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For the Love of Farming
Alvin Harris
Alvin Harris
Photo by T.L. Gettings, Rodale Images.
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Compost, cover crops, rotations and green manures build healthy
soil on this Tennessee producer farm.

by Keith Richards

MILLINGTON, Tenn. -- Just beyond the northern suburbs of Memphis -- amid fields of cotton and soybeans, forested creeks and new housing developments -- lies a 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 the giant oak and native pecan trees. But up close, the farm is buzzing with constant activity.

From June through October the Harrises sell fruit, vegetables, and a few value-added products like herbed vinegars 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 are one of the few farms in western Tennessee to be certified organic, Alvin says most of their customers aren’t even aware of that fact. They buy from the Harrises because they appreciate the quality of their products and the feeling of supporting a family enterprise.

'I Farm Because I Love It'

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 twelve. Now they own 24 acres, 18 of which are laid out in bedded rows behind their produce stand, with four more acres in blueberries.

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 service 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 18 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.

Rotations, Compost, Cover Crops and Green Manure

Rotations, compost, cover crops and green manure crops form their 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 also 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 Harrises’ large base of appreciative customers. If the peas don’t make, they are tilled under for green manure.

Alvin and Shirley build a huge pile of compost every year with the unsold produce and vegetative trash, and spread it on selective beds during the following season. In the fall, Alvin sows most of the beds to 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 this 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.

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 experiement with other products. They recently bought a load of ground sea shells to try as a soil supplement. Cultivation is done by tractor within an inch or two of the plants, then rows are hoed by hand. Natural insecticides made from garlic or Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) are used when needed.

Lately Alvin has been adding permanent trellises to many of their beds. Using hog wire with 6” x 11-1/2” 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.

Blueberries are the Moneymaker

Alvin and Shirley do 90 percent of the farm work themselves. Shirley also teaches school where she integrates the concepts of sustainable farming into her lessons whenever possible. The Harrises hire young people to harvest blueberries and other crops sometimes, although Alvin says good labor is almost nonexistent. So they are looking for ways to mechanize with appropriate technology as they grow older.

According to Alvin, the blueberries are their biggest moneymaker and also their most labor-intensive crop. He 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 weed-eater with a blade to cut the grass underneath the plants.

Most of the four acres are planted to Tift Blue, a rabbit-eye variety 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 the Harrises sell them at their stand or wholesell them to Wild Oats -- a natural foods grocery chain with two stores in Memphis.

They occasionally market their produce at Memphis area farmers’ markets or sell a few other items to Wild Oats. But Alvin estimates 90 percent of their sales are through their on-farm stand. Having the stand open every Tuesday through Saturday for nearly six months of the year adds a big commitment to their farm operation, yet they obviously love the work and the many interactions with their long-time customers.

Keith Richards (ssfarm@juno.com) is the editor of Southern Sustainable Farming, the newsletter of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group. The Harris Farm will be one of the featured stops on the small farm tour at the Southern SAWG Annual Conference on January 25 1998. Contact Richards for more information.

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