About Harris Seeds


In 1879, Joseph Harris published his first seed catalog. An enterprising farmer with wide agricultural knowledge and experience, he was much interested in developing better seed stocks, and for years he had been producing improved strains of vegetable seed for his neighbors and himself. In 1879 he decided to go into the seed business and issued "Harris' Moreton Farm Seeds, A Descriptive Catalog". 30,000 copies were printed.

Joseph Harris was born in 1828, the second son of a tenant farmer on an estate in Moreton Corbett, Shropshire, England. He received a good education with advanced study in agriculture, but the times were difficult for English farmers, and the family resolved to emigrate. Undecided whether to settle in Australia or the United States, they sent young Joseph to look over the Genesee Valley country near Rochester, of which they had heard favorable accounts.

He was pleased with what he saw, promptly rented a farm and sent for the rest of the family who arrived in 1850. Six months later his father, Henry Harris, died, but the family stayed on, and in 1863 Joseph bought the property which he named "Moreton Farm" for this birthplace and moved into the homestead with his new wife. The house had been built thirty years before, and it is still protected by some of the spruce trees he planted around it well over 100 years ago.

Although he was already operating a highly diverse farm, he still found time to edit The Rural New Yorker during 1855, and the following year he took over The Genesee Farmer, a monthly agricultural magazine, and edited it for eleven years. A gifted writer, he continued to contribute to agricultural papers throughout much of the rest of his life, and he also wrote agricultural textbooks. Among these was a highly regarded manual on swine, of which he said, "The publishers, somewhat to my annoyance, called it 'Harris on the Pig.'"

It was about 1867 that Cornell University, then a new land grant college, was seeking a man to head its Department of Agriculture. President White and Ezra Cornell met Mr. Harris at the State Fair in Buffalo and invited him to take the post. His name actually was published as the first professor of agriculture, but there were some misunderstandings and considerable correspondence. Mr. Harris did not want to move to Ithaca, which he considered malarial, and although he was kept on a nominal professor for a couple of years, he never actually taught there and they finally gave the post to someone else.

He opened his first catalog by saying, "It is sixteen years since I commenced to grow seeds. But this is the first year that I have issued a catalogue. I fear it will be a poor one, but I shall try and comfort myself with the reflection that no one will be asked to pay anything for it. I propose to send it free of all charge, prepaid by mail to any and all of my friends who desire it. I hope my seeds will prove to be fresher and better than my catalogue."

Actually, however, he was too modest - it is an interesting, pleasant and informative work. Forty-four pages long, and illustrated with woodcuts, it listed hundreds of varieties of vegetables and flowers, field seeds, potatoes and pure-bred sheep and pigs. His cultural directions and accounts of his own experiences in growing the crops he describes are lucid, amusing and delightful to read. The office of the new seed company was right in the house, and his children helped package the seeds and send them out. The business flourished in a small way, and in 1890 a post office was established by the government at Moreton Farm to handle the mail, rather than bringing it all the way out from Rochester. The small tool shed that was once the original post office is still standing, now surrounded by modern buildings.

Joseph Harris died in 1892, and the business was taken over by his twenty-five year old son, Selah M. Harris, helped by his two sisters. The pure-bred sheep and pigs were dropped and a concentrated effort was made to increase the seed business. The emphasis was always on high quality seeds, adapted to the northeastern part of the country where most of them were sold. In those days, varieties did not have the wide geographic adaptability that they do today.

Selah Harris became known as one of the foremost seedsmen of his time, and the quality of the varieties offered by the company continued to improve under his direction. He pioneered in germination testing and marked the results on every package, long before this was legally required. He died in 1931, and his sister Margaret Harris Sheldon, took over the company. Her husband, Smith Sheldon, had sold his own business in the early days of the Depression and now came out to assist with financial affairs. Together with Carl L. Warren who joined the company after World War I and later became a vice-president, they brought the firm successfully through the difficult years of the Depression and World War II.

Both the Sheldons remained active in the business until the 1950's, but Joseph Harris, grandson of the founder, became president in 1949. He was born in 1916 and grew up in the old family homestead on the Farm. He attended Loomis School and Princeton, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. During the summers, he worked on the farm with the "gang", learning the business literally from the ground up.

Many honors have come to Joseph Harris in the course of his career in the seed business. In 1966 he was elected President of the American Seed Trade Association and was a Life Member of the Board of Directors. In 1976 he received the American Seed Trade Association's award for outstanding service to the seed industry.

Since 1944 he served as a vegetable judge on the Council of Judges of All-America Selections. He was President of All-America in 1950-51, and in 1978 he was presented with their silver medallion, the highest award for services to horticulture. As an active member of the New York State Seed Association, he served on many important committees.

Under his direction, the business of the Company greatly increased. Plant breeding was among his chief interests, and much of the company's reputation was based on the success of the exclusive varieties of vegetables and flowers it has developed.

There were more than thirty vegetable and flower plant breeders, plant pathologists and research technicians on the staff whose object is the development of new varieties and the improvement of existing ones. They were based in the Carl L. Warren Laboratory, but during the growing season, most of their time was spent in the fields, checking trials and crops, and making the selections and crosses that eventually resulted in new and improved varieties.

The trials on Moreton Farm and at many other locations throughout the country were a vital part of the business. Literally thousands of samples were grown in comparison plantings, both experimental lines and existing varieties, to determine which will give the best performance. The annual flower trials were among the largest in the country, and in midsummer they were a spectacular sight. Thousands of visitors came to see them every year.

In 1979, Joseph Harris sold the company to the Celenese Corporation. Although he had four sons, sadly none were interested in the seed business. The Harris management team remained in Rochester and the business continued to grow. Celenese soon lost its interest in the agricultural marketplace (much like many other large corporations in America) and sold the business to LaFarge Coppee, a French conglomerate, best known as a worldwide distributor of cement products. LaFarge also owned the Moran Seed Company in Modesto, California and chose to merge the two companies in the mid 1980s. The operating business then became known as the Harris Moran Seed Company.

In 1987, Harris Moran chose to divest of their two retail, home garden businesses:
1. The Harris Seeds Garden Stores in Rochester.
2. The Harris Seeds Home Garden Mail Order Catalog Business.

The retired Joseph Harris purchased the garden centers in order to keep the Harris name in Rochester. The mail order catalog business was purchased by a private family, Mr. and Mrs. Byram Dickes of Chicago, Illinois. This family-owned business remains in Rochester, New York, incorporated as Garden Trends, Inc. in 1987, and doing business as Harris Seeds. Although the Harris Moran Seed Company eventually relocated to California, the Harris Seeds mail order business remains in Rochester, along with many of its original employees. Having these original Harris Seeds employees as managers for the existing business allowed the company to carry on its tradition of quality products and services in the East.

The "new" Harris Seeds Company started in 1987 as a home garden mail order company. In 1991, it signed an agreement with the Harris Moran Seed Company to provide products and services to the smaller professional grower in the Northeast and Midwest. From that point forward, Harris Seeds has expanded its reach with the professional grower, and now markets both vegetable and flower seeds as well as plants and growing supplies to gardeners and professional growers throughout the USA.

Harris Seeds conducts extensive vegetable and flower variety trials in Rochester as well as many other areas of the Northeast. A germination lab inside its Rochester facility ensures that the seeds it sells are of the highest quality. Members of the Harris Seeds staff travel throughout the country, selecting the finest of the new varieties of vegetables and flowers for sale to its customers. There are two sales people that travel throughout New England, New York and Pennsylvania, calling on the professional grower. The remainder of the business is generated through catalog and online sales. Harris Seeds is an active member of the American Seed Trade Association, the National Garden Bureau and the Mail Order Gardening Association.

Our agenda for our customers remains much as it was in 1879, to provide the finest products available and at a fair price, coupled with friendly and courteous service.