The Oldest Rice Farm in Arkansas Looks to the Future

Large white man in blue plaid shirt holding shovel handle stands in mature rice field
Matt Morris
Sep 09, 2021
Arkansas rice farmer Matt Morris is the subject of Field to Market's September Farmer Spotlight series, reprinted here.  USA Rice is a member of FTM, the alliance for sustainable agriculture.

CARLISLE, AR -- When John Morris planted his first three-acre field in Carlisle, Arkansas, in 1901, he was one of the first farmers in the region to try to grow rice – and one of the first to fail.

“We are the oldest rice farm in the state of Arkansas,” explains John’s great-great-grandson Matt Morris with pride.  “They were not successful with that first crop – but that’s how you learn.  We’ve always been innovators in our family.”

History looms large on Morris Farms, from John’s failed gambit to the successful 1902 harvest of his wife Emma, a pioneering female farmer who helped build the rice industry that now flourishes throughout Arkansas.

But for Matt, the real test of his family farm is yet to come, as he works alongside his father to deploy innovative conservation practices and technologies in order to preserve their land for the next century of Morris farmers.

“Over the last five years, we have implemented a lot of practices that have reduced our water use, our fertilizer application, and saved us money,” says Matt.  “As we continue using these practices, we’ve realized how much of our natural resources that we’re saving.  And that is a really big deal, because those resources aren’t gonna be there tomorrow if we don’t do something today.”

With help from partners like the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), USA Rice, and the University of Arkansas, Matt and his father have rethought their operation’s irrigation practices, using innovative new technology like water and weather sensors to better track their irrigation needs and conserve water.

“With technologies like photosynthetic sensors, I can track my growing degree days and know exactly when I still need to irrigate,” explains Matt.  “Every year that helps shave off at least one watering, saving me time and money in the process.”

Another successful strategy has been the use of multiple inlet rice irrigation, which relies on recyclable poly-tubing and punch holes for water to flow into the fields at precise locations.   Recently, Matt’s neighbors have begun to take notice, with at least one family asking him to come by their operation to show them the ropes of these new methods.  And while he’s happy to share his learnings in his community and on the national stage, Matt also recognizes that more strategies are needed from farmers and industry to drive his peers towards conservation in larger numbers.

“There’s a lot of resources out there, from county extension agencies to NRCS, that can help you adopt and pay for these practices.  But it can be hard to get people to put their foot in the door,” acknowledges Matt.  “Now using social media, showing videos, and promoting these things, I hope we can pique some curiosity.”

Located in a critical groundwater area, Matt stresses that time is of the essence when it comes to shaping a more efficient and sustainable operation.  “Every year our well gives less and less,” he reflects.  “That water’s not going to be here if we keep using it as much as we do.  My biggest fear for other farmers is that by the time they realize that, it’s going to be too late.”

Inspired by the past and looking to the future, Matt hopes to champion a message of conservation and demonstrate that with the right new technologies, farmers can be successful at conserving their most precious natural resources.

“A lot of these practices aren’t just about saving money, they’re about saving what you have, your land and your water,” emphasizes Matt.  “I’ve got three boys, and if they’re going to be farming out here, I’ve got a lot of work to do right now to make sure that they have what they need for the future.”

“It’s inspiring to see an operation with rich, rice history leading the way with innovation,” said Josh Hankins, USA Rice director of the Rice Stewardship Partnership.  “Producers have more tools available now than ever, and our Rice Stewardship Partnership plays a key role in deploying those tools at the farm level, but it takes leaders like Matt to show the industry they work.”