SARE Southern: Alvin & Shirley Harris, Harris Farms
Farm Small, Market Small, Win Big

By Keith Richards

Farm at a Glance

Alvin and Shirley Harris
Harris Farms
Millington, Tennessee

Summary of Operation
Organic vegetables, melons and field peas on 18 acres
Four acres of blueberries
On-farm produce stand

Problems Addressed
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.

Alternative marketing 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.

Excerpted from:

The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation

By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program
© 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

Just 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 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 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 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 stand.

Alvin feels that there is great potential for other families near urban markets to make a living operating small organic farms.

Environmental Benefits
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 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 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 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, too.”

Transition Advice
“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.

The Future
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 the future.”