A Family Affair

At Harris Heritage Growers, three sisters are growing a cornucopia of produce that’s yours for the picking. 

July 1, 2014

Issue 7: July/August 2014Meet Your Farmer
Baby chicks at Harris Heritage Growers.

Baby chicks at Harris Heritage Growers.

Some siblings are close. Others can scarcely make it through a dinner together without renewing old rivalries. Some move across country from each other and simply grow apart. But very few start farms together.

In 2012, that’s precisely what sisters Denise Purvis, Mary McKay, and Susan Quiroga (all neé Harris) decided to do.

To get to the farm, located just north of Sonoita, you take a scenic and winding drive down Sonoita Highway, keeping your eyes peeled for a green and white sign that says “Harris Heritage Growers: Growing Roots in Arizona Since 1872. Pick It Yourself Family Farm.”

The sign doesn’t lie. This farm is the epitome of a family affair. After planting tomato seedlings all morning, the family—which on this particular day included the three sisters, two of their husbands, and three teenagers—relaxed under the awning of Purvis’s rouge adobe ranch house. Purvis’s husband, Gordon, said, “Welcome to our dream.”

Indeed, it was pretty dreamy. Robust rose bushes covered in pink and orange blossoms wrapped around the house’s edge. Horses whinnied in the distance. Two cows stood stoically in their pen, chickens and ducks clucked, a throng of goats cavorted around, and two chubby sheep peered out behind thick blankets of dreadlocked white wool. The whole farm lies in a little valley with a ring of mountains nearly surrounding it.

The Kissing Tree at Harris Heritage Growers.

The Kissing Tree at Harris Heritage Growers.

The farm spans 20 acres, with about 1.5 acres dedicated to growing vegetables—an area that’s expanding by the year. In late May, it was planting time, but a few crops were already thriving. Epic bushes of artichokes grew lush and green and brimming with beautiful globes. Apple trees had begun to sprout tiny fruits. And this was only the beginning of the season. In July, the farm will brim with heirloom tomatoes, squash, okra, eggplant, zucchini, chiles, corn, rhubarb, Tohono O’odham melons, and more. “We like variety,” Purvis says. “If it can be grown, we’ll grow it.”

In addition to vegetables, the sisters tend a young orchard of apple, pear, peach, plum, and pomegranate trees. They have blackberries and blueberries that will be ready to pick in July, as well as table grapes like Concord, Thompson Seedless, and Red Flame. “We’re in wine country—grapes love this climate,” says Quiroga.

McKay, the youngest sister, starts the seeds in her greenhouse in nearby Patagonia. A recent graduate from the University of Arizona with a degree in sustainable plant systems, McKay is pursuing a master’s degree in landscape architecture. Quiroga, the eldest, works full-time as a nurse but finds time to help out around the farm. “We hope to promote healthy eating,” she says. “Because this is a rural area and a food desert, we want to offer people fresh foods as an alternative to processed junk. Mini-markets are all that’s out here.”

The sisters are fifth generation Arizona farmers, and now their kids are a sixth generation.

Purvis is the full-time farmer—she and her husband already owned the land before they started the farm—although she also paints murals in her spare time. “My dream is to become a certified raw-milk purveyor,” she says. “It’s legal in Arizona but you’ve got to have a cooking tank and a labeler. I’d like to make butter, cheese, cream, and ice cream.”

The Harris sisters had spent their childhood growing vegetables and tending orchards in Baja Arizona. When they got older, they loved taking their own families to U-Picks, like Apple Annie’s in Willcox. Then one day in 2012, McKay called up Purvis and said, “You’ve got the land and water, and you’re right off the highway. We should start a U-Pick.” Though they don’t intend to reach the scale of Apple Annie’s, which spans 125 acres, the Harris sisters follow roughly the same model: People come out and pick whatever they like, then take it to a scale, weigh it, and pay for it. Poundage fees vary by item, but in general, their prices are lower than a supermarket’s because there’s no middleman.

Tending grapes at Harris Heritage Growers.

Tending grapes at Harris Heritage Growers.

Though some people might be daunted by the prospect of starting a farm from scratch, the Harris girls grew up with gardening as their daily chore and dirt underneath their fingernails as a fact of life. “Our daddy always had a big garden,” Purvis says. For a time, their father worked for UA Cooperative Extension in Santa Cruz County. Later, the family lived on the White Mountain Apache reservation where their father worked planting orchards and building greenhouses. The sisters are fifth generation Arizona farmers, and now their kids are a sixth generation.

“The whole family helps out, the 19 of us all together,” Purvis says. It takes a village to run the farm, particularly during the annual fall festivals that have now become a tradition. The main event is a smoked brisket dinner with “all the fixin’s”—made from farm-fresh vegetables, naturally. They have hay rides, local food and wine vendors, a squash catapult, pumpkin painting and carving contests, live music, homemade pies, and of course, U-Pick.

This idyllic scene is enviable, but does this all work out financially? The Harris sisters report that starting their farm was a trial-and-error process. Their first summer, they grew far too much produce, and ended up with more than they could sell. The second year, as restaurants, locals, and Tucsonans started to learn about them, they experienced much more demand than they could fulfill. This year, they hope to grow just the right amount, but they are flexible about making changes along the way. Purvis says that customers can even request to have a certain crop grown especially for them.

Animals are as much a part of the farm as produce. Elizabeth McKay is known as the family “cow whisperer.” Photo by Jeff Smith.

Animals are as much a part of the farm as produce. Elizabeth McKay is known as the family “cow whisperer.”

To round out their offerings, Harris Farm also sells eggs, white and whole-wheat sandwich breads, pies, and whole chickens. They are certified food vendors, and raise and slaughter their chickens humanely. Purvis says they sell out of chickens faster than she can produce them, so they’ve started a waiting list. They also sell quite a bit of produce, as well as eggs and poultry, to local restaurants. Overland Trout, the acclaimed gourmet eatery in Sonoita, serves their chicken, duck, and vegetables. Pizzeria Mimosa in Hereford buys chickens as well.

Aided by McKay’s knowledge of sustainable agriculture, the Harris sisters also seek to be good land stewards. They don’t use any pesticides, although the farm is not certified organic because of the high costs required to get the label. They use their own manure and compost to fertilize. They rotate crops and plant nitrogen-rich cover crops like clover to keep the soil nutrient-rich. Slow drip irrigation with rain sensors ensures the most efficient application of water.

For the most part, Harris Farm uses heirloom and GMO-free seeds. They say some people are surprised when they go to pick corn and the cobs are much daintier than what you might find in a supermarket. But they are also tastier and healthier, the sisters say.

“We like variety,” Purvis says. “If it can be grown, we’ll grow it.”

Before I left, McKay’s teenage daughter, Elizabeth, and her young daughter, Sydney, took me over to show off their beloved animals. Elizabeth, whom the family calls “the cow whisperer,” ducked through a gap in the fence to pet the gigantic animals—Canela, a beef cow that McKay and her children bottle-fed from birth, and Lexi, a Jersey dairy cow that “doesn’t know she’s a cow—she likes to cuddle and lick,” said Purvis.

Over in the spacious chicken and duck pens, Sydney and Elizabeth each picked up a squirmy bird to show me. Sydney asked her aunt if she could have one to show at 4-H competition. “Of course you can, pick one out,” Purvis replied. Sydney ran off and began studiously perusing the animals to make her choice.

Harris Heritage Growers. 27811 S. Sonoita Highway. Open Wednesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., June through October. Facebook.com/HarrisHeritageGrowers.

Molly Kincaid is a Tucsonan who is obsessed with tinkering in the kitchen and reading cookbooks. Her favorite foods are, paradoxically, kale and pork belly.

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