at a Glance
Alvin and Shirley Harris
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 right choice.
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
beyond 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 constant activity.
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 produce
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
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 the world.”
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
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
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
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 stand.
Alvin feels that there is great potential for other families near
urban markets to make a living operating small organic farms.
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
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 residues.
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
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 production component.
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,
“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 operation.
“I’m very proud we’ve gotten to this point,”
Alvin says. “I don’t see a lot of need for changes in