BLUFFTON, Ga. -- Will Harris III, owner and president of White Oak Pastures, was honored Tuesday as Georgia's 2011 Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Harris' farm operation is one of the largest producers of organic, grass-fed beef in the country and the largest in the state of Georgia.
"It was quite a surprise to me," Harris said of the recognition. "David Dunn of the SBDC (Small Business Development Center) nominated us and I didn't even know it. It's really quite an honor because, unless I'm mistaken, I think this is the first time a Georgia farmer has ever won the award."
Harris has taken his family farm in Early County, passed down over five generations, and coupled it with modern technology to meet the country's growing demand for grass-fed beef.
Today, White Oak Pastures has 40 non-family employees and is the largest certified organic farm in Georgia. Its grass-fed beef is available in Whole Food Market stores as well as Publix Supermarkets in five states.
"I really don't know of the criteria used to determine the winner," Harris said. "I do know we have 44 employees, all of whom make above minimum wage, have health insurance and get a 20 percent yearly bonus. Early County is one of the poorest counties in the state and I'd like to think we are having an economic impact where it's most needed."
Small Business Person of the Year winners from 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Guam will converge on Washington, D.C. in mid May when one of them will be selected as National Small Business Person of the Year.
"The state small business winners who will be honored reflect a broad range of business products, services and innovations offered by our nation's entrepreneurs," said SBA Georgia District Director Terri Denison in announcing Harris' award. "Will Harris and White Oak Pastures serve as a prime example of how innovation coupled with opportunity can transform a business or entire industry."
Harris said that White Oak will continue to grow and plans on adding a poultry processing operation in August.
"We'll be the largest processor of free range poultry from independent farmers in Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee," Harris said.