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 Robert 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,” Robert 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.”
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.
This is the ninth installment of the 2013 edition of My Farm Roots, Harvest Public Media’s series chronicling Americans’ connection to the land. You can listen to more stories from the series on the Harvest Public Media website.