Almost 50 years ago, young marrieds Joe and Patricia Morgan moved to a Forrest County, Miss., hilltop to farm 400 rented acres.

“We didn’t have much of anything,” Joe recalls from the distance of decades. My father had co-signed my bank note for my farm loan, and we had a house trailer to live in.”

The land where he would farm, south of Hattiesburg and adjacent to the Desoto National Forest, was hill land once in woods, and he says, “I’d wear out a set of cultivator blades every few days running over stumps in the field.”

But as years went by, improvements were made to the land, acreage was gradually expanded, and today Joe and Patricia have a beautiful home where the house trailer long ago stood; their son, Joe Jr., who farms with them, has a new home just across the road; the hilltop is covered with neat metal buildings for equipment, a spacious shop and grain storage bins, and M&M Farms now encompasses 2,350 acres of land that produces high-yielding crops.

In 2012 the Morgans entered the Mississippi Peanut Growers Association yield competition and were the state winner in the 800 acres and above category with 5,660 pounds per acre.

 “Patricia and I grew up in Perry County, the next county over,” Joe says. “My father did construction work, and also had a cattle operation and grew small acreages of row crops. Patricia’s father was a farmer, with a large commercial produce operation, growing all kinds of vegetables and also some cotton.”

Joe, valedictorian of his high school class, was going to pursue an engineering career, but he laughingly says “calculus and higher math were my undoing, and I decided to be a farmer.

“I started in 1965 with a little over 100 acres of rented land, using my father’s Allis Chalmers tractor. A tractor salesman tried to get me to buy a bigger tractor, and I told him if he’d find me some more land to farm, I’d buy his tractor.

“He found this land, which belonged to a man in Georgia who owned a lot of land in Mississippi and other states. The owner agreed to let me rent 400 acres and pay him in the fall when I’d harvested my crops. In those days, everyone was growing soybeans, and I grew beans, corn, and wheat.”

Now, M&M is the largest farming operation in a county that no longer has much agriculture — when the government’s Conservation Reserve Program was started, large chunks of land went into pine trees.

“With today’s equipment, chemistries, and varieties, we could easily farm another 1,000 acres,” Joe says, “but there is no land available for farming in this area. To expand, we’d have to go 60 miles southwest, and we’re just reluctant to commit to that.

“From here to the north end of where we farm is about 30 miles, and to the east we go about 12 miles — a lot of fields, ranging from only about 2 acres to the largest, 180 acres. Just moving equipment from place to place is a challenge, particularly on Highway 49, a high traffic route to the Gulf Coast. Even though we have escorts and flashing lights, we’ve still had a couple of instances of people running into our tractors.”

Over the years, Joe says, “We’ve tried a lot of different crops: soybeans, corn, wheat, cotton, watermelons, produce, and for a couple of years we even had 200 to 300 acres of string beans. But that didn’t last; it was too hard to hit the weather window to deliver the crop on the schedule the contractor needed it.”

As far back to the 1980s, he says, “I had been wanting to grow peanuts, but they were still under the government quota system, and it was hard to buy or rent quota from established growers, many of whom were up in the Delta. And if you bought quota, you usually had to buy the owner’s equipment, too.