Kentucky farmer Keith Lowry is known for his high yielding corn and soybeans and for the many ways he supports his community.
He lives and farms in the western part of the state, in the Pilot Oak community near Water Valley, Ky. His modern shop building has become a popular gathering spot for charitable and social events in the community.
He started farming 40 years ago with 250 rented acres. From that, he built an impressive 9,000-acre farm. He rents 5,000 acres from 58 landlords, and the rest is family owned land.
As a result of his success as a row crop farmer, Lowry has been selected as the state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. He joins nine other individuals as finalists for the overall award that will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 18 at the Sunbelt Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.
Lowry joined the family farm full time in 1976. His family’s sixth generation is now living on the farm. During high school, his family lived in Birmingham, Ala., where his father was a trucker. Lowry would get on his motorcycle and drive to Kentucky so he could spend his summer months working on his grandfather’s farm. “My granddad helped me buy my first farm,” Lowry recalls. “In 1980, I rented 80 acres, and Granddad put down $10,000 so I could buy that land. My grandfather also co-signed the note at the local Production Credit Association lender for the land.”
Last year, he produced 186 bushels of corn per acre from about 3,500 acres. On another 3,500 acres, his soybeans yielded 59 bushels per acre. His wheat yields from 2,000 acres reached 77 bushels per acre. He uses no-till planting on 75% of his crops, and has had good results with no-till wheat.
He uses split nitrogen applications on his corn, and has used global positioning and other precision farming tools for about ten years.
“All of our soybeans and 80% of our wheat are grown for seed,” he says. He grows soybean seed for Monsanto and grows wheat seed for Pioneer and Dyna-Gro. Growing for seed earns premium prices, but it requires the harvested varieties to be stored and handled separately. He harvests wheat in June and it is gone from the farm by the end of August so he can then store soybeans.
In marketing his grain crops, Lowry subscribes to three professional marketing advisory services, and makes his selling decisions based on their advice. His corn marketing is aided by a strong basis, the difference between local and national cash prices. The basis is strong due to his close proximity to poultry production, ethanol plants and river shipping points. He’s able to store about 500,000 bushels of grain on his farm, which also aids in marketing for higher prices.
His plans call for expanding the farm’s fertilizer and grain storage facilities, and adding more center pivot irrigation.
In addition, Lowry operates two other businesses, a trucking company and a construction company. The trucking sideline helps keep farm employees working full time. The construction business includes a bulldozer, dirt pan and track-hoe that are hired out for earthmoving jobs.
“We have a ten-year farm succession plan in place,” says Lowry. “I lost my dad unexpectedly when he died in a 2001 plane crash, so I know how important that estate planning and planning for business succession can be.” He says he’s using life insurance to make sure his non-farming heirs will be treated fairly when his estate is settled.
His farm hosts a visit from Santa Claus each December for local children whose families are invited to donate toys to the Graves County Family Resources Center.
Lowry has helped to auction University of Kentucky basketball tickets donated by local individuals to benefit the family of a neighbor who was injured in a tree stand accident.
He has also hosted FFA fundraisers and farm safety programs. And he sponsors four scholarships each year for local students. His farm has also been the site of weddings and wedding receptions, and a public farm bill hearing.
Lowry is active in a number of organizations. He has been a local Farm Bureau board member for 20 or more years. He’s on the Graves County Economic Development Board, and he served on the local soil conservation district board where he was chairman for ten years. He is also active in FFA Alumni, and has been a Little League team sponsor and served as a mentor for Graves County youth.
On the state level, Lowry has been a Special Olympics sponsor and a member of state grower associations for corn, wheat and soybeans. He has also hosted a University of Kentucky winter workshop, National Wild Turkey Federation banquets and sponsored Wounded Warrior turkey hunts and banquets.
His wife Rita works for Heritage Bank in Fulton, Ky. Rita grew up on a small farm. Keith married her after his first wife who was the mother of his children died in 1993. Keith and Rita are active members of the Cuba Church of Christ.
Together, Keith and Rita have four adult sons, Brian and Jarrod McMillin, and Vincent and Patrick Lowry. Brian is a social worker and Jarrod teaches math at the local high school. Both Vincent and Patrick work full time on the farm, and are involved in all of the day-to-day farming operations.
Keith and Rita have two daughters in law who work on the farm. Brooke is married to Vincent and she works in the farm’s office. Stefanie is married to Patrick, and she helps to make sure that all of the equipment is kept clean. Stefanie and Patrick also raise money to help fund research on controlling type 1 diabetes. Vincent served as a Marine in Iraq and has taken the lead in inviting military veterans to the farm every year for a turkey hunting weekend. The weekend ends with a banquet to honor the veterans who came to hunt and the veterans in the community.
Keith and Rita also have five grandchildren, and they look forward to the birth of a new grandson in September. “We hope that a few of them, if not all, will decide to stay on the farm when they are older,” adds Keith.
Keith has a great appreciation for his farming heritage. “I remember my great granddaddy,” he says. “I know that if he and my granddaddy didn’t farm, then I wouldn’t be farming today.”
L. Joe Cain with Kentucky Farm Bureau is the coordinator of the Farmer of the Year award in the state.
Lowry was nominated for the honor by a fellow farmer, Randall Heath of Hickory, Ky., who serves as Farm Bureau president in Graves County, Ky. Heath has also been on the board of River Valley AgCredit, a cooperative Farm Credit bank that serves customers in Western Kentucky. Heath explains that River Valley AgCredit has been a long-time lender to Lowry for 40 years, and that Lowry has been one of the bank’s most reliable customers.
“I’ve known Keith since he started farming,” says Heath. “Through the years, he has shown great community spirit. He is very concerned about the community around him. I thought Keith would be an outstanding candidate for the Farmer of the Year award. He does an extremely good job at his farming, at his marketing and in borrowing money.”
As Heath looks over Lowry’s long career, he adds that “Keith didn’t start the farm from nothing, but it was pretty close to that. He has been able to grow and expand his farm without ever taking advantage of anyone in the community. He is just a generous person, a giver.”
As the Kentucky state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Lowry 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 the Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize 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 from Southern States, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply and a smoker-grill from Hays LTI.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 27th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,040,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Kentucky farmers became eligible to compete for the Farmer of the Year award in 2006. Previous state winners from Kentucky include Sam Moore of Morgantown in 2006, Scott Travis of Cox’s Creek in 2007, Loretta Lyons of Tompkinsville in 2008, Doug Langley of Shelbyville in 2009, Joe Nichols of Cadiz in 2010; Jim Sidebottom of Greensburg in 2012; Scott Travis of Cox’s Creek in 2013; and Ray Allan Mackey of Elizabethtown, 2014; and Jack Trumbo of Simpsonville, 2015.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit Lowry’s farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 1-5. The judges for this year include Clark Garland, longtime University of Tennessee Extension ag economist from Maryville, Tenn.; farmer Thomas Porter, Jr., of Concord, N.C., who was the overall winner in 2011; and Charles Snipes, retired Mississippi Extension weed specialist from Greenville, Miss.
Note to media: The judges will visit the Lowry farm on Aug. 3 from 1-4 p.m. If you would like to visit the farm during the final two hours of judging, call John Leidner at 229-392-1798, or contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact Lowry by calling 270-376-2616.