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Pursuing Dreams

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The Noble Research Institute's Basic AG program provides sound education to first-time agricultural producers
Ed and Tavia Morris
With the dramatic Palo Duro Canyon as a backdrop, Ed and Tavia Morris take a break at "lookout point" on their JE Ranch. After years of practicing law in the city, Ed is giving it up to become a rancher. The Morrises are representative of urban professionals who are leaving the city for a life on the land.

"We had been on the edge of the cattle business our entire lives, but we didn't know anything yet."

Ed Morris

Ed Morris examines the barn and corral area of the JE Ranch. Morris, along with his wife Tavia, are using information they learned from the Noble Research Institute's Basic AG program to improve their ranch.

On an unusually cool summer day in West Texas, Ed and Tavia Morris stood on the edge of the beautiful Palo Duro Canyon, looking at their past and their future.

Above them, thick grey clouds bunched together, then scattered like children on a playground, cooling the sun-baked land for a handful of visitors to the couple's 1,500-acre JE Ranch.

The Morrises concluded a two-hour tour of their family homestead at "lookout point," a peninsula of land that juts out into the 120-mile long canyon, providing an unbroken view of the grand vista they so cherish.

The expansive panorama is an oil painting come to life. The strata in the canyon walls alternates hues of cinnamon and burnt orange, and stretches to the horizon like slow-rolling waves in the ocean of rock. The emerald-colored juniper trees scatter in clumps throughout the canyon, which derives its name specifically from their "hard wood." And a dozen individuals stand speechless, drinking in the natural marvel that has served as a backdrop to the couple's fondest memories.

"I love it here," says Tavia Morris, looking at her husband of 45 years. "I never get tired of this view. I could stay up here for hours."

While the scene in front of them connects their past and future, the land behind them is shaping their present. The JE Ranch, which runs partially down the canyon, has been in the family since 1945 and has belonged to Ed and Tavia for more than a decade. The couple never actively managed the land, instead using the remodeled cabin and bunkhouse for weekend retreats, while leasing the land for others to graze their cattle.

In early 2010, the couple decided to become ranchers, pursuing a dream of escaping the office environment and joining countless others who are fleeing urban settings for rural escapes.

The Morrises hope to provide a breath of fresh air to a ranch that - at the beginning of the year - was in need of CPR. Neglect by lessees left pastures overgrazed and overgrown with noxious weeds and mesquite bushes. The corrals stood in disrepair and downed fence lines required immediate attention.

Their first step was to get educated. Their first call was to the Noble Research Institute, which has developed the Basic AG program, a series of courses specifically tailored to educating the first-time agricultural producer. Almost a year has passed, and the couple has learned some tough lessons; but, from the grins on their faces, it's clear that they are ranchers.

Life before ranching
Before the grand tour of JE Ranch, Ed and Tavia served lunch in the bunkhouse, which sits adjacent to the property's chocolate-colored, split-log cabin. The bunkhouse with its plump leather couches, lamps constructed from pistols and carved wood furniture served as home base for the day. Here, perched on barstools, the couple retrace the story that stretches back more than half a century.

Ed was raised in West Texas. Tavia, a self-professed Air Force brat, skipped across the country, before landing at Amarillo Air Force Base. They met in Mrs. Ballard's Spanish class their junior year at Amarillo High School and became sweethearts.

College brought distance, though. He attended Yale University, studying German literature with an eye on the diplomatic route. She returned with her family to southern Illinois and took accounting classes at Bellville Junior College outside of St. Louis, Mo.

During the summer between Ed's sophomore and junior years, he moved into a house a block from Tavia's family, found a job and spent the summer wooing her. As autumn approached, he proposed. Weeks later, he was winging his way to Germany for a year of study abroad. "He wanted everything nice and tied up while he was gone," said Tavia with a chuckle. Ed returned in May, and within weeks the pair married in 1965.

Ed finalized his undergraduate work and attended law school at Harvard University. Patriotic duty delayed his completion, though. The boy, who had been in ROTC throughout high school and college, could not wait for graduation. "Serving my country was something I had to do," Ed said. "I knew it was the right thing to do."

For three years, Ed tromped around the world as an infantry officer - first to Germany (with Tavia), then to Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division. "We lived that war every night on television in living color," said Tavia, who returned to St. Louis during his tour. "It was compelling and frightening."

Ed finalized his three-year commission in Maryland and headed back to Harvard to finish his degree. The fresh graduate landed a job in the Houston office of a large, international law firm.

In Texas, the couple welcomed their only child, Celee, and Tavia attended Rice University seeking a bachelor's degree in managerial studies. While family life was perfect, Ed became restless with the mega-law-firm scene and quit to rejoin the Army, this time with the Judge Advocate General's Corps. Speaking fluent German, Ed became the U.S. Armed Forces liaison to various German authorities. Letters from home brought another move. Ed's mother penned a series of letters outlining her business dealings, and it was clear to Ed that she needed him closer to home.

In 1978, the Morrises returned to Amarillo. The city where they met would be home for the next 32 years. Ed served as a transactions attorney at a local firm. Tavia finished her degree and worked various jobs. And together they raised Celee. Life had come full circle - almost.

Back to school
Throughout Ed's life as a child and married man, the JE Ranch had always been his oasis. While they lived in town, the ranch hosted special family events from birthday parties to summer breaks.

Ed's mother bought the ranch the year before he was born, naming it JE after Ed and his sister, Jane. Ed's father, Leon, was killed in an automobile accident when he was just a few years old, and his step-father, Richard Bell, raised Ed, trying numerous times to teach his stepson about agriculture. "I wouldn't let my stepfather teach me the cattle business. I wasn't interested," Ed said. "I was just a normal kid. I didn't know how important it would be. He passed away in 1970, and I missed a real opportunity."

In 1996, Ed's mother died, and Tavia insisted that they lease the land, allowing the family to use the cabin while keeping the land useful. It seemed like the best of both worlds. But her perfect plan faded in the light of reality. The lessees overgrazed the ranch, frustrating the couple to the point where they left it open for a year. "I remember saying, 'the next cow on this land will be mine,'" Ed recalled. "Nobody will take care of your land like you will. But we needed a place to learn."

A year slipped by. Each morning over breakfast, they discussed their first move. "Several thoughts came to us when we talked about doing this," Ed said. "Do we really need to get in the farming business? How do we pick our first cows? And we were too dumb to know the rest of the questions."

Invariably, action faded as they became entangled with the day's business. But on a particularly momentous late March morning, Tavia kick-started their quest by simply asking: "OK, so how is this going to happen?" Ed scraped down his last forkful of eggs and answered: "If you want to do it, find a place where we can go to school to become ranchers."

A basic solution
A friend at Tavia's Bible study told her about the Noble Research Institute. That afternoon she placed a phone call to Hugh Aljoe, consultation program manager for the Agricultural Division.

"Ed and Tavia's story is becoming increasingly familiar," Aljoe said. "In years past, we worked with producers who had grown up in agriculture. Farming and ranching was their heritage. Today, agriculture has changed. More and more people who have made their living in other industries now want to have a piece of the American dream away from the city. The problem is - just like with Ed and Tavia - they don't know where to start or even go to look for help."

In response to this increasing number of inexperienced farmers and ranchers, called rural life producers, the Noble Research Institute initiated Basic AG, a series of educational events providing practical, foundational knowledge tailored specifically for these producers.

"Basic AG events offer straightforward information and interactive experiences to give participants a better understanding of agriculture principles and get them started toward achieving their production goals," Aljoe said. "This information can be immediately applied to a farmer or rancher's day-to-day operations."

Aljoe told Tavia of an upcoming Basic AG Field Day in McKinney, Texas. With that, the Morrises made the the commitment- and the 350-mile trip - to begin their agricultural education.

Lesson No. 1: Wear the right shoes. "I was wearing really nice shoes, thinking we'd be sitting in a classroom. We walked around in the dirt all day," Tavia said, laughing. "The presentations were great, though, and the information was spot on. We just realized how much we needed to learn and how far we had to go."

The second lesson of the day ruined the couple's plan of running a stocker cattle operation (in theory, a simple concept: buy and raise calves, then sell them). "We learned right away that our core concept was wrong," Ed said. "Our biggest misconception was that you'd buy baby cows cheap, leave them in the field and then sell them. Boy, were we wrong."

Tavia added, "I just thought Mother Nature just took care of them. I had never seen any cow owners do the things the Noble guys were talking about. This was a whole new level."

Their goal quickly morphed into running a cow-calf operation (buy cows, take care of cows, breed cows and then sell calves). "With each new lesson, I became a little more overwhelmed," Ed said. "We had been on the edge of the cattle business our entire lives, and we thought we knew about it, but we didn't know anything yet."

The Morrises returned to the Basic AG Cattle School in May for a series of hands-on demonstrations, learning everything from how to properly give a shot to supplemental feeding. "All we ever saw was cattle turned out and neglected," Tavia said. "Now we understand the fundamentals to successfully running an operation. The more knowledge we got, the more we wanted."

"We took notes for two solid days," Ed said. "Then we decided we needed a week, but we knew if we got a week, we would need a month."

With their goals firmly entrenched, the couple turned their attention to fixing up the ranch.

The most pressing need was fencing or the lack thereof. With a little help from the cost share program through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), they replaced almost 1.5 miles of fencing. The Morrises then focused on brush management (removing one field of mesquite bushes at a time), utilizing the ranch's water wells better and rebuilding the corrals. They have even attended their first regional farm and ranch show to learn about equipment and will continue making the long trek to southern Oklahoma for Basic AG events.

'I need to do this.'
On Jan. 16, 2011, Ed will officially retire from his law firm, trading neckties for work boots. By then, almost a year will have passed since the couple began their process to turn the JE into a working ranch and themselves into ranchers. The discussion of the looming retirement and shift to full-time agricultural producer inevitably brings up Ed's stepfather.

"It sounds romantic - to return after all these years to do what he always wanted me to do," Ed said. "I'm at the point in life where I want to do this; I need to do this. I think he'd be pleased. Of course, it's 40 years later, and he's not here to teach me; but we have the Noble Research Institute, and we're willing to roll up our sleeves, work hard and do things right."

Sounds like something an old pro would say.