Tom Harris: an innovator or a mad scientist?
The first time you meet Tom Harris, he just seems like your average farmer — a down-to-earth, seasoned veteran of up times and down, and always on the lookout to improve his results.
On his 500-acre farm outside of Roanoke Rapids, N.C., he grows peanuts, soybeans, corn and wheat. He also manages 100 head of Angus beef cattle.
• Soil conservation techniques produce a third more in yields.
• Halifax County’s percentage of strip-till acres is highest in state.
• Grower says innovations will come from doing more with less.
You may not realize that Harris has been on the cutting edge of no-till farming, that he owns a U.S. patent on a strip tiller and that he has turned a plot of land outside his modest farmhouse into a laboratory. He experiments with combining all types of plants, seeds, soil and other factors to create his own varieties and strategies with remarkable results.
“Most of the time, the yield on peanuts is 2,000 to 2,300 pounds per acre,” says Will Mann of the Fishing Creek Soil and Water Conservation District. “Mr. Harris is yielding 3,000 pounds or more.”
Harris attributes his success to managing the land, and is a staunch believer in no-till or strip tilling as well as rotational grazing. “Mr. Harris has livestock and row crops on the same farm, the way it was meant to be,” Mann says.
He’s been growing peanuts for over 50 years and says he’s learned a lot of valuable lessons over that time, including the importance of signal flags such as earthworm presence. “I used to combine for everybody around,” Harris says.
“When I’d find ‘good stuff,’ I’d get off the combine and dig in the ground. I’d find fishing worms in the ‘good stuff.’ When you’ve got fishing worms, there are more nutrients in the land. They make it better. I started putting cover [crops] on everything I had. People thought I was crazy as a bedbug.”
Harris used rye as his cover in the early days before switching to wheat, partially because wheat is easier to cut.
“Stuff started growing better behind it [cover],” he says. “It takes a while for the land to compost, usually one to two years to start; then it speeds up [over time]. Peanuts go back to dirt. I don’t want to grow anything that doesn’t go back to dirt — it’s not good for the land. This can be applied to all crops.”
Over time, Harris has even seen the size of his peanuts grow to where 4-inch-plus shells are not unusual.
Strip till is key
“Percentage-wise, Halifax [County] has more strip-tillage acreage of everything but tobacco,” Mann says. “The farmland here is 85% conservation tilled. It is mostly strip tilled because of hardpan. You need a subsoiler to break that up.”
Harris designed and built such a machine years ago. He started work on it in the early ’90s, and without trying to push it, has sold five of them. It is touted for minimum soil disruption, while preparing a good planting bed. Such practice has let Harris move from well over 200 acres at his peak to about 35 acres of goobers now.
“I’m 71 years old, I’ve got 12 stents in me and I’ve had a heart attack,” he says, citing the reasons for his scaling back. “There’s no one working the farm but me, and I can’t run the equipment as much as I used to. ”Harris says it is not a game of acreage numbers, but rather how you work it.
“My daddy used to say that if you couldn’t make it on 200 acres, then farm 100,” he says. “Changes will come from people who farm a few acres, not the huge operations.”
The family farm hasn’t always been such a productive place. Harris says his father not only farmed, but was a deputy sheriff, and worked a sawmill to raise his family. The land was in poor condition when he worked it. “It wouldn’t grow anything,” he says. “Daddy went to the stockyards to find out what it took to make things grow.”
One look at the size of pods on his soybeans will bear Harris out. The first impression is how dark green the plants are, then the number of beans per plant.
“A typical yield on soybeans might be 30 to 35 bushels per acre,” Mann says. “Mr. Harris is probably going to make 100 bushels per acre. He’s got about 80 pods per plant.”
Public varieties score
On corn and wheat, Harris has chosen to go with old public varieties. His corn is one of the oldest open-pollinated varieties on the market, Tom Reid, which was first developed in 1840 in Illinois.
It is valued for its high protein content for livestock feed — 12% versus a typical 4% to 5% on many varieties — and it grows to a height of 10 to 12 feet. Mann says that the stalks make excellent feed.
“There is less lignin, and cattle can better digest it,” he says. “The typical yield on Reid is 80 to 90 bushels, but it becomes bushels versus quality, and no new variety matches up.”
Harris’ philosophies on farming and soil management may sound a lot like those promoted by the “new” niche trend of organic farming, but he is not an organic grower. He does promote healthy practices and common sense when deciding what to do with his most valuable asset.
“Turning the good upside down is wrong. When you go against nature, you are going to drop the ball,” Harris says.
“ ... You see too many people you know who are doing what they do on the farms for this year, and not even thinking about next year. Some even have the notion that ‘I raised it, but I don’t eat it.’ We’ve got to stay healthy, and we’ve got to do something about it. We can’t be brain-dead on something like this.”
Brantley writes from Nash County, N.C.
This article published in the January, 2010 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.