Researcher has a passion for farming

February 9, 2024

“Farmers of all scales – small, mid-size and large – are on the frontlines of a frequently challenging battle as invasive species, climate changes, market fluctuations, and disease concerns are on the rise,” says Lois Wright Morton, small-scale berry farmer and Board member for Solutions from the Land. “Each farm has its own unique geography, soils, water resources, climate and cropping systems and needs a diversity of high- and low-tech tools and strategies to be successful and profitable.”

Growing up in Northeast Ohio, Morton did not originally envision she would return to her farming roots. Her family ran a mid-sized farm, raising sheep and beef cattle, and producing hay. Morton recalls helping with lambing season and showing sheep alongside her brother and sister growing up.

“Animals were not my strong suit, but I loved wandering the fields, putting up hay, wading in streams catching frogs and searching for spring wildflowers in our woods with my Mom,” Morton explains. “I enjoyed plants and growing things, reading books and learning about science and nature.”

Morton went on to study Development Sociology focusing on agriculture and rural development at Cornell University. During her Ph.D. studies, Morton took a deeper dive into agriculture, rural communities, civic structure and problem-solving. Her career path took her to Iowa State University where her research examined human-natural agroecosystems such as relationships among land use, farm management practices and water quality; grassland cattle ranching, prescribed burn management and plant and avian biodiversity; and soil-water dynamics, cover crops, conservation practices, and soil organic carbon under changing climatic conditions. Much of this work centered on farmer decision-making, “Why do farmers do the things they do?” and “What are the thought processes and reasonings behind these decisions?”  

“About eight years before I retired from Iowa State University, I directed a large USDA-funded climate and corn-based cropping systems project that involved about 110 scientists and their graduate students from ten US Midwest Land Grant Universities and USDA Agricultural Research Service,” Morton says. “This amazing transdisciplinary team worked together to better understand weather and climate variability and management of corn-soybean agroecosystems. The research entailed asking questions, proposing and testing hypotheses, and creating experiments across 9 states to begin to untangle the complex and interconnected systems of carbon, water, nitrogen and human management over 7 years.”

Nearly 200 farmers were involved in the project that spanned across Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and Ohio. It was through this initiative that she met SfL President Ernie Shea.

As a result, the work of this USDA-Land Grant University climate-focused project has become a key steppingstone underpinning SfL global work with farmers, the agriculture value chain, the United Nations and FAO. Today, scientists, farmers, community leaders and policymakers around the world continue to build on research from this project to find solutions to the challenges facing agriculture, and food and nutrition security, Morton adds.

Although Morton and her husband, Michael, intended to retire in Iowa and raise red raspberries for local markets, Michael died unexpectedly in 2002.  Morton’s mother encouraged her to come back to Ohio in retirement. It was then that Morton purchased 24 acres on the East Branch of the Ashtabula River in 2008 and in 2017 retired to the small rural community where she grew up.

Morton’s operation, Outwash Terrace, in Pierpont, Ohio, is home to post-glacial deposits of sand, gravel, silts and clay with soils ranging from 4.5 pH to 6.5—making it a perfect location for growing a diversity of specialty crops that require different soil and moisture conditions to thrive. The outparcels with higher pH are planted in corn-soy rotation and red raspberries and vegetable crops do well at 6 pH with manure, compost and other amendments. A three-acre parcel on the first terrace above the river bottom land is 4.5 pH, well suited to blueberries – a crop that loves acidic soil. It has a pre-productive period of five years, and Morton planted them while she was still working at the university.

Blueberries and raspberries historically have had few serious pest or disease issues. However, an invasive species, Spotted-wing Drosophila (SWD) a fruit fly, took U.S. berry growers by surprise between 2009 and 2010 with larvae eating the inside of red and blue berries along their travels west to east coast.

Prior to the first blueberry harvest in 2017, Morton constructed an 85gm exclusion net to cover ¾ of an acre of one of her blueberry fields. With help from family members, she seamed five 26’x 250’ pieces of net together with wiggle wire every May to cover the blueberry shrubs just before they turn color. The net is removed after harvest in August and stored for the next season. The 6.5-foot-high enclosure allows rain and sunlight in but keeps out a variety of insects, birds and other wildlife that could damage the crop. The netted enclosure features a double-zippered door through which pickers enter to harvest berries and helps eliminate any hitch-hiking bugs when entering the enclosure.

The exclusion net combined with IPM (integrated pest management) scouting has been an effective pest management practice for the last six years for Morton. However, she explains that larger-scale blueberry producers may find scouting and pesticide applications to be less costly than purchasing, applying and storing the exclusion net along with the associated labor costs using it.

Morton sells her products to two local grocery stores, two farmer markets and has a farm stand. This is a good illustration that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach for producing an abundance of healthy fruits and vegetables. 

“Commercial berry producers find it almost impossible to grow fruits and vegetables without pesticides,” Morton says. “Pesticide is not a dirty word, yet we’ve labeled it as such. It is one of the tools in a grower’s toolbox to produce abundant and nutritious crops. Pesticides are used in both conventional and organic production systems based on certification standards. Extensive research is underway testing the efficacy of a range of biopesticides. The goal of all growers, small and larger scale is to reduce and eliminate harmful residues on fruits and vegetables.”

The issue of farm size and diverse cropping systems are major points that Morton and fellow SfL member A.G. Kawamura, a urban commercial-scale vegetable and fruit producer in California continually remind policymakers as they draft national and global food security, poverty and environmental policies. SfL reinforced these points in recent feedback to UN FAO’s draft policy for Strengthening urban and peri-urban food systems to achieve food security and nutrition in the context of urbanization and rural transformationsimilar to the feedback they provided FAO with on relevant topics in 2022 and 2023.

The FAO draft committee writers for this policy defined six dimensions of food security, yet did not once include who produces the food, how they produce it and with what resources. In addition, the word “actors” is used to describe everyone in the food chain while not acknowledging that farmers, ranchers, foresters and fishers are the beginning of the food system, there is no food chain without them. As Kawamura points out, “pretending there are actors who are going to fill this role ignores the actual predicaments real farmers” face.

“Farmers around the world face several interconnected issues in the context of a changing climate and shifting markets,” Morton adds. “A big one is the spread of invasive species – as a result of globalization and lack of strong protocols for prevention, exclusion, detection and early eradication. These invasive species often know no borders and negatively affect forests, deserts, oceans, food systems and ultimately human population. The small farmer as well as the larger, commercial producer, we’re all facing the need for strategies and management techniques to deal with invasive species.”

Another issue Morton encourages the FAO to take into consideration when acknowledging farmers’ role in feeding the world is the role of labor and technologies designed to address labor shortages and costs.

“We have some amazing technologies that have ‘fingers’ and sensors to pick and ensure high quality, almost perfect fruits and vegetables,” Morton says. “However, many commercial growers of all sizes will continue to need affordable skilled labor for some time. New labor-replacement technologies are currently not easily attainable for small-scale growers, especially in developing and underdeveloped countries due to the high initial purchase costs, needed training and ongoing maintenance costs of equipment and software updates as well as cloud access. Farmers of all scales need financing and skills specifically tailored to the size and crop systems unique to their operations and capacities to evaluate their profitability in light of market conditions.”

At the end of the day, Morton says it’s all about valuing farmers and the continuous evolution of low- and high-tech innovations that enable agriculture to produce abundant and healthy food supply while concurrently meeting other Sustainable Development Goals. Learn more about these issues and SfL’s interventions here.

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An Agricultural Renaissance, led by innovative and entrepreneurial farmers, ranchers and foresters constructing sustainable, profitable and resilient systems that lay the foundation for a world of abundance on many scales capable of producing nutritious food, feed, fiber, clean energy, healthy ecosystems, quality livelihoods, and strong rural economies.