After her parents told her “White Oak Pastures is right up your alley”, Laura McDonald updated her resume and personally handed it to Stokes Rodgers, when the main office was located at the processing plant. Laura said that Stokes looked at her resume, and in her amazingly accurate impersonation of Stokes, said ‘This needs to go to Jean’. Laura asked who Jean was and again, she imitated Stokes’ matter-of-fact reply saying “I’ll take care of it”, and he did. And funny enough, they now share an office.
”I wasn’t real sure what was going to happen after I turned my resume in, so I called a couple days later to see if “Jean” had, in fact, gotten my resume. She said that they were about to make some changes, but right now they were fully staffed, but I might be relevant in the near future. I didn’t want to wait.” Laura was immediately offered, and accepted a job in Albany, GA. Laura worked for close to one year at Auto Damage Appraisers, a family-owned business, billing to Insurance Companies. “There was no upward mobility, so it was just to earn income to be able to move out of my parent’s house. It was almost a year when I was called back to White Oak Pastures. I came in on a Saturday and was interviewed by Jean and Will. I’ve always been a little embarrassed about my resume because of the diversity. I have worn a lot of different hats. They told me that it all made sense for this place, and nobody had ever told me that before. And before I could even leave that day, Jean flagged me down and offered me the job. It was pretty cool. I was hired to help Jodi (Harris-Benoit) with Agri-Tourism. She had just started here mere months before me and she was looking for help with developing that part of the business. So, I helped her in selecting the software for booking the cabins and I was fielding phone calls and greeting customers. But they had just integrated new accounting software and accounting needed me more. I even thought about going back and getting an accounting degree when I realized where I was going to fit in here. I thought ‘Oh God, I have to learn and make sure I’m valuable and make sure I know what I’m doing.’ But Jean assured me she would teach me everything I needed to know. I realized at that moment I would not miss out on anything academic. I took over accounts payable and payroll, so I paid all the outgoing payments. Keeping everyone paid and happy is not a bad gig.”
“I actually created my job as Human Resources Manager because we just didn’t have one.”
Laura researched the implementation of current regulations in Human Resources and Business Management and would present the regulations that White Oak Pastures needed to implement. “It wasn’t what I was interested in. I was actually more interested in the Agritourism side of the business. The reason they hired me for that was because I had tons of Customer Service experience and I also came directly from equine experience. I worked for the Sea Island Stables and took The Cloister guests on beach and trail rides. We were planning to offer horseback riding to the cabin guests but at that time, we didn’t even have cabins.The cabins arrived a few short months after I got here.”
“I had managed small businesses before, but nothing on this scale. At the previous businesses, I wasn’t having to worry about compliance and I certainly wasn’t having to worry about things that happen once you have fifty or more employees. I had to play catch-up in the HR realm while being spread kind of thin for a while.” Laura is self-taught in the areas of company compliance and human resources for a company who employs 145 employees. “I enjoy learning stuff that I would have never learned any other way. For instance, I struggled with accounting in college. It never made any sense to me, but being able to see it, the real life stuff, balance sheets, etc., while doing Accounts Payable, all of that finally made sense when I actually got to do it.
“In early 2016, Will (Harris) decided that he wanted to have an internship program, which I coordinated and started in May, 2016. He gave me his ideas and I structured it and just ran with it. So far, it has been a really successful program. We have four sessions that are twelve weeks each. We usually have approximately ten people to apply for each session and it gets narrowed down from there. We have had five full sessions, but we try and keep it small because we are not really interested in quantity as much as quality. We strive to give our interns a really good program. One thing Will told me before I started the program was that he didn’t want interns overlapping in departments with each other. We have ten areas for them to spend a week in each area.” Laura stated that in order to prevent them from overlapping each other, five has been the magical number of interns to have at each session. “This summer has had our biggest response yet. I’ve got approximately twenty applicants! I hope more and more people will take advantage of an opportunity like this. Several interns came through our program and told me that they learned more in the twelve weeks they were here than the entire four years spent in college. That needs to be shared. I love the fact that they get to see a different way first-hand, and get to be immersed in it rather than seeing it in a text book or on a slide. It’s quite different. Most of us have to have our hands in it to understand it. I discovered through our own employees that 92% of us are visual learners.” Laura attended an internship and career fair at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, where she was placed at the end of the hallway, off the beaten path. “I didn’t think we would get any traffic, but we did, and those students were like ‘this is unlike anything else we are being taught’. They are mostly taught chemicals and row crops and bigger, faster- the commodity and commercial models. But the students that I met seemed genuinely interested in the way we do it and the many long-term benefits. I like to think that we may change the minds of students who have had four years of doing it the other way, which is so detrimental to the environment. Will they think something different if they see something different? I think they probably will.
“ABAC has asked me to do a presentation on the dynamics of businesses like this in rural areas. Since I have been at White Oak Pastures, the economic and social changes because of this business: the expansion into town, the amount of jobs, the before and after pictures, is incredible. I know a little about the plans for the future, what we plan to build and include, and I know that we are going to do all of it. It’s just a matter of timing and financing.
Having managed five to ten employees in previous jobs means managing people on this level is something new for Laura. Laura states, “The biggest challenge is keeping up-to-date on compliance issues because things are always changing. We are progressing into a time where so many things are more acceptable than they have ever been, but then there are so many things that are unacceptable now, where they have been tolerated in the past. The balance is completely changing in the workforce. You used to be able to joke around with people, but you have to be more careful about how you deal with people now. So much can be misconstrued and blown out of proportion. There is a fine line on how you treat people. There are reprimands and terminations and a lot more is involved than I could have ever imagined.
Another challenge is keeping Human Resources progressive, preventing stagnancy, and continuing to build employee education and appreciation programs. That is really important to me. Implementing activities and projects that include everybody. Finding the time to design endeavors that are effective is challenging. So far, I’ve had nothing but good responses from all the stuff I have done, such as focus groups and team-building sessions, but I can’t stop there. I created this program and I know that it has to continue to progress and that is challenging. I propose things and then Will is like ‘It sounds good to me. Run with it’.”
Laura is happy here at White Oak Pastures and the possibilities for the Human Resource department appear to be endless. She stated that she has no desire to go anywhere else. “I’d like to see all the different projects as they unfold. Like, right now I'm working to get licensure for a daycare center and we’re going to develop employee housing in downtown Bluffton at some point. I’ll be managing those properties. I want to watch this place evolve. I had joined the “clean eating movement” long before I had even considered coming here. I’ve known about it a long time, but when I first got here, it seemed like there was a real boom and it was reaching more and more people. I wondered if it would just be a new fad and fizzle out, but I don’t feel that way anymore. I think that we are all making better decisions, collectively. I can only see White Oak Pastures growing, becoming more popular, having more visitors, and being more than it is right now. Just to see this community come back to life will be enough for me. Just to see it can happen in small town America. There is something about driving the back roads and seeing a town like this and everything is dead. It kinda gives you hope because that’s how Bluffton was. It is one drop in the bucket but it starts the ball rolling. It can be any small town anywhere. In my small town of Shellman, we have boutiques and people are adding “this” and “that”, and we’re growing. The cities are so overpopulated, people can not continue to thrive there. These small towns have to be appealing for people to come here. People with these crazy, extraordinary degrees who have done some amazing things their entire career, start thinking ‘You know what? That’s not very fulfilling. I want to come learn how to farm.’ Then I’m like ‘you know, I didn’t miss out on a lot because I didn’t get a master’s degree.’ It kinda puts things into a completely different perspective, and I can appreciate that.
I have never had a job that I felt so connected to on so many different levels until now. I’m happy. I’m legitimately happy coming to work. I don’t feel the burden of coming to work like I have in the past. It’s nice to enjoy what you do. It’s nice to enjoy who you do it with. People here move around. If they aren’t thriving and excelling in one area, managers find their assets and strengths and build on that. I wish that more people had more opportunities like this, which is why I promote our employee internship program. I want our employees to know and experience everything. Our employees can transfer to a different department for a week and try it out and see if they like it. When I do orientations, I do an on-boarding questionnaire to create a success profile for every employee that comes here. I think it’s really important to know if somebody is taking a job because they have no other choice, but are interested in another area. I’ll have an employee who spends a week in a department that she thought she was really interested in, say, ‘You know what? I’m not really interested in that, as a matter of fact.’ They look out for us that way and we should be doing the same thing. If you’re not happy doing something, you’re not going to be productive. Like I tell everyone, we spend half of our waking hours working. It’s really important that we at least appreciate what we do. Like it? That’s wonderful, but you have to appreciate it and feel proud of it. I’m working on getting people in the place where they wanna be, however that happens. Instead of having people come and fail, who maybe are not failures, but fail at something because they desire to be doing something else, why not give them the chance to find what they like and are good at? Hopefully, we can figure that out and get them there. It’s amazing when that change happens. I didn’t know that it would happen for me, and I would have been ok either way, but now I’m able to focus on things that I never thought I would have been good at, but I am. The emotional side of what I do just kinda comes naturally to me. I can get groups of people together and talk about things and get information from them in ways they enjoy. Who knew? It took a little while to work it out in my head, but it can only get better. Everyday, it’s awesome leaving work, knowing it’s going to be even better tomorrow. I have absolutely no complaints, except sometimes I wish there was another one of “me,” but who doesn’t? I feel like everybody is in a good spot right now. We have a lot of strong people in the right places.
When Laura is not at White Oak Pastures, she can be found with her six-year-old sidekick, Sydney Caroline Rouse, who sounds a lot like her mama! “Her middle name, Caroline, comes from one of my favorite Old Crow Medicine Show songs, and her daddy picked her first name. Basically, she is the best kid ever. She was born in Brunswick, GA and I stayed home with her for the first year of her life. I will always be incredibly grateful for that time with her. Her first word was actually “mama” and I almost died. She’s always spoken in sentences and used big words in the appropriate context. She did things early like walk and talk at nine months old. She is attending kindergarten at Pataula Charter Academy in Edison, GA, and loves it! Her teachers comment on how smart and mature she is for her age. She is very determined and knows what she wants. She is also very creative and has the natural ability to draw and create. Right now, she is intent on learning how to read and write in cursive, which is awesome since a lot of schools no longer teach that. Her two favorite loves are horses and dancing. She has her own awesome dance style that makes me want to keep her out of studios though, where she might be told she is doing it wrong. If it were up to her, she would probably be dancing on a horse’s back all day long. Who knows, maybe she will be the next Charlotte Dujardin or Stacy Westfall...or maybe she will join the circus!”