Robert M. Harris’ focus on heart-healthy foods created innovation in the the sorghum that has advanced the industry.
Robert M. Harris was a dreamer, a visionary and an innovator. After working in advertising for the food industry for 25 years, he launched his own food business in 1973 with a mission to help people live healthy lives.
Harris, who died July 5 at the age of 95 at his home in Englewood, New Jersey, is most notably known for creating the trans-fat-free margarine Smart Balance. He also licensed the Weight Watchers brand for low-fat margarine, various low-fat cheeses, salad dressings and mayonnaise.
He was on the leading edge of the fat-free diet trend, and had a personal interest in heart health. His father died from heart disease at the age of 40 when he was only 8-years-old, and both of his brothers died from heart disease, as well.
Harris’s businessman acumen was bolstered by his thirst for knowledge. He liked science and was an avid reader. It was within a stack of medical journals that led him to his next novel, food discovery—high tannin, black sorghum.
Harris had never worked with grains, but through further investigation and research, he was put in touch with the late Lloyd Rooney and his son Bill at Texas A&M University (TAMU) in College Station, Texas, who worked on a line of sorghums meeting the specifications Harris was seeking. Harris met with the TAMU researchers in 2008 at the age of 82. Initially, the Rooneys were skeptical at best—they had seen innovators before but none quite like Bob Harris.
The Rooneys informed Harris that taking this to market would not be easy, but Harris was not dissuaded. The hybrid he chose, later named ONYX, was an antioxidant powerhouse with many nutritional benefits he advertised like slowing sugar absorption, natural plant fiber and free radical protection.
However, as Bill Rooney told him, it had limitations on the production side. Yield did not match those produced by commercial hybrids, no one at the time was growing it commercially, and Harris would need to find someone to grow it and mill it. He was committed and pushed forward. After almost five years, Harris fully licensed Onyx sorghum and launched a series of products under the Grain Berry brand, marketed by Silver Palate Kitchens, Inc., which is headed by his son Peter Harris. He developed breakfast cereals, and muffin, pancake and waffle mixes—all featuring his key Onyx sorghum ingredient.
Coming together at that point in their careers was serendipitous for Harris and Lloyd Rooney. The two families grew close during their time working together and a mutual respect was formed. The Rooneys helped Harris find farmers to grow his Onyx sorghum and made improvements to the hybrid in subsequent years. Harris’s marketing strengths were impressed upon the research pair, and, likewise, Harris learned a great deal about farming, research and production agriculture.
Harris was all-in for sorghum. His family, friends and acquaintances knew it, and he wanted everyone to know about Onyx, yes—but about its characteristics that contributed to a healthy diet even more. Harris ate Onyx every single morning, up until two days before he died, and was absolutely convinced that is what kept him alive.
Many radio listeners across the U.S. heard about sorghum for the first time when Harris launched a nationwide campaign advertising Grain Berry, made with Amazing ONYX Sorghum. Harris also took the health benefits of Onyx to the health expert himself, Dr. Oz.
He told The Dr. Oz Show Co-Executive Producer Stacy Rader after their initial meeting he was 90-yearsold, and they needed to record the episode in the following few weeks because he may no longer be there by the following month. This carried on for five years, and they did 10 episodes together as he remained eager to tell the world about Onyx sorghum.
“Bob was a visionary leader who brought out the best in all his partners,” Dr. Oz said. “He fed our bodies and our minds and left love with everyone he touched.”
He and his son Peter came to their first meeting with cereal and milk in hand for everyone to try—a departure from the formal, corporate meetings Rader was accustomed to with other guests. Rader worked to balance Harris’s attention to the science with getting consumers to relate to the brand—a constant debate. Dr. Mehmet Oz and Harris took a shine to one another almost immediately, and over time, a strong bond was formed between the show and the Harris family.
Harris had a health setback in November 2020, but a minor procedure kept him going. Although slowed, Harris was still pushing forward, focusing on packaging with his son Peter until the time of his death. He and Peter talked about business daily, he facetimed Rader about segment feedback from his home, and he was exchanging text messages with Bill Rooney up to three weeks before he died.
Harris’s entrepreneurial spirit carried through to the end—he was by no means done, shared his daughter Susan who spent most of his final days with him. His accomplishments in business were notable, but his children agree—he would consider his family his greatest achievement.
Harris was a pioneer in the food sorghum industry. Given his experience and industry know-how, he could have chosen many things to make his final venture. But he chose sorghum and proved at the age of 82, you can do anything if you have a passion for it. The fact that there are now hundreds of products on store shelves containing sorghum as an ingredient is in part to his credit, and for that, we say thank you, Mr. Harris.
National Sorghum Producers thanks Robert Harris’s children Peter and Susan, Bill Rooney with Texas A&M University, and Stacy Rader with The Dr. Oz Show for contributing commentary and anecdotes for this story. Mr. Harris was an avid supporter of NSP and a pioneer in our industry. We send our sympathy and deepest condolences to the Harris family.
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 Issue of Sorghum Grower magazine.