When Keith Morton turned 15 and got his driver's license he naturally wanted a truck of his own. His father told him he would have to earn the money for the truck, and if he wanted, he could earn it by growing his own crop that year. Keith's father, the late Billy Morton, gave his son 15 acres of land and allowed him to make all decisions on the land from what to plant to how to market it.

The younger Morton planted cotton and he did well enough with that first crop to buy his first truck. It seems only fitting that Keith and his wife, Beth, now growers of about 1,000 acres of row crops in Tippah County, Miss., came home from the recent Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation's winter annual meeting driving a new Dodge truck. They earned the truck by farming, but not from the profits.

The Mortons, from the community of Falkner, were selected for Mississippi's Young Farmer and Rancher designation and subsequently nominated to compete in the national Farm Bureau Young Farmer and Rancher competition based on their overall agriculture operation and their commitment to success as farmers and to being a voice for the agriculture industry.

The announcement of their selection was made Dec. 6 at the closing banquet of Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation's winter annual meeting in Jackson.

As state winners the Mortons receive prizes including cash, the new Dodge truck, use of various agricultural equipment and an all-expense paid trip to the national competition in North Carolina from sponsors Southern Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance, Dodge, Kubota Tractors, John Deere, Federal Land Bank and MFBF.

Road to success

Keith and Beth were both raised in farm families and have demonstrated their commitment to agriculture by their innovative and determined attitudes. Since their marriage six years ago, they've experienced wide swings in yields and prices while continuing to buy more land and doing all they can to get the most production out of their land.

At one time the Mortons farmed 1,200 acres, which were spread out over a 10- to 20-mile radius of their headquarters in Falkner, Miss. One year they dealt with 27 landlords in one season.

“We wasted hours traveling to the farms,” said Keith. “Our productivity and profitability began to decrease while our labor and repair expenses increased.”

The solution became obvious, and the Mortons began a plan to buy land concentrated in a smaller area. By the 2004 crop year they owned more than half of their 1,000-acre row crop operation and the distance from their headquarters to the field dropped to only 8 miles. They cut their number of landlords down to only nine.

“Our productivity and whole farm net income has increased each year due to these changes,” said Keith.

However, buying land and increasing inputs also increases their need for efficiency and doing all the work they can on the farm without hiring labor.

“Each winter we review the past year's yield, expenses and income produced on a field-by-field basis and see if we can improve net income per acre. While good yields are important, our main goal is to increase the net income associated with the whole farm. Increasing profitability may involve spending more on yield-enhancing items such as lime, fertilizer and insecticides,” said Keith.

Other positives for the Mortons are their switch from 38-inch solid cotton to a modified two-and-one skip row pattern and their involvement in Mississippi's Soybean Management by Application of Research Technology program.

The move to skip row cotton is saving them about 25 percent on the down-the-row costs as their yields continue to increase.

“Our skip row yield is equal to or better than the yields of solid cotton,” said Keith. “We've also found the skip row cotton performs better than solid cotton in adverse conditions such as excessive drought or late-season rains.”

From their two-year participation in the SMART program, the Mortons discovered several ways to increase their soybean yields, including conservation tillage, narrower rows, better scouting and earlier planting.

“Getting the soybean crop in early helps us take advantage of August delivery soybeans, which gives us more than $1 a bushel over October/November prices,” said Beth. Their overall farm average for the dryland beans increased from 35 to 58 bushels an acre.

In addition to their row crop operation, the Mortons also own a custom cotton harvesting business, and Beth is part owner of grain handling facilities in Pontotoc and Lee counties.

Other winners

Other district winners, who received a $1,000 cash award and a trip to the MFBF state meeting, are: Glenis and Jana Brooks, dairy farmers from Tylertown, Miss.; John and Julie Ingram, row crop and beef producers from Water Valley, Miss.; Todd and Erin Waltman, poultry and beef producers from Wesson, Miss.; and Deana and Dwayne Watkins, poultry growers from Noxapater, Miss.

The annual Young Farmer and Rancher designation at the district and state level is considered one of the most prestigious professional agricultural honors in Mississippi. Couples and/or individual farmers between the ages of 18 and 35 are nominated from each of Farm Bureau's seven organizational districts in the state. The winners selected from those districts submit extensive applications outlining their operation, leadership and community involvement.

If they advance to district winner, they are interviewed on their farms by a panel of judges representing various agricultural agencies. One state winner is chosen.

“The number of farmers is in decline every year. It is imperative for organizations like Farm Bureau to work with these dedicated young men and women who have an interest in agriculture,” said Greg Shows, director of Mississippi's Young Farmer and Rancher program.

Shows estimated about 75 percent of the state's young farmers 18 to 35 years old are involved in Farm Bureau's Young Farmer and Rancher program.

“The program provides this younger generation of farmers with educational and leadership opportunities that help them feed and clothe the world,” said Shows. “Our nation's security depends on American farmers being able to provide the food and fiber for our country. This means continuing to identify young farmers and helping them be successful.”

David Waide, president of the MFBF and a farmer from West Point, Miss., said, “The Young Farmer and Ranchers' program is designed to develop young people into leaders that will someday guide Farm Bureau. Educating young farmers about the purpose and function of Farm Bureau and providing opportunities for them to take part in the program structure of our organization will prepare them to assume roles of leadership in the organization.

“It is gratifying to see young people who have been through this leadership development program emerge and assume leadership roles in their county Farm Bureau activities as well as overall leaders for the state's agriculture industry. This program is definitely one of the most important parts of our organization.”

For information on the Young Farmer and Rancher Program or any Farm Bureau activity visit the Farm Bureau Web site at www.msfb.com or visit a local Farm Bureau office.


Eva Ann Dorris is an ag journalist from Pontotoc, Miss. She can be reached at 662-419-9176 or eadorris@aol.com.