In 2017, after 21 years of service to his country and five deployments, Ralph Morton came home to Greene County, Virginia, to help his father on the family farm.
After Morton had been home about two months, his father passed away leaving Morton and his sister, Sarah, to manage the business. The siblings are the third generation to make their living off the 175-acre Cattle Run Farm.
The modern incarnation of Cattle Run Farm is different than that of past generations, and while Morton has a passion for the land and traditional agriculture, he has adapted the operation from the strictly cattle and small grain business of his father’s to a more diverse niche farm focusing on grass-fed beef and pork and selling berries. The farm also hosts school and youth groups for organized on-farm educational opportunities.
Morton is also the volunteer director of Minority and Veteran Farmers of the Piedmont, a non-profit based out of the Carver Center in Culpeper, Virginia.
The Carver Center is located at the former George Washington Carver High School, a regional high school for African American students during segregation. Minority and Veteran Farmers of the Piedmont is an offshoot of the Small Farm Outreach Program run by Virginia State University and offers training, technical assistance and financial resources for minorities and veterans who may be interested in starting a small farm business.
Morton is passionate about the future of agriculture and has focused both the family farm and the non-profit on the idea of teaching young people how to feed themselves. Morton said he believes that the country can help fix obesity and food insecurity issues on a community level by teaching people to produce their own food.
“I like to share my passion and experience,” Morton said. “If we don’t share with communities and youth the family farm will disappear — land will be growing houses faster than crops. I really want to be a mentor to young farmers. I want to show them that farming doesn’t have to be 50 cows and 100 acres. I want to show the young veteran farmers that the farm lifestyle can help them cope with PTSD. We don’t want it to get where all our food comes from big factory farms — places that don’t have the same commitment to good animal care and land stewardship.”
Morton has used both his military experience and education to help keep Cattle Run Farm profitable.
“The Army taught me to go and go, then I got out and got a degree in business management,” he said. “It’s helped me run the farm. You can’t just focus on one crop anymore. The cattle are nice, but you only get a check for them once a year. You need crops for the other 11 months. We’ve adapted by selling grass-fed meats, berries and other vegetables. Niche farming and diversifying are ways to be successful.”
Morton said he believes that exposing children to how food is produced will help lead to a healthier lifestyle.
“I think kids today have too much screen time — television, phones and internet,” Morton said. “It’s good for them to get outdoors and important for them to learn how food is supposed to be produced.”
Morton uses the Cattle Run Farm motto — “educate, cultivate and motivate” — as a mantra for both his business and the Minority and Veteran Farmers of the Piedmont.
“Farming can help veterans cope,” he said. “It’s like therapy being on the farm. I want to show people this is a way to deal with PTSD and produce food for our community.”
For anyone interested, the Minority and Veteran Farmers of the Piedmont meet on the second Monday of each month at the Carver Center at 6:30 p.m. Membership is open to all minority, socially disadvantaged and veterans interested in farming. Annual dues are $25.