The recent death of Harris Barnes brought back some fond memories of the legendary farm editor. A story by Hembree Brandon, which appeared in a recent issue of all the Farm Press magazines, chronicled Barnes' career at Farm Press and since. The story has generated comments to me from growers across the Southeast.
Not only was Barnes a prolific writer and photographer, he was the ultimate ‘people person’, and it seems he knew every farmer who has ever farmed from Florida to Virginia. Most every conversation with farmers these days starts out with — “I was sorry to read about Harris Barnes' death — I remember when he.” The stories all center around pictures and correspondence.
My Harris Barnes story is a little different. It has to do more with the man than with the profession he practiced for nearly 70 years. Maybe the two are intricately intertwined — I didn't know Harris so well, but one meeting sticks out in my mind as one of the guiding lights of my now fairly long career in ag journalism.
In the mid-1970s Harris came to the Southeast to start Southeast Farm Press. At the time I was a highly insignificant news editor in the College of Agriculture at Auburn University. I had met Harris a couple of times as he visited our office to help line up sources for stories and freelance writers for Farm Press.
Late in the summer of 1975 or 1976, I'm not quite sure of the year, I was covering a peanut field day at Auburn's Wiregrass Research Station in southeast Alabama. Harris was likewise covering the meeting for Farm Press.
Prior to the start of the meeting, Harris and I were among a group of people in the office of the superintendent of the research facility. The superintendent was in a rather tedious conversation with a young man who looked somewhat out of place, with his saddle oxfords, new straw hat and polyester trousers.
The young man represented a well-known New York-based PR firm and had been sent to Alabama to take a series of pictures on peanut production. His insistence on getting all his pictures lined up despite the upcoming field day, which at that time attracted 300-400 people, had worn thin with the superintendent, who it seems was much more adept at giving than taking orders.
Finally, all but one of the aggressive young man's demands had been met. He had to have a picture of peanuts pegging. The superintendent, straight-faced, said, “we don't have peanuts pegged right now, but you can take these pegging pins and cord out to one of those plots and peg your own.”
For those who may not know, peanut pegging has nothing to do with the plot markers and twine that were given to the young man from New York. He was about to make a fool of himself and to be exposed for what he was — a young man who knew nothing about agriculture, but who had been sent to do a job in an environment about which he knew absolutely nothing.
The audience for his lack of competence was to be the 300 or so farmers and researchers who would have been walking all around him as he sat there in a peanut field “pegging” peanuts. The laugh would have surely been a good one and the embarrassment for the young man from New York would surely have been severe.
As the young man headed out the office, enthusiastically setting out to complete his photo assignment, I noticed Harris Barnes, who had over-heard the conversation, follow him out toward the peanut fields.
I couldn't hear the conversation, but clearly Harris had told him he was about to make a fool of himself and both returned to the office. Later I asked Harris what he had told the young man. He replied that he had explained to him how peanuts grow and that the superintendent was a little on edge by the big crowd at the field day, and had been a little out of line in sending the young man out to make a fool of himself.
Then Harris said, “the boy's got a lot to learn, if he's going to make it in this business, but being laughed at isn't the right way to learn.” That boy went on to be a vice-president of one of the country's largest PR firms. In his later years, I'm sure he gave Harris some nice free-lance assignments.
That's what I remember about Harris Barnes — being nice. In this business, like most, being nice always pays off in the long run.