When Joe and Merlon Harper moved to the country, they had no plans to become farmers. However, once they bought their first two blueberry bushes, the seeds for Deer Creek Farm had unknowingly been planted.
“Farmers are the coolest people,” Joe Harper said. I had the same thought as I sat across from him and his wife, Merlon Bell Harper, listening to their stories of how they became farmers. For each of them, it had been a unique and circuitous path from suburban life to rural, ultimately leading them to establish Deer Creek Farm north of Covington. For Merlon, it was, in a sense, a journey home.
The youngest of nine children, Merlon was born and raised on a cotton farm in Winstonville, Mississippi. Beneath the surface of those flat, furrowed fields that make up a part of the Mississippi Delta, the roots of the Bell family tree reach deep and wide. “My father was a cotton farmer,” she said. “All his brothers, my grandfather, my great-grandfather—they were all cotton farmers.” The same land, first worked by her great-grandfather as a sharecropper, was passed down through the generations to her father and his siblings. While her dad tended the fields, her mother took care of home and garden, helping to put food on a busy table.
Memories of those early childhood days swirl around her head like buzzing mosquitoes and stick in her mind like a hot, humid summer day. “I remember my dad taking me to the cotton field as a little girl,” she said. “The cotton was higher than I was.” Eventually, Merlon and most of her siblings grew up and moved away from Winstonville, leaving behind life, as they had known it, on the farm.
Joe grew up in the Gulf Coast town of Moss Point, Mississippi, and, like Merlon, shared a home with eight siblings. Though his family did not live on a farm, he has fond memories of an older brother who plowed a garden with his mule. “I can still hear the sound of the leather when he strapped it on and him telling the mule ‘whoa’ and ‘go,’” he said. A great-grandmother with a “green thumb” who canned and preserved fruits and vegetables the old-fashioned way also made a lasting impression. As for Joe and his brothers, they “grew up in construction,” following in the footsteps of their father. The skills Joe learned proved invaluable years later when designing and building his own house and farm.
“You have to work with what you have, what you’re given, and make the most of that.”Merlon Harper
When Joe and Merlon first met as sophomores on the campus of Alcorn State University in 1981, the attraction was immediate and mutual. “We just meshed,” she said. “We’ve been together ever since,” he added. A justice of the peace at the courthouse in Decatur married them on Jan. 22, 1985, which just happened to be the coldest day in Atlanta history to that point, according to Joe. “I remember being in his truck, and the heater wasn’t working. It was the happiest day, but it was the coldest day,” Merlon said. “We were on the ‘struggle bus,’” Joe added with a laugh, “just starting out.”
Both went on to have successful careers after college, Joe as a mechanical contractor who eventually owned his own firm and Merlon as a revenue agent and an analyst with the IRS. For many years, the Harpers and their children, Lawrence and Keallah, lived in Stone Mountain, but Joe felt the pull to a more rural setting. “We came here [to Atlanta] in 1984, and ever since, I’d been kind of looking for some land,” he said. In 2003, he found it on nine rolling acres, where County Line and H.D. Atha roads intersect. When he took his wife to look over the property, he was sincerely hoping she would approve. “He was telling me, ‘I love this property. It has this, it has that,’” she said. “Then he looked at me and said, ‘Do you like it?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Good, because I already put a down payment on it.’”
Joe and his brothers began construction on the couple’s new house in 2007 and completed it the following year. Plans to quit mechanical contracting and go into construction had to be scrapped when the Great Recession hit and the housing market tanked. “The timing was awful,” he said. Fortunately, the home was built with an upstairs office, where Joe worked on some draft and design projects, along with operating a small home inspection business.
When the Harpers made the move from town to country, they had no intention of starting a farm. They just liked growing things, according to Joe. “It all started with a couple of blueberry bushes in whiskey barrels from Home Depot,” he said. Over the next few years, they planted more and more. “We had so many blueberries,” Merlon said. “We ate all we could and gave the rest away.” Their daughter, who had since moved back home with her husband and four young sons, was somewhat less than thrilled with the bounty.
“Keallah hated picking blueberries,” Merlon said, “so she said, ‘Mom, dad, why don’t we start a U-Pick blueberry farm?’ And we did.”
Since that pivotal moment in 2020, the Harpers have used a two-pronged approach to making their organic farm successful. “First, we started growing vegetables, and not just the usual vegetables,” Merlon said. “We also wanted to do unique vegetables like watermelon cucumber or white zucchini or lemon squash.” Then they tried to answer an intriguing question about their most abundant crop. “We asked ourselves, ‘What can we do with blueberries?’” she said. Joe began making blueberry muffins while she baked blueberry pies. “Then one day, I started experimenting with blueberries and iced tea,” Merlon said. “We blended two Georgia favorites and put them together with some special herbs and spices—and voila. People loved it.”
The Harpers do their best to balance farm and family, with a typical day starting with a breakfast-for-all, prepared by Joe and enriched by homegrown produce like spinach, onions, garlic, tomatoes and kale. The rest of the day unfolds according to plan, or as dictated by Mother Nature, with frequent assistance from the Old Farmer’s Almanac. When needed, the whole family pitches in to help with the chores. Even the grandchildren get into the act, with the oldest caring for the small flock of chickens and the younger ones hand-watering thirsty plants and each other.
“There’s always something to do—always,” Joe said. “And everything is timing,” Merlon added, “getting out there and getting things done on a timely basis to be successful.”
The to-do list is impressive: soil testing and amendment, tilling, seed starting, blueberry bush and tree planting, weed and pest control, irrigation, harvesting, administrative work and on it goes. In the past, the Harpers have taken their goods to farmer’s markets in Monroe and in Atlanta on a weekly basis during the summer and early fall. This year, they plan to market more from home, as online sales and on-site activities like Farm Tours and Family Farm Day continue to grow. On the scheduled Farm Tours, visitors are shuttled around the property on a golf cart, as they learn about the planting and growing process of blueberries and other in-season fruits and vegetables. They can pick and sample a variety of produce and blueberry treats. Family Farm Day is usually offered twice a year, once in the summer and once in the fall. “Everybody is invited,” Merlon said. The event is designed to be educational and fun. “We may have a bounce house. Visitors can pet the chickens and try lots of products,” she said. “We may even invite other vendors to bring their products.”
The Harpers are purposefully growing their farm by taking advantage of every resource available through educational opportunities such as classes at the University of Georgia, conferences and seminars. They have also received support and helpful information through networking with other farmers and organizations like Georgia Organics and Community Farmers Market. Their efforts have earned them the right to be called organic as members of Certified Naturally Grown.
Future plans include maximizing space on the farm to accommodate more blueberry bushes and leasing two acres of land to plant even more. Lumber lies on the driveway in anticipation of additional improvements, including a store from which produce may be purchased, a kitchen and a covered demonstration and teaching area.
Life on the farm has many benefits but one stands out above the others, according to Merlon. “Being on the farm with our children and grandchildren has been the most rewarding thing,” she said, “teaching them about growing food and where food is coming from.”
Joe describes his wife’s approach to farming as “focused and driven,” at times to a fault. She concedes her husband keeps her “balanced and level.”
“I think nature’s in control,” Joe said. “She thinks she’s in control.” Husband and wife then shared a laugh together. “I have a way of combatting nature,” Merlon said. “If nature’s going to give us this, this is what we have to do. You have to work with what you have, what you’re given, and make the most of that.”
For more on Deer Creek Farm, visit www.thedeercreekfarm.com.