Alvin and Shirley
Summary of Operation
• Organic vegetables, melons
and field peas on 18 acres
• Four acres of blueberries
On-farm produce stand
Aversion to agri-chemicals.
When Alvin and Shirley Harris decided to
quit using petroleum-based chemicals on their
small family farm 21 years ago, information on
alternative methods was hard to find. Alvin slowly
worked out a system for building soil health with
rotations, composting, cover crops and green manures.
After seeing the rewards of better soil fertility
and healthy crops, Alvin knew he had made the
to boost profits. Besides developing
a system of production that is healthier for the
environment, Alvin and Shirley also have developed
a loyal base of customers by selling their freshly
picked produce at a stand in their front yard.
This combination of organic production and on-farm
retail sales has helped sustain their farm for
the past 20 years.
The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural
By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission.
Pp. 94 to 96
For complete text or to order: www.sare.org/newfarmer
To contact SARE:
Phone (301) 504-6425
Fax (301) 504-5207
Small, Win Big: Alvin and Shirley Harris
sell their produce at a stand in their front yard.
the northern suburbs of Memphis — amid fields of cotton
and soybeans, forested creeks and new housing developments
— lies the small family farm owned by Alvin and Shirley
Harris. From the quiet road out front, Harris Farms looks
like a sleepy, semi-tropical estate with banana plants, elephant
ears and beds of flowers flourishing under a giant oak and
native pecan trees. But up close, the farm is buzzing with
Alvin was born near this piece of property when his grandfather
owned it in 1934. Although he left for a 20-year career in
the military, he and Shirley came back to the area in 1971.
They bought three acres at first, then another five, four
more, then another 12. Now they own 24 acres, 18 of which
are laid out in bedded rows behind their produce stand, with
four more in blueberries.
Perhaps the linchpin to their operation is Alvin’s attitude
— he farms because that is what he loves.
Focal Point of Operation —
Producing and marketing organic
From June through October, the Harrises sell fruit, vegetables,
and a few value-added products like jellies and preserves
from a produce stand next to their house. They’ve built
a loyal base of customers who travel from as far as southeast
Memphis to buy blueberries, tomatoes, peppers, squash, okra,
cucumbers, sweet corn, watermelon, cantaloupes and all kinds
of other freshly picked produce.
Even though they own one of the few farms in western Tennessee
to be certified organic, Alvin says most of their customers
aren’t even aware of that. They buy from the Harrises
because they appreciate the quality of their products and
the feeling of supporting a family enterprise.
Alvin began raising produce for market while he was still
working for the military. “I farm because I love it,”
he says. “I’ve been farming all my life. Everywhere
we were stationed, I grew something and spent time with other
farmers. I brought the best of their ideas back from around
Something else that Alvin learned while in the military changed
the course of his farming practices. “I’m not
a scientist,” he says, “but when I went to chemical
school, I learned that the same petroleum-based chemicals
we put on plants are used in chemical warfare to kill people.
Even though farmers are using smaller doses, there must be
a cumulative effect.”
So, 21 years ago, Alvin and Shirley decided to quit using
petroleum-based chemicals on their farm. Alvin says it was
a long process to get their land to the point where it was
as productive without the chemicals. They couldn’t find
much information on alternative methods, so they slowly learned
by experimenting on their own.
Today, they use rotations, compost, cover crops and green
manure to build their soil and minimize pest pressures.
They start all their own plants in two greenhouses on their
property, then transplant or direct seed into tilled beds.
Alvin has settled on liquid seaweed and Agrigrow as their
main fertilizers, although he isn’t afraid to experiment
with other products. They recently bought a load of ground
seashells to try as a soil supplement. They cultivate by tractor
within an inch or two of the plants, then hoe rows by hand.
To combat pests, they have tried natural insecticides made
from garlic or Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).
Recently, Alvin has been adding permanent trellises to many
of their beds. Made with hog wire with 6”x11-1/2”
spacing strung about a foot off the ground, the trellises
give them the freedom to plant crops that need support —
like beans and tomatoes — almost anywhere on the farm
with a minimum of labor.
Alvin and Shirley do 90 percent of the farm work themselves,
even though Shirley works full time in a public school. The
Harrises sometimes hire young people to harvest blueberries
and other crops, although Alvin says good labor is difficult
to find. They continue to look for ways to mechanize with
appropriate technology as they grow older.
While profitable, blueberries are their most labor-intensive
crop. Alvin prunes the bushes each winter to clean out dead
wood and increase the productivity of the newer growth. During
the growing season, he mows between the rows with a tractor-driven
rotary mower, and uses a hand-held weeder with a blade to
cut the grass underneath the plants.
Most of the four acres are planted in “tift blue,”
a rabbit-eye variety native to Georgia that bears from June
until September in a good year. They also have one row of
earlier-ripening high bush blueberries as a teaser for their
customers. Some berries are sold as U-pick, but most are harvested,
sorted and packed by hand, then sold at their stand or wholesaled
to Wild Oats — a natural foods grocery chain with a
store in Memphis.
Economics and Profitability
By keeping input costs down and selling 95 percent of their
crop at retail prices through their farm stand, Alvin says
this type of farming is definitely profitable. Consistently,
blueberries are their biggest money-maker, fetching $4 per
quart at the farm stand and $3.50 a quart at Wild Oats. (By
contrast, selling conventionally grown blueberries to wholesalers
might not even gross $2.50 per quart.)
They occasionally market their produce at Memphis area farmers
markets or sell a few other items to Wild Oats, but Alvin
estimates 95 percent of their sales are through their on-farm
Alvin feels that there is great potential for other families
near urban markets to make a living operating small organic
Rotations, compost, cover crops and green manure crops form
the foundation for building soil health and fertility. Having
the luxury of 18 acres of beds, all terraced and serviced
by drip irrigation, allows them to easily rotate annual crops
around the farm to break pest, disease and weed cycles. They
can take beds out of production for a full season or more
to renew the soil.
Alvin sows field peas — purple hull, black crowder or
zipper cream peas — throughout the season in many of
the fallow beds. If the peas make a crop, they are harvested
and sold to the Harris’ large base of appreciative customers.
If the peas don’t produce well, they are tilled under
for green manure.
Alvin and Shirley build a huge pile of compost every year
with unsold produce and vegetative residue, and spread it
on selective beds during the following season. In the fall,
Alvin sows most of the beds in hairy vetch and crimson clover
for a winter cover that fixes nitrogen and saves the soil.
Then he tills it under a few weeks before planting in the
spring. He also undersows some crops with lespedeza.
All of their investment in soil fertility has apparently paid
off. “There wasn’t an earthworm on this ground
when I bought it,” Alvin says. Now the soil is flourishing
with earthworms and micro-organisms, making farming much easier.
Additionally, no chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used
on the farm, so their water, soil and air are free of chemical
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
Alvin and Shirley have been leaders in the sustainable agriculture
community of western Tennessee, and enjoy the opportunity
to share their expertise with others. Shirley is an assistant
principal at a nearby public school, where she integrates
the concepts of sustainable farming into lessons whenever
possible. Shirley also serves on the administrative council
for the Southern Region SARE program and the steering committee
for the national Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN).
Alvin formerly served on the board of the Tennessee Land Stewardship
Association and has spoken at several workshops and field
days. Recently, Tennessee State University asked him to serve
as an adviser to a new experiment farm that will have an organic
Having the stand open every Tuesday through Saturday for nearly
six months of the year adds a big commitment to their farm
operation. This past year, their grandchildren helped Shirley
run the stand. Yet, the Harrises enjoy the constant contact
with friends and neighbors that their farm stand brings.
“It feels good to know that we are supplying people
with fresh produce picked either the day they bought it or
the day before,” Alvin says. “I think people enjoy
seeing how it is grown, too.”
“Don’t be afraid to try,” is Alvin’s
first advice to others who are considering organic production.
“And,” he says, “if you’re told it
can’t be done by others, don’t let it stop you.”
It takes real dedication to overcome some of the negativity
from people who dismiss small organic farms. Alvin stresses,
“You have to believe in what you are doing.”
Alvin’s second word of advice is: “Don’t
be afraid to ask questions.” If you are afraid of looking
dumb by asking a question, not asking will ensure that you
stay ignorant, he says.
Alvin and Shirley have created a nice niche in the world of
farming. Shirley may retire from teaching someday soon, but
they don’t anticipate making many changes in their farming
“I’m very proud we’ve gotten to this point,”
Alvin says. “I don’t see a lot of need for changes
in the future.”
--Photograph by Keith Richards