PLEASANT RIDGE — Ben Morris is hard at work on a recent Sunday at the Morris Farms produce stand at 1868 Pleasant Ridge Road in southern Virginia Beach.
He keeps it stocked, fills orders from customers, cuts produce in nearby fields, hauls it back to the stand in a metal cart, places it on shelves, repeats the process.
He is running this show. It is an honor stand, but it isn’t like you just prop up some vegetables and walk away until tomorrow.
There is a lot of work, and Morris is attentive to it. He is only 11, a sixth grader with many of the interests one would expect, but this stand has been his responsibility since earlier this year, when his father’s uncle and aunt, Jim and June Morris, retired from it. Under the watchful eye of his parents and kin, Ben Morris is in charge.
With students home due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, some of his duties come in the early morning and then during breaks in his distance learning classes. When there is exertion required — and there often is — the work might even line up with physical education studies.
This is an early taste of the life he wants, the one a young man who says he is “from the dirt” feels coursing through his veins. Ben Morris is part of a farming family that dates back to the 1600s in what is today Virginia Beach. He is working toward being a 13th generation farmer.
His dad – the 12th generation – is Scott Morris of Scott Morris Farms, who on this day is away at another location harvesting soybeans while Ben Morris works with his mom, Betsy Morris, at the stand.
Betsy Morris is a high school teacher who is educating from home in these strange days of the pandemic. She is close by while her son works, sometimes offering a hand when he needs it. So long as he studies.
“Basically, I help him for good grades,” she says.
And she keeps an eye out for things such as how he uses a knife to cut the greens off a rutabaga he has just pulled from the soil.
Ben Morris lives with his parents and sister, Jenna, in a house near the stand, and there is other family around, too. He’s proud of his work running the stand. He’s glad the opportunity to do this arose.
“I had always kind of wanted to,” Ben Morris says. “I was bored because of Covid and everything.”
He was unable to participate in karate or basketball.
“Farmer’s blood, I guess.”
He wants to farm when he grows up.
“That’s what he says,” Betsy Morris notes. “If the MBA falls through.”
While Ben Morris works to gather produce for the stand, his grandfather, Nelson Morris, drives a red pickup truck up a path near the fields. He asks his grandson to harvest some cabbage for an order.
“That’s the future,” Nelson Morris says of his grandchild.
“I need to cut 10 heads of cabbage,” Ben Morris says a moment later.
His mother asks him what he has learned about picking a good cabbage.
“The ball part of it, you want it to be really, really hard,” Ben Morris says.
“The head,” Betsy Morris says.
“Yeah,” Ben Morris agrees.
Cabbage and rutabaga and turnips and collards and more make up Ben Morris’ “garden,” which supports the stand and orders for produce. It is much more ambitious than what most folks consider a garden. There are rows and rows of plants over roughly an acre of farmland.
What else would Ben Morris want to do in life?
“Not anything realistic. I wanted to be an NBA player.”
The Lakers may be on the wrong coast, but they have the right star – LeBron James.
Morris has a hoops nickname.
“I’m trying to explain to Ben there are lots of careers in agriculture, and you still farm, and then you get that degree,” Betsy Morris says.
She teaches advanced placement English and public speaking at Kellam High School.
Her son has the writing gene, too.
She recites the opening of a poem he wrote this year for his English class at Old Donation School. The topic was where he is from. Ben recites a bit more of it.
Later, Mom sends it along via email.
“LeJamin,” it is called.
It deals with what an 11-year-old boy loves – King James of the mighty Lakers, martial arts, games. But, first and foremost, it is about farming:
I am from the dirt that 13 generations of farmers have plowed.
I am from the dirt that lives between my toes and under my fingernails.
I am from the dusty dirt that starves my plants when the sky won’t release the rain.
I am mainly from the mud that tries to drown my crops and eat my boots.
I am from the dirt that either gives my plants a home or gives them a death bed.
I am a farmer.
Ben Morris says he has wanted to be a farmer, a preacher and an NBA player.
“All at the same time,” Mom says.
“All at the same time,” he agrees.
But mostly the dream is to be a farmer like his dad and others in his family, the people he has grown up watching do this work in rural Virginia Beach.
“Yes, sir,” Ben Morris says. “I just like it. I want to help Dad when I get older. He’s been helping my Geepa” – his grandfather, Nelson Morris – “and my Geepa gave the farm to him, and he’s helping my dad. Why not keep it rolling?”
Ben Morris is already thinking about a key element of the business – making sure there is enough land.
“I want to try to save up for some more land so he can have more land,” he says, speaking of farming with his father. “So he can extend the farm, I guess.”
He counts rutabagas. They need one more – one more big one. They find the right rutabaga. He pulls it, cleans it, cuts the greens with the knife. Mom watches him cut.
There aren’t so many peers at Old Donation School who want to do what Ben Morris wants to do. He knew more like-minded folks at Creeds Elementary School, which serves rural communities in the city.
“There were a lot of farm boys there,” he says.
Ben Morris and his mother walk back to the stand. He pulls the cart full of what he has gathered. He restocks the stand, where signs show the names of the goods. His sister painted the signs.
A customer from Salem stops by to buy sweet potatoes and collards. After the customer heads off down Pleasant Ridge Road, Ben Morris rides his dirt bike to a back field beyond the cabbage and collards and rutabaga he visited earlier.
Surrounded by green, he picks enough kale to fill a large bag.
He packs it tight, carries the bag under his arm, heads back toward the road to replenish the family stand.
© 2020 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC