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Early pioneers overcame obstacles to grow rice in Arkansas

2018 Arkansas Soil and Water Education Conference
Richard Morris, right, talks with Coleman Middleton, left, with EnviroSolutions, Clarksdale, Miss., at the Arkansas Soil and Water Education Conference. With Morris is his son, Matthew, and Matthew’s wife, Erica.
John Morris and William Fuller decided to try to grow rice in Arkansas early in the 20th century.

Richard Morris says it’s difficult to imagine the Grand Prairie of Arkansas without rice fields. But it’s even more difficult to imagine it without irrigation wells, says Morris, a fourth-generation rice farmer from Carlisle, Ark.

Morris can imagine the region without either more clearly because he’s read about it in journals left by his great-grandfather, John Morris, and his great-grandmother, Emma Morris, who were among the first farmers to grow rice in Arkansas.

John Morris and his brother-in-law, William Fuller, farmed together — across the road from each other — near Carlisle at the beginning of the 20th century. The pair of young farmers decided to try to grow rice in Arkansas after learning about rice production on their duck-hunting trips to Louisiana in the late 1890s.

“They saw rice growing in Louisiana; they noticed the way the land was similar to theirs; the soil structure was similar to theirs,” said Morris, a speaker at the Arkansas Soil and Water Education Conference at Arkansas State University Jan. 31. “So they decided they would try to raise rice in Arkansas.”

John Morris and William Fuller, and later Emma Morris encountered obstacles that might have stopped many growers, according to Richard Morris, who farms 1,350 acres of rice, corn and soybeans with his son, Matthew, on the same land farmed by his ancestors more than a century ago.

Irrigation wells

The first obstacle involved irrigation wells, which were relatively unknown in Arkansas in those days.

“Mr. Fuller made his first attempt in 1896,” said Morris. “He didn’t have a well, and he had to figure out how to have a well big enough for irrigation. He put down two 4-inch wells, side-by-side, as close as he could get them.

“He devised a pump that had what he called a ‘double-cranked drum,’ according to his own journal, so he was able to pump both of those wells at the same time with one engine,” said Morris. “And, by the way, that engine was a steam engine.”

Morris said he’s often thought about what it must have been like to operate that engine on a hot summer day in Arkansas, putting firewood beneath a boiler. “That’s why he didn’t have but 10 acres of rice,” Morris said to laughter in the Arkansas State University First National Bank Center.

Unfortunately, Fuller’s well didn’t hold up. “He pulled his pump in two,” said Morris, “and his crop died for lack of moisture. His first attempt was a failure, and Mr. Fuller decided to move to Louisiana to study rice production a little bit closer.”

John Morris made his first attempt to grow rice in 1901. He had been studying how to irrigate rice and had a hole dug for a 10-inch well on his farm. He invented a screen for a well that he thought would be an improvement, one of many that were needed to make such wells more efficient in those days. Morris received a patent for his well screen in 1901.

“John Morris ordered his seed from Louisiana and planted his rice,” said Richard Morris. “But he ran into an obstacle with his rice irrigation because his pumping equipment did not arrive in time. He had a hole in the ground; he had a crop planted; but he had no way to get water out of the ground.

Murphy’s law

“You know how Murphy’s law applies. There was a severe drought that summer, and by the time his pumping equipment arrived, his crop had withered away, and it was too late for irrigation. His first attempt in 1901 was a failure.”

In 1902, John Morris decided to try again. He had his well and his pumping equipment and he had plans for about 15 acres of rice. But his seed didn’t arrive in time.

“It was on a train from Louisiana,” Morris said. “It finally arrived in time for him to plant in early July. And he decided not to risk the whole 15 acres and planted about half of those to rice. There was a cool ripening season, but he was able to harvest 60 bushels an acre.”

In 1903, John Morris planned to grow rice again. He traveled to Louisiana to try to market his well screen and to try to learn more about rice production.

“Unfortunately, he suffered a heart attack in March of 1903 and died at the age of 47,” said Morris. “But his wife, my great-grandmother Emma Morris, shared the same vision he had and that was to see rice growing on her farm in the Grand Prairie of Arkansas.”

Mrs. Morris became the first woman rice farmer in Arkansas. “She was grief-stricken over the loss of her husband and trying to raise six children, the oldest being 18. She planted about 15 acres of rice, most of it the variety Honduras.”

She also had an obstacle to overcome — grass control in rice. “Being new to rice, she didn’t maintain a proper flood on all of her rice,” said Morris. “But she was able to harvest about 10 acres where the rice wasn’t choked out by the grass. She had adequate water depth on those, and it kept the grass down. Those 10 acres made a whopping 90 bushels to the acre.”

Second attempt with a twist

Fuller came back to Arkansas in 1904 to make his second attempt at growing rice, but it came with a twist. (Emma Morris planted 50 acres of rice in 1904.) “The citizens of Hazen and Carlisle came together and offered Mr. Fuller $1,000 if he could grow a field containing at least 70 acres of rice and harvest at least 35 bushels an acre,” Morris said.

“If he could meet the challenge and prove that rice could be grown commercially on their land, he would have $1,000. And he did it. He grew 70 acres of rice and harvested 75 bushels an acre. And he didn’t use a steam engine. He had an oil burning pump. We have the base of the engine pulled off to the side for historical purposes.”

Richard Morris said that when he began farming with his father on that same land in 1971, most of the Grand Prairie had ample irrigation water for rice. But that began to change during the decade of the 1970s, culminating with the severe drought that occurred in the Mid-South in 1980.

Wells that had been supplying water for rice on the farm for decades stopped producing. Richard Morris put down a well that produced 1,000 gallons of water per minute in the mid-1970s, but two years later it wasn’t producing enough water.

“Here it was 1979, and we were critically short of water,” said Morris. “I knew that if I was going to raise rice, I was going to have to do something much different from what I was doing. I was thinking about reservoirs because I’d seen some built around Stuttgart.”

In 1981, Morris built his first reservoir with engineering help from what was then called the Soil Conservation Service. There were no cost-sharing funds for such construction in those days. “It was a lick,” he said. “But it paid for itself and was able to keep us in business.”

Since then, Morris has built another reservoir. He also uses the Pipe Planner software program developed by Delta Plastics; he’s adopted multiple inlet rice irrigation; and he’s also using alternate wetting and drying, a technique in which farmers don’t maintain a full flood on their rice fields.

Rainfall records

Morris said 32 years of rainfall records show he receives an average of 45.73 inches of rain on his farm annually. Only 28 percent on average of that occurs during the growing season.

“So it just seems logical that we need to build structures that not only capture this rain water but store it. That became my long-term goal — to get away from irrigation wells and groundwater and be all surface water, which we are now.

“It’s been a long haul,” he said. “Over the years we’ve dug two reservoirs, we’ve built miles of tail-water ditches, we’ve done precision leveling — everything you think of in the way of engineering with the USDA-NRCS. Fortunately, the last few years the farm bill has had some assistance to do these projects through cost-sharing.”

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