White Oak Pastures of Bluffton, Georgia is contributing to some decadence around here lately. And we’re not complaining. Hopefully by now you’ve tried its grass-fed beef in one way or another on the menu. The product is versatile and mouth-watering, offering a richer, deeper flavor than grain-finished. It’s just as – if not more – tender and buttery, if you ask me.
We first tried White Oak Pastures ribeye on the recommendation of chef Michel Nischan for January’s Cayman Cookout and haven’t been able to get enough ever since. The kitchen has tartared its filet, wood oven roasted its 24oz bone-in ribeye with beurre gascogne and roasted garlic, and made sugo with its brisket for housemade ricotta-filled ravioli. Most recently, Halperns, White Oak Pasture’s distributor, dry aged a ribeye for us to try, and Michael and Bradley were impressed with the added layer of flavor the process imparted. I wouldn’t be surprised if that hit the menu soon, too.
“I’m the fifth generation, my family has been raising cattle on the same piece of land since 1866,” explained owner/rancher Jenni Harris when I phoned her yesterday morning. I hear from Bradley beef tongue is her cut of choice. “We use a holistic approach and I’m very proud of the economic impact we are able to make in Early County. Employing 40 people may not sound like a lot for Miami, but it is for us!”
A main feature of its holistic approach is the first generation, on-premise processing plant which the Harris family opened in May 2008 with support from Whole Foods Market’s Local Producer Loan Program. Will Harris, Jenni’s father and the head of the operation who is known for reading a lot of Michael Pollan’s work, hired Dr. Temple Grandin’s consulting company to design White Oak Pasture’s animal handling and slaughter system. You may have seen the biopic that recently took home seven Emmys for its portrayal of Grandin, an autistic woman who became one of the top scientists in the humane livestock handling industry.
“All of my cattle are slaughtered on my ranch,” he wrote on Whole Foods’ blog. “They never leave. I believe that [the plant] is the only farmer-owned, USDA-inspected, on-farm beef processing plant in the country. Our entire beef production program, from birth through slaughter, is handled by me, my family members, or my employees.”
Pollan would also approve of the Serengeti Model practiced on the ranch, meaning large ruminants (the cows,) graze a pasture, followed by small ruminants (the sheep,) and finished by birds (the chickens and turkeys). The pastures are filled with native grasses. It’s the ultimate in land stewardship. Happy animals contributing to the sustainability of the environment. There’s no doubt this is what makes their meat superb. That, and the history.
“My grandparents were pack rats, so we have lots of stuff around the house, historical equipment, butter churns,” she continued to share. “We’re incorporating all of it into our new bed and breakfast. It’s the home my father grew up in and where I live now. We’re in the process of painting. Three bedrooms and hard wood, tongue-in-groove floors… a typical farm house. We’re in the rural south so when we often have company like the chefs that visit, it’s embarrassing when they have nowhere to stay!”
She explained how the operation began in the 1800s with a small herd of cattle and some chickens and hogs, and then grew exponentially after the turn of the century as the industry evolved and beef became a mass market commodity. White Oak Pastures has been committed over the past few decades to roll that back, and return to its holistic roots. It’s been three years, and the state of the art processing plant is at capacity — fully vertical. In January, the Harris’ broke ground on a poultry abattoir, which will be the only poultry processing plant available to independent poutlry farmers in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and will enable them to ensure the same care and attention to the flock as the herd.
Jenni Harris will be in town in April for product demonstrations at Whole Foods Market stores in South Florida. While grocery is her greatest outlet for distribution, her passion lies with chefs and restaurants, and making sure the company stays focused enough to know all their customers.
“I do a lot of ride-withs with Halperns to educate the chefs,” she reflected. “We have no desire to become national company. For chefs, it’s all about knowing your producers and the farther away you send your beef the less you know your customers… If i could control everything, I would.”