As a child, Robert Harris Jr. worked the cotton fields of southeastern Missouri’s bootheel. Like many sharecroppers’ children, he fled that life. Now, four decades later, the harvest is calling him again, this time to grow food for the needy in a bunch of community gardens in Cape Girardeau, Mo.
I met with Harris in a garden just outside a food pantry that distributes his produce. We poked through the lush patch of vegetables, full of plump yellow squash and green cucumbers. Soft-spoken and humble, Harris said he had a connection to plants from an early age.
“I grew up chopping cotton and picking cotton and all those things,” Harris said. “We also had gardens because we had to raise a lot of the food that we had to eat. So I grew up gardening.”
Harris was born in what he calls “a sharecropper’s shack” on the edge of a cotton field near New Madrid, Mo. He started to work in the fields at an early age. It was hard work, especially for a child, and Robert said he had to grow up fast. Throughout his childhood, Robert was surrounded by hunger, and his mind can’t escape the faces of old sharecroppers working the fields.
“I’ve seen people who have worked all their lives and they died with nothing and they died really hungry,” Harris said. “That haunts me to this day to see 65-, 70-year-old people out there in the field, they’re chopping and working and trying to make a day in the field.”
His father moved the family north to Cape Girardeau when Harris was a teenager. He eventually settled into a job as a bus driver for the public school district, but his real passion is plants.
“What I like about gardening is watching everything start from the seed when this was just a bare spot of ground, and now it is what it is now and knowing that this (food) right here is going to go across to this building next to us,” Harris said, pointing to the nearby food pantry. “I just love the harvest of it all.”
Harris is now a master gardener and volunteers his time in seven community gardens that help feed many of those same former sharecroppers he knew as a child. His produce goes to the elderly who can’t leave their homes, or to those who need a little extra to eat.
“I’ve always seen these people go home with not enough,” Harris said. “Some of them, what little they had to eat was all they had. I couldn’t change things then, and I can do a little bit now. That’s what drives me.”
Harris knows the feeling of being down and having to pull one’s self back up. Five year ago, he was diagnosed with what was originally diagnosed as terminal cancer. The treatment diminished his physical strength and he had to give up gardening. Now that he’s back in the field, he says his fight with cancer underlines why helping others is so important.
“Sickness and death and things can be so big that you need help,” Harris said. “When you see that you have a chance again at life, you need to use every day in the best way that you can.”
This is the ninth installment of the 2013 edition of My Farm Roots, Harvest Public Media’s series chronicling Americans’ connection to the land. Click here to explore more My Farm Roots stories and to share your own.