are inseparable - and that industrial ag practices constitute a fundamental threat to the natural symbiosis between people and land.
I first learned of Wendell Berry in the 1980s from my friend, Archie Webb, a tobacco auctioneer and owner of a warehouse in Shelbyville, Kentucky. He knew Mr. Berry and suggested I read “The Unsettling of America.” And so I did, even giving a book report to a lady’s book club. Archie got Wendell’s father on the phone and we had a very pleasant conversation. I thought about the book quite a lot through the years that I was in agriculture but was never sure how to implement its practices. Well, Will Harris did.
Today White Oak Pastures produces grass-fed beef, goats and lamb and pastured pork, turkey, chicken, duck, goose, guinea, and rabbit on 3,200 acres. They also grow 60 different varieties of organic vegetables.
So, he did something crazy, something no conventional cattle farmer would do these days. He hired the renowned animal-welfare expert Temple Grandin to design a slaughterhouse to be built on his own farm. Then he borrowed $7.5 million against his family’s land and built it. It went into operation in 2008. Today, no animal at White Oak Pastures ever sets foot on concrete until a few seconds before its slaughter.
White Oak Pastures is a wonderful place to visit. There are cabins you can rent. Tours and seminars are available.
A sign on the wall in the cafeteria is Will’s prayer from childhood: “We pray for plenty of good hard work to do, and the strength to do it.”
“I get that prayer,” he says. “Most of the exposure I’ve had to different faiths, I don’t get most of it. But I think if you are given plenty of good, hard work to do and you’re given the strength to do it, everything else is pretty much OK.”
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