A couple of weeks ago, Jessica and I (also known as the Maiden South maidens) went on a field trip to White Oak Pastures up in Bluffton, Georgia, which is about 45 minutes from Bainbridge. Amber Reece contacted us a while back about some of the goods they make at their zero waste facility (nothing at this place goes to waste… literally, nothing!) and we jumped on the opportunity to finally visit this place that we have idealized for so long. It didn’t disappoint!
Jenni Harris, owner Will Harris’ daughter (on the right), gave us a personal tour of the whole operation. It was so sweet of Jenni and Amber (left) to take an entire morning to show us around, and we appreciated it so much. Plus, we had a TON of fun with these farm girls.
First up on the tour were all the birds! All the chickens, ducks, geese, guineas, and turkeys are White Oak Pastures are free range. They have giant chicken tractors (like a coop but move-able) for them to provide shade, nesting boxes (for chickens), supplemented food and water, but other than that, the birds are free to go and do wherever and whatever they darn well please.
The eggs from this group of free range birds (chickens and ducks) are collected from their nests in the woods for sale.
Chickens have their own hen houses with laying boxes.
The only exception to the free range rule applies to the baby birds. They need added protection until they reach a certain age, so they get special treatment. They are even given toys to play with to keep them engaged and happy!
In addition to all the birds, White Oak Pastures has so much more to offer. A personal favorite part of the trip was meeting these very special pigs.
Iberico Ham from Spain is the most expensive, most delicious type of ham in the world. A quick introduction:
The story of Jamón Ibérico ham is steeped in mystery and romance. The ancient oak pastures of Spain, the noble black Ibérico pig, the mountain air which caresses each ham as it magically is transformed into one of the world’s most exquisite foods – all play a part in this uniquely Spanish phenomenon. Without each ingredient the recipe is disturbed. Greatness can only be achieved with patience, skill and adherence to traditional methods.
The origin of the Ibérico pig goes back millennia, even to the time of the cavemen who decorated the caves of Spain with their art. These are the original swine of Spain, tamed over the centuries. Only in the last couple of hundred years have the pink pigs of our imagination invaded their territory. The Ibérico hog is big, with slender legs and a very long snout. Ibérico pigs are black, with very little hair. They have black hooves as well, which is the source of the phrase “pata negra” which describes the black hoof that remains on the ham throughout the curing process and distinguishes it from a Serrano ham. They are also much fatter animals with veins of fat running through the muscle of the pig. This, along with the large amount of fat layering each ham, allows the Ibérico hams to be cured much longer, resulting in a much more complex, intense flavor, with a note of sweetness that is unparalleled.
Here we must make a very important point – not all Ibérico pigs win the Jamón Ibérico lottery and live free in the Spanish countryside. Most Jamón Ibérico is made from Ibérico pigs who live normal pig lives eating corn and other feed. It is still an excellent ham, benefiting from the noble lineage of the Ibérico pig. But for the ultimate ham, you must add ‘bellota’, or acorns. As an indication of the difference, Jamón Ibérico de Bellota can cost twice as much as a normal Ibérico ham. So note well the difference between the two main types of Ibérico ham: there is Jamón Ibérico , and then there is Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, or acorn fed. If they are lucky enough to be destined for Bellota status, the Ibérico pigs finish their lives on the dehesa (more on this later), in small family clans, until their day of “sacrifice” arrives. The favorite pastime of Ibérico hogs is rooting around the pastures in the dehesa, foraging for acorns as well as herbs and grasses. All this running around feasting, especially during the acorn season, does more than make for a well rounded, happy pig. It makes for exquisitely marbled raw material, packed with natural antioxidants – a key ingredient for extended curing of the ham.
Long story short, thanks to our Southwest Georgia climate and the love and care White Oak Pastures puts into each and every animal, they are now the proud owners of a small herd of Iberico pigs. And Jess and I got to meet them! Maybe one day we’ll get to taste them, too.
After a long visit with future (crazy expensive) bacon, we got to see what the farm does with cow hides, along with various other parts that normally would be wasted. Hides that can’t be turned into something much prettier (i.e. leather or cowhide rugs) get scraped and strung up to dry for dog treats. This is done the old fashioned way, without bleach and harsh chemicals.
Once dry, the hides are cut into either squares or strips that are then rolled and further dried to become rawhide doggie treats. I can personally attest that Amber gave me a couple treats to take home and Juin loved them.
Not only do they make and sell the rawhide dog treats, but they also do bully sticks, dried trachea, animal feet, and more. Good, clean fun for dogs! Albeit, maybe not a treat for use indoors.
We wrapped up the tour with a trip to see the rabbit operation, which included getting to hold a baby bunny. It was almost the highlight of my day (spoiler alert: lunch was the highlight of my day).
Nothing cuter than a baby bunny! Except maybe this burger.
Jenni and Amber treated us to lunch at the White Oak Pavilion, which was the bomb.com, in case you were wondering. My burger was on a fresh potato roll, topped with cheese, bacon, and a fried egg, micro greens and aioli. We also were fortunate enough to get to eat with Will Harris himself and hear more about this history of the family and the farm, which goes back five generations.
It’s an amazing family business, which started as an industrial cattle operation employing 3 people full time at minimum wage. White Oak Pastures now employs 115 people, all above minimum wage with benefits – something the Harris family is very, very proud of. It’s clear that the good people who work at White Oak Pastures are crucial to this well-oiled operation, and they make all the difference in their zero waste, chemical free, grain-fed free, antibiotic free, hormone free, organic farm. All meat is slaughtered on site in a Temple Grandin-designed kill floor, where the animals are fear-free and calm when they meet their end. Everything left over from every single process on the farm is composted and returned to the soil. They even use leftover cooking grease from the Pavilion to power their diesel farm vehicles. They are completely committed to a better, healthier process for better, healthier food and better, healthier people.
More to come on the real reason we visited White Oak Pastures (hint hint: LEATHER!), but for now, take a minute to visit them at www.whiteoakpastures.com to learn more, sign up for their meat or organic veggie CSA, or shop online – everything ships directly from their freezer… I’ve seen it! Or better yet, stop by next time you pass them on Highway 85 and grab a burger. You won’t regret it.