“He still does nearly everything himself. He drives the tractor for planting, does the spraying, and keeps check on the crop through the season. He’s a superb mechanic — there’s nothing he can’t fix."
The pea soup fog that began this mid-March morning finally dissipated midday, giving way to bright sunshine, blue skies, and near-80 temps; now W. L. “Junior” Harris has finished his daily lunch with his coterie of wisecracking friends at their special table at the Grenada, Miss., Western Sizzlin’ restaurant and, after howdying another half-dozen or so friends and acquaintances on the way out, allows as how he’ll head back to the farm, change the oil in a tractor, and take care of some other chores.
At soon-to-be 86 years old, one could expect he’d be ready for a post-noon nap — instead, he’s getting everything ready to begin planting soybeans when May 1 rolls around.
“He still does nearly everything himself,” says his son, Bob Harris. “He drives the tractor for planting, does the spraying, and keeps check on the crop through the season. He’s a superb mechanic — there’s nothing he can’t fix — and he does the repairs and maintenance on the tractors and equipment. He can drive anything with wheels or tracks.”
Bob, who farmed with his father for almost 20 years before joining Ducks Unlimited in 1991, now working as regional biologist for Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky, laughs: “I’m 59 years old, have a degree in ag economics, and about the only things Daddy will let me do are load the planter and go get lunch. He does have somebody else come in and harvest the beans for him.”
Junior, whose wife died 18 years ago, continues living in the first house he built decades ago on the land near Holcomb, Miss., that has seen five generations of Harrises. His daughter, Jeanette Selby, lives just across the road, Bob’s house is just up the hill, and a sister-in-law is a bit farther along the same road.
“Farming is something I enjoy,” says Junior. “There have been some difficult times and some disappointments and scars, but I’m blessed with how things have turned out. I don’t know of anything I’d rather have done.”
Battle of Bulge
In his mid-20s, he started the farming life that would continue another four decades. As a 19-year-old soldier, thousands of miles from home and family, he’d endured the horrors and privations of World War II in Europe. A mortar man on the front lines, he survived the Battle of the Bulge, which claimed thousands of American lives, and another major, deadly battle.
From a shelf, he takes a framed photo of himself — a young, lanky, smiling GI against a backdrop of snowy forest. “We slept in trenches, with two feet of snow on the ground and temperatures 15 below zero. I’d never imagined such conditions. I’d never been so cold … or so homesick.”
After the war, he came home to the land his grandfather had settled in the 1800s, just on the western edge of the hills that are the demarcation line for the flat Delta just a couple of miles farther west.
He worked for a while as a logger; then making use of his mechanical abilities, opened a garage in the small town of Holcomb, and later, for 10 years, had a Ford tractor dealership. He began buying land that had been clear cut for timber, bulldozing out the stumps, and making it suitable for farming.
“I could buy it for $20 an acre, make the improvements, and sell it for several times what I’d paid for it.”
At the same time, he was acquiring land for himself in the area, and in 1951 started farming. This will be his 58th crop year. Except for a couple of years of cotton, he stuck with soybeans and rice.
“Cotton just isn’t suited to the soils here, and it was too much trouble — I didn’t like it. Rice and beans seemed the way to go. If you grew rice and did it correctly, you could do OK. You might not make a lot of money, but you wouldn’t lose a lot either, the way you could with cotton.”
In 1972, Bob received his degree from Mississippi State University and returned home to join his father in farming. “It was an era of much optimism for agriculture. They told our graduating class, ‘Go and feed the world,’” he recalls with a somewhat rueful laugh. “Nothing turned out like they told us it would.
“For a while, times were good. Bankers would chase you down to lend you money.” The Harrises began expanding the operation, at one time farming 4,700 acres.
Then came the 1980s.
“The Carter administration’s grain embargo against Russia, a major buyer of U.S. soybeans, was a blow to us and thousands of other farmers,” Bob says. “If we think things are tough in today’s economy, we have only to recall that era of 21 percent interest rates and government policy that clobbered us at every turn.
“We had a tiger by the tail financially. We went from owing virtually nothing in the ’70s to crushing debt in the ’80s. We just couldn’t believe what was happening in agriculture. We knew how to farm and make money at it, but because of government policy and repressive rules, there was just too much against us. It was a very costly learning experience.
“A lot of good farmers went under. But with the support of family and friends, we struggled through it. Anything we could do to make money, we tried it. I farmed some for myself, some for other people.
“I’m so proud of my father — he never gave up; he was determined that we’d survive. He gradually worked through the debt and began buying land back. And through it all, he kept farming.”
There was a growing interest by people wanting large tracts of land for hunting and wildlife conservation, and Bob started buying and selling land for hunting preserves, as well as offering wildlife management services.
“This land just teems with wildlife,” he says. “Much of it is swampy thickets that provide good cover, and there are a lot of open areas that flood in the winter. One of the top five duck holes in the state is here. There are tens of thousands of acres in this area of Grenada, Tallahatchie, and Carroll counties that are devoted to large hunting clubs and wildlife management areas.
“One club near here, 1,200 acres, two partners and I put together in 1984 and demand was such that we were able to sell all the memberships within nine months.”
In 1991, Bob joined Ducks Unlimited, working with farmers to install water control structures through a government program. “That was very successful, but funding declined and costs rose significantly, and I began working with other of their programs, assisting landowners in creating waterfowl habitat.”
Much of the family’s 1,300 acres has been converted from row crops to trees — pines for nearer-term income (“We’ve still got to pay taxes on the land while the trees are growing”), and hardwoods for the longer-term. Some pine stands are now almost 20 years old, and some cutting could begin within the next two years, but, “With the housing market crisis, timber demand and prices are down,” Bob says.
Interspersed throughout the wooded areas are several acres of clover/wheat food plots for wildlife. There are turkey and deer galore, an 11.6-pound bass was caught in a pond on the place, and Bob has photos of a black bear that was roaming through the area.
They don’t lease out hunting rights on their property, but they do have a spacious, well-appointed “cabin,” Camp Luther, named for Bob’s grandfather, where family members and friends go when hunting or for holiday gatherings (he displays a photo of a huge, coiled rattlesnake that “hangs around out back and takes care of the mice”).
As the days grow longer and warmer, Junior is counting down the days to planting time. “My birthday’s April 21, and I’ll have turned 86 when I put the first soybean seed in the ground,” he says.
He will have soil-sampled the bean land and applied fertilizer based on the results of the lab tests. “After several years, these soils just need some fertilizer,” he says.
He’ll plant Asgrow Group 5 beans as near his May 1 target as possible, aiming to harvest around Oct. 1. All the acreage is dryland.
With last year’s severe drought, Bob says, “I was really afraid he was going to lose the crop. But some timely rains came along and he averaged 37 bushels, most of which we sold for $12.”
They have seven grain storage bins, built 30 years ago, with 80,000 bushels capacity. “We put up the three smaller bins when we had cows,” Bob says, “so we could store, grind, and mix our own feed. The four larger bins were for rice. They were built by K&D and are some really good structures that have lasted well.
“Daddy hated the cows, and I found out quickly we didn’t need to be in that business, so we got rid of the cows and converted the original bins for rice.
“If you grow ‘wet’ crops like corn and rice, you need storage, or you’re just paying a good chunk of your potential profit for someone else to store grain. But you have to know what you’re doing and manage the stored grain properly, or you can lose it. The bins have allowed us to harvest earlier and work on our own timetable. They were a good investment and have really been an asset over the years.”
Junior had the bins painted last year and they gleam like new. He is considering leasing out part or all of the storage this year.
Bob says his father has made provisions for the land to continue in the family beyond his lifetime. “There’s no way you could buy this kind of land today and make it pay.”
There’s always something to do on the place, he says — planting trees, keeping up equipment, doing things to support the wildlife.
“We spend days off and vacation time working here,” Bob says. “It’s something we all love to do, so we can preserve this place that has been so special for our family, and pass it on to the next generations.”