Brian Harris '74 reimagines farming in inner city Grand Rapids.

The small parking lot was made of gravel, the campus nothing more than a single building, and Brian Harris ’74 was the only person of color in his 14-person class.

This was Prairie in its infancy, a dream realized and a place ripe with possibility, but still a school evolving into what it would ultimately become.

It was here that Harris, guest speaker at Prairie’s 2018 Convocation, discovered himself. He played soccer and performed in skits. He blew glass and learned languages. He had class with Pat Badger.

“I’m happy to hear you’re still teaching,” a smiling Harris said from a podium near center court of the Johnson Athletic Center. “I remember you.”

On a beautiful day in early September, one seeming almost out of place in a long run of wet and horrible weather, Harris visited campus to address Prairie’s 700+ students and faculty. He talked about the importance of staying true to yourself. And striving for greatness. And living life with a constant desire to question, learn, and grow.

And grow is what Harris did following his graduation from Prairie. He attended Tufts University and studied Engineering Psychology. “The relationship between man and machine,” as Dr. Nat Coffman, Head of School, put it during Harris’s introduction. “It’s one of the most fascinating majors they have.”

After Tufts, Harris went on to a successful career in the steel industry – flat rolled carbon steel to be exact – becoming President and CEO of H&H Metal Source in Grand Rapids, MI. However, you could say it was in retirement that Harris’s passion for innovation truly blossomed.

In 2017, Harris, a brilliant businessman who’d spent a lifetime thinking outside the box, did something unimaginable – he boxed himself in. Or rather, he crated himself in. Interested in getting crops to inner city residents directly where they live, he founded Green Collar Farms on the lower west side of Grand Rapids. Just like that, he was an urban farmer, growing kale and arugula in refrigerated, 40-foot shipping containers.

“So not much bigger than the two lanes on this basketball court,” said Harris.

Growing crops vertically in a climate-controlled environment free of chemicals or fertilizers, Green Collar can harvest over two acres worth of food in containers measuring just 360 square feet. They grow year-round.

“In your journeys, as you hone your abilities, test your boundaries, and sample different perspectives, fail fast,” Harris said. “There is no shame in failing. Only in failing do we learn from mistakes. It is with probing boundaries and the limits of possibility that we deliver the greatest innovation.”

Following his Convocation address, Harris spent the day touring campus, even taking time to guest lecture for 40+ students in Sarah Turek’s AP Bio and Kevin Will’s AP Environmental Science classes.

“It was empowering to hear about sustainable agriculture in a city like Grand Rapids,” said senior Madeline Yde. “The world is caring more about protecting the environment and making sure we have future resources, so it was neat to hear how farmers like Mr. Harris are upcycling containers and providing sustainable food sources to local communities. He may be one person but he’s making a huge difference; everyone at Prairie can learn from his entrepreneurship.”

A dream realized. A future ripe with possibility. For Brian Harris, all of it started here in Wind Point, at that single building school with the gravel parking lot.

“I enjoyed learning about the prospect of partnerships with mushroom farmers and bee husbands in this hyper-controlled growing environment. Plants are constantly releasing water. Humidity is a challenge in Brian’s containers. By partnering with a mushroom farmer, he can release the humidity (and oxygen) into the mushroom room. All the while, the mushrooms thrive in humidity and produce abundant carbon dioxide to ‘feed’ the plants. Additionally, right now Brian grows leafy greens and herbs, no flowering plants. Through partnership with a bee husband, growing tomatoes and cucumbers, etc. becomes a reality. The husband provides pollinators for Brian and in return, all the bees return to the husband to produce honey which can be sold at market.”

Sarah Turek, AP Biology Teacher