Dustin Morris slips out of a board meeting to answer his cellphone and arrange an interview. Ashley, his wife, chats with a reporter on the way to their children's school. It's not uncommon for the Rayville, La., couple to squeeze in opportunities to talk about agriculture, despite their already jam-packed schedules. Amidst juggling the demands of family and farm life, they believe it's critically important for them to advocate for agriculture whenever possible.
Such is the life of today's young farmers.
Louisiana's Top Young Farm Couple
"Dustin and Ashley are a great example of agriculture's next generation of the farm family," says Louisiana Land BankChief Executive Officer Stephen Austin.
Ronnie Bennett, the couple's loan officer at Louisiana Land Bank, agrees.
"I've known Dustin a long time. He is well respected around here, because he does things the right way," Bennett says.
Louisiana Land Bank selected the Land Bank member-borrowers to attend the Farm Credit Young Leaders program in 2014. This past June, the Louisiana Farm Bureau awarded them the Young Farmer and Rancher Achievement Award. They will represent Louisiana and compete for the national title at the American Farm Bureau Federation convention in January 2016.
"As a state, we had a lot of really good applicants, so this award means a lot," Dustin says of the Farm Bureau award. "It makes me proud of what we've accomplished."
Ashley agrees and adds, "Hopefully this award shows that we have experience and knowledge in the ag community to talk about issues. Several large programs like Farm Bureau and Farm Credit do a good job of having a voice. But if we, as young farmers, don't stand up, then that voice will fade."
Standing Up for Agriculture
Standing up for agriculture in our increasingly urban-oriented society can be a tall order. But this couple does not shy away from a challenge.
"I'm pretty competitive by nature," Dustin says. "I have to always be driving to be the best I can possibly be. Mediocrity is not acceptable."
A fourth-generation farmer, Dustin grew up in a family dedicated to agriculture and accustomed to long hours in the field. He earned an agricultural engineering degree from Mississippi State University. In addition to running a 2,300-acre operation, which includes corn, soybeans and cattle, he serves on several local boards. He also competes in the Precision Rifle Series, winning the sport's national title in 2013.
But even at riflery events, Dustin has used the shooting sport as a platform to talk about agriculture with people he meets across the country.
"I want them to know that you can be a voice for agriculture no matter what job path you take. They can stand up for agriculture and take with them the value of hard work." –Ashley Morris
"For most of them, I'm the only farmer they've ever met," he says. "I have the opportunity to tell them that most farms are not corporate farms. They're owned by real people with real families who do it because they love what they do. I use shooting as a way to promote farming."
A Strong Team
A Louisiana State University business administration graduate, Ashley continued her education and earned an MBA and a law degree, and then practiced as an attorney after passing the bar.
"My brother worked on a farm with Dustin, and he set us up. It's been a honeymoon ever since," she says. The couple not only fell in love; they've also paired their backgrounds to create a strong working partnership.
"It's easy for me to talk business with her. And she helps me out so much in the legal aspect. She understands how to write leases. She has negotiated deals with pipeline companies. She knows her way around a courthouse," Dustin says. "We have our own in-house counsel."
Ashley also manages their household and cares for their three children, daughters Addison, 7, and Audrey, 2, along with son Kimber, 5. She appreciates how hard Dustin works and makes an extra effort to include their children in their farming life.
"Being in agriculture with the long hours, it was important for me to be home with our kids and give them that stability," Ashley says. "Dustin is almost never home before the sun goes down, and he's usually gone by the time they wake up in the morning. So we go out to the farm to visit him during the day."
Continuing the Tradition
While the Morrises would love to see their children continue the farming legacy, they want them to at least carry the ag story with them wherever they go.
"I want them to know that you can be a voice for agriculture no matter what job path you take. They can stand up for agriculture and take with them the value of hard work," Ashley says.
"I hope they see that when you plan and work hard, you can be successful," Dustin says. "I hope it encourages them to have goals."
The couple wants to share with their children the valuable life lessons they have learned from their own parents. Dustin's father and grandfather still actively farm, and some of his earliest memories involve climbing into his grandfather's truck to go check cotton.
Ashley's dad is U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, a longtime doctor and part-time farmer who was elected to Congress in 2015 and now serves on the House Agriculture Committee.
"We are where we are — and who we are — because of our families," Ashley says. "His grandparents and parents have shared their knowledge. I've learned a lot from his mother about how to live the farming lifestyle. My parents, too, have been very supportive of us and have been advocates for agriculture. We wouldn't be where we are without them."
– Penny Currie