Perspectives Online

Agricultural Institute graduate launches his career at a non-profit farm in New England

Animal care is one of many duties performed by David Morris as he works toward running his own farm in the future.
Photo courtesy David Morris

David Morris grew up in urban Arlington, Va. — not on a farm. But less than four days after he’d graduated from N.C. State University’s Agricultural Institute with an associate degree in agricultural business, the 23-year-old started what he hopes to be a long-term career in sustainable agriculture.

And it sounds like he’s off to a great start.

Morris holds the title of assistant farmer for Codman Community Farms, a 30-acre non-profit farm in Lincoln, Mass., just a 30-minute drive away from Boston. The 200-year-old farm was given to the town of Lincoln, which then established a non-profit to operate and maintain it.

One of the goals is to preserve the area’s farm heritage, including a herd of Devon cattle, a breed allegedly brought to the New World in the early 1600s for Pilgrims in the Plymouth Colony.

Morris is in charge of daily equipment maintenance and animal care on the farm and about 160 acres of grassland the farm uses around town. And he is, as he puts it, “adjunct on everything.”

Working with two other staff members, he finds himself involved not just with agricultural production and marketing but also working with volunteers, interacting with students and sometimes helping in the office. When he began the interview for this story, he spoke from his cell phone while running a tractor. And a half-hour later, he was off to get a group of fifth graders started on some chores they’d be doing around the farm.

Working at a non-profit farm isn’t something Morris ever imagined himself doing. But he likes it, and he sees it as one of the first steps toward his ultimate goal: running his own small farm.

“Every step is leading toward owning my own farm, and I’m definitely on my way,” he says.

Morris says he first became interested in farming when he was 16 or 17. “I was thinking more about food. I wanted to eat healthier, and that got me thinking about where food comes from,” he says. “And that led me to want to farm.”

To prepare himself, Morris took part-time jobs on two farms – one raising vegetables and the other, bison – and he enrolled at N.C. State. He also undertook a yearlong apprenticeship at the Farm School in Athol, Mass., where he met and worked with Peter Merrill, who is now Codman’s head farmer.

Morris says that a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences value-added course — taught by Melissa Hendrickson and Dr. Ron Campbell, faculty members in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics — gave him some of the marketing ideas he’s putting into practice at Codman.

Among those ideas: shifting from a community-supported-agriculture model, in which people sign up to receive farm goods, to an on-farm store that sells to the public and to restaurants various cuts of beef, pork and lamb, as well as chicken and eggs.

When customers come to visit the store, they can pay to visit the farm. And Codman also invites the public to a fall harvest fair, an antique tractor show, a summer farmers market, a 4-H club, tours for school children and classes on topics such as felt-making and raising backyard chickens.

Codman’s livestock is pasture-raised on grains and grasses and free of artificial growth hormones. Antibiotics are used only as a last resort – not, as Morris says, “as a crutch for bad husbandry.”

Morris believes that raising animals this way is potentially more profitable, given the local market demand.

“The demand for sustainable here is ridiculous. You can’t hold on to product,” he says. “And the food culture is great. Local chefs are really involved in local agriculture, and fine dining establishments put us on their menus. They point out that the meat is locally and humanely raised.”

Together, Morris and Merrill are working to build on that demand by implementing new practices and new enterprises on the farm. Last summer, Codman began raising goats and making them available for people who want a natural lawn mower for their yards. Next year, the farm plans to start charging for the “mowing” service.

“It seems like this is a place with endless opportunities,” Morris says. “I feel pretty lucky.”

— Dee Shore