A farmer for 50 years, John Keller of Maryville, Tenn., has long been close to the land he farms in the shade of the scenic Great Smoky Mountains.
He farms about 788 acres, including 226 acres of rented land and 562 acres of family-owned land. His crops include corn, soybeans, wheat, rye, hay and pasture. He also raises cattle. He grows and sells straw from both his wheat and rye, and also sells bundled cornstalks for use in decorations.
As a result of his long success as a diversified farmer, Keller has been selected as the Tennessee state winner of the 2014 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Keller joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 14 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.
His per acre yields last year were 150 bushels for corn from 123 acres, 49 bushels of soybeans from 316 acres, 60 bushels of wheat from 150 acres and 2.75 tons of hay from 140 acres. His pastures consist of about 130 acres.
Keller owns about 70 beef cows and finishes about 20 head per year for his custom freezer beef business. He sells the freezer beef directly to customers and hopes to expand these sales to reach new customers.
He markets calves through auction markets and graded feeder calf sales. Most are sold as weaned, conditioned calves, and others are backgrounded prior to marketing.
“Our main crops are corn, wheat and soybeans,” says Keller. He markets them using cash delivery at harvest, forward contracting, and selling stored crops after harvest. He has expanded his grain storage and now stores about 40,000 bushels to take advantage of later higher prices.
As local market outlets declined for wheat and soybeans, he contracted with trucking firms to haul his crops to market. Lately, he has sold wheat to the Tennessee Farmers Cooperative, and sold soybeans to markets in Gainesville, Ga., or Guntersville, Ala.
From 150 acres of wheat and 68 acres of rye, he sells about 20,000 bales of straw per year to agribusinesses and retail markets. He also sells miniature bales of straw in the fall for use at local fairs and festivals.
“We add value to our crop enterprises by marketing the specialty bundled cornstalks,” he explains. He sells about 5,000 bundles of stalks from five acres of his corn. The cornstalks complement his seasonal straw sales. The bundled stalks also provide exposure for the farm and its products to potential customers.
He hopes to develop his cornstalks, straw bales, mini straw bales and other items into a comprehensive line of fall and harvest-time items that can be used for landscaping and decorating. To do this, he bought a 70-year-old pto-driven machine that bundles the cornstalks. He also bought a custom-made baler to re-bale the square straw bales into the miniature bales. “We hope this equipment will let us expand our specialty product sales to more than 20 retail outlets,” he adds.
As a child, Keller loved driving tractors. He farms land his grandfather bought in 1890. In 1966, he grew some of the first no-till soybeans in Tennessee. Now, two thirds of his soybeans and all of his corn are planted with no tillage.
Keller takes pride in running a financially secure farm that supports two households. He named his farm Kelmont Farms, in recognition of his last name and of the mountains nearby. “
He says he achieves economic efficiency by keeping most farm chores “in the family” and only hiring outside work if family members can’t accomplish it themselves.
Urban growth in the area has increased land values, so Keller expanded by renting rather than purchasing land. He leases property close to his home farm to minimize transportation expenses, and he plans to lease additional land.
He also opens his farm to visiting student and adult groups. “We’ve hosted as many as 1,400 school children in one day, and this has provided much return in community awareness and support for agriculture,” he says. “We hope this appreciation for American farm families will stay with them throughout their lives.”
Keller is a Blount County leader. He has served as president of the county Farm Bureau. He’s a member and past president of Blount County Livestock Association. He was a 4-H volunteer and was a Soil Conservation Farmer of the Year. He has been president of the Foothills Farmers Cooperative and on the board of the Smoky Mountain Feeder Calf Association. He has served on the boards of the USDA Farm Service Agency and the Blount County Fire Insurance Company. He has also been an advisor to Extension and Farm Credit offices.
On the state level, Keller has been active in Tennessee’s Farm Bureau, Soybean Association, Soybean Promotion Board, Cattlemen’s Association and Corn Growers Association. He was second runner up in the Tennessee Jaycees Outstanding Young Farmer award and was an outstanding agricultural engineering alumnus of the University of Tennessee. Keller, his wife, his father, his mother and his two children all graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Nationally, Keller is a member of the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, American Soybean Association, and has represented Tennessee on the Southern Soybean Research Program.
He and his wife Susan are active in New Providence Presbyterian Church. Susan was a home economics teacher until resigning to spend time on the farm where she often drives tractors. Keller says Susan quit teaching “to raise kids and to run John Deeres.”
Susan is also an outstanding farm leader. She chaired the Blount County Farm Bureau Women, served on the Education Foundation board and was a 4-H volunteer. She has been a member of Leadership Blount, and on the Blount Memorial Hospital board. She was also on the Maryville Planning Commission and helped found a grassroots land preservation organization.
On the state level, she has been involved with Tennessee’s Farm Bureau, Soybean Board and Young Farmers and Homemakers. For the University of Tennessee, she has advised the Institute of Agriculture and helped the Alliance of Women Philanthropists.
Nationally, she has been a voting delegate and talent performer at the American Farm Bureau Federation. She also served as a volunteer spokesperson and host of agricultural gatherings for the American Soybean Association.
John and Susan have two children. Their daughter Margaret is a food scientist in Ohio. Their son Sam is vice president of Kelmont Farms. Sam’s wife Shanda and their children Isaac, Elizabeth and Luke all live and work on the farm.
Robert Burns, Tennessee Extension assistant dean, is state coordinator for the Farmer of the Year awards. John Wilson, Extension agent in Blount County, Tenn., nominated Keller for the award.
Wilson praises Keller’s mind for business and how he accomplishes hard farming work. Wilson also admires his passion for the land and his livestock. “He is the essence of the American farmer,” says Wilson.
As the Tennessee state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Keller will now receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from Southern States cooperative, the choice of either $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed or a $500 donation to a designated charity from Dow AgroSciences, and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash award that goes to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate and a Heritage gun safe from Southern States, the choice of either another $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed or a second $500 donation to a designated charity from Dow AgroSciences, and a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 25th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $964,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous state winners from Tennessee include: James R. Graham of Newport, 1990; Burl Ottinger of Parrottsville, 1991; Dwaine Peters of Madisonville, 1992; Edward Wilson of Cleveland, 1993; Bob Willis of Hillsboro, 1994; Bobby W. Vannatta of Bell Buckle, 1995; George McDonald of Riddleton, 1996; Jimmy Gaylord of Sharon, 1997; Jimmy Tosh of Henry, 1998; Eugene Pugh, Jr. of Halls, 1999; Harris Armour of Somerville, 2000; Malcolm Burchfiel of Newbern, 2001; Ed Rollins of Pulaski, 2002; John Smith of Puryear, 2003; Austin Anderson of Manchester, 2004; John Litz of Morristown, 2005; Bob Willis of Hillsboro, 2006; Grant Norwood of Paris, 2007; Jerry Ray of Tullahoma, 2008; Richard Atkinson of Belvidere, 2009; Brad Black of Vonore, 2010; Mac Pate of Maryville, 2011; Steve Dixon of Estill Springs, 2012; and Richard Jameson of Brownsville, 2013.
Tennessee has had two overall winners, Jimmy Tosh of Henry in 1998 and Bob Willis of Hillsboro in 2006.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit the Keller farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 4-8. The judges this year include farmer Brian Kirksey of Amity, Ark., the overall winner in 2008; John Woodruff, retired University of Georgia Extension agronomist from Tifton, Ga., who specialized in soybeans for many years; and Clark Garland, longtime University of Tennessee Extension ag economist from Maryville, Tenn.