The ground was tilled and drip lines were being prepared as George Paris and Harold McLemore stood back to watch the start of their latest community project. The two men have worked together for the past decade at the state Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADIA) and are known across Alabama for the way they’ve helped people improve their farming operations.
Their specialty is assisting people, especially low income farmers and urban families who lack basic knowledge in agriculture and gardening.
They were in the little Lowndes County community of Lowndesboro in April to help implement a grant to provide a crop that would have two purposes — physical activity to plant it and nutrition when eaten.Their crop of choice was contained in row after row of sweet corn and they had a small audience to watch them do their thing.
"We planted watermelons and pumpkins last year," said Paris. "We also planted collards, but deer got into the field and ate ’em all up. Until we can get a fence up, we need to plant a crop that deer hopefully won’t bother."
Leslie Bailey, a popular entrepreneur, cook and personality who operates "Marengo House" — which is used for catering and other functions, beamed as she watched the two friends at work.
"They’re kinda like the Odd Couple, but they go out-of-their-way to help people when they need it," Bailey said. "They’re both passionate about what they are doing. You can see how they enjoy being together on these projects."
Paris, who is black, and McLemore, who is white, took different paths to their unique agricultural partnership, but it’s as though it was meant to be because of a smooth relationship that has lasted for such a long time.
They met about 15 years ago when Paris went to see McLemore who was operating a strawberry farm just off the Atlanta Highway in east Montgomery.
"I just had too many berries and couldn’t get rid of ’em," McLemore, 53, said. "Then George came along and used his marketing skills to do it for me. He got in touch with the media and it wasn’t long before people began to come to my farm to fill up their baskets with strawberries."
Once McLemore joined the state Department of Agriculture, he and Paris began working together on a variety of projects.
One of their biggest successes was a collard planting project at Knox Elementary School in Selma. They didn’t have much land to work with outside the cafeteria, but they were able to put together a plan producing huge collards enjoyed during lunch by the boys and girls who helped plant and nurture them.
Paris, 67, didn’t grow up on a farm in Sumter County, but he learned a lot about agriculture then and, later, when his family moved to Tuskegee in Macon County.
His father and grandfather were farmers and he vowed not to follow in their footsteps. So, he majored in education at Tuskegee University and began to spread his wings a bit.
He was a teacher for awhile in Birmingham and determined that wasn’t his future, either. Traveling with his father gave him a chance to see big cities like Chicago and Detroit, and he soon longed for "home, sweet, home."
"I said to myself at one time, ‘You know, Alabama ain’t so bad, either,’" he said, with a big laugh. "I was going to make cars in Detroit or movies in Hollywood, but I knew that wouldn’t happen."
When Paris went to work for the state, he quickly used farming skills that had to be part of his genetic makeup and it wasn’t long before his marketing reputation began to grow.
"I can’t go anywhere in Alabama where somebody doesn’t know George Paris," McLemore said. "His dedication to his job is well known. You can’t do a good job unless you care and he cares about what happens to Alabama farmers, especially those with limited resources."
Paris has similar feelings about his partner, calling him "extremely dedicated to his job and he wants to make sure things work right when we’re out in the field on a project."
"What we’re doing in Lowndesboro is a good example of how well we work together," said Paris. "He and I can take a look at a project and, in no time, come to just about the same conclusion on how to make it succeed."
Miriam Gaines of the Alabama Department of Public Health couldn’t agree more because she’s seen the two men work well together on more than one project.
"The relationship between George and Harold is wonderful," said Gaines, who is director of her department’s nutrition and physical activity unit. "Harold is a detail person, someone who thinks through it from start to finish while George can come in at a moment’s notice and use his own perspective. They always seem to wind up with the right decisions."
What Gaines likes most of all is being able to propose something to the two men and then stand back and watch how they react.
"When I come up with an idea they don’t tell me it’s crazy," she said. "They just gently walk me through the reality of what it is."
Case in point was Gaines’ idea of planting a "salsa" crop — something that might have made another team look skyward and scratch their heads.
Gaines’ idea was to plant a variety of crops that, when harvested, could be combined into a salsa concoction — minus the chips, of course.
The "ingredients" would include tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, herbs and cilantro which is known in some circles as "Chinese Parsley."
Instead of telling her the idea was somewhat strange, Paris said, "Okay, let’s think about that."
He explained the amount of land in Lowndesboro probably wouldn’t be sufficient for the variety needed to make the salsa. What he didn’t do was dismiss the idea out of hand and that impressed Gaines.
Paris and McLemore enjoy meeting community leaders to discuss a project and they never leave the area until they can sit down and discuss what has been suggested or undertaken.
That’s what they did in Lowndesboro when they watched and listened to Gaines and several local women go over some of the details at a table on the second floor of "Marengo House."
When they offer their own suggestions, it usually covers cost, labor and whether the crop under discussion will be a hit or a miss. They had no doubts the sweet corn about to be planted in the field behind the big house would be a success.
What Gaines especially liked about the $5,000 grant in Lowndesboro was the possibility of a double-barreled success story.
"The original grant was to produce a nutritious vegetable or fruit crop and to use physical activity at the same time," she said. "That way we could ‘kill two birds with one stone.’ If we can do this all over Alabama, it will be wonderful for communities and their backyard gardens."
One of the things she and her department are trying to do in Alabama is getting communities to embrace the concept of eating fresh produce instead of processed produce.
As long as Paris and McLemore continue their unique partnership, the health department’s goal will be met project by project.
As he pushes toward 70, Paris said he’s thinking more and more about retiring, but isn’t ready just yet.
That’s because he’s having too much fun right now traveling around with McLemore as they look for somebody else to help plant a garden or work on a community project.
They make it clear to those they help that their assistance only goes so far. Once they help them get their project off or into the ground, it’s up to the property owner to take it from there.
"We can’t do everything and we let them know that," said Paris.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.