Stephen J. Kelley was raised on a sixty-acre farm, although his parents worked off the farm. Some of his earliest memories include raising hogs, cattle, and corn with his family. And they always cultivated a big garden at home. By middle school he was helping his older brother raise about an acre and a half of burley tobacco on their grandfather’s 170-acre farm. In high school, he partnered with his brother to raise the tobacco on shares. He recalled, “My parents hoped that I wouldn’t make farming a career, but my love of the land had been instilled early on, and farming became my goal.”
Kelley went on to earn a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science degree in Agriculture from Murray State University and a teaching certificate for vocational agriculture. In 1970, while in college, he and his brother purchased a 600–acre tract of land that was grown up in bushes and had severe drainage problems. He remembered, “It wasn’t a very desirable farm, and we were teased a great deal about its condition. I spent summers and weekends working the land and, after graduation in 1973, I came back to Carlisle County to farm full time.” Although Kelley and his brother initially farmed as partners, Kelley has been farming independently for more than twenty years.
In the fall of 1973 that same year, Kelley married Melanie, the love of his life. The two had known each other since elementary school. He recalled, “We began raising cattle and growing crops because it was my passion. I also felt called to make a positive impact on our community and on our environment as well as establish a fitting way of life for our family. Melanie has always been my encourager in difficult times and my faithful helpmate to do whatever is necessary, from running errands for parts to helping move equipment around. She is also a wonderful mother to our two children.”
Son Kristopher Kelley’s entrepreneurship and aesthetics and society degrees from Washington University in St. Louis have helped him succeed in his career and in his own private ventures. He manages Woodland Farm, a 1000–acre farm owned by Melanie’s brother outside of Louisville, KY. They raise bison, heritage hogs, free range chickens, and some cattle, along with growing vegetables and harvesting honey. The farm combines sustainable growing practices and heritage foods with a love of educating the community. While in college, Kristopher launched Kelley Green Biofuel to create biofuel out of cooking grease and has continued this business. He just opened Full Stop Station in January 2019—his contemporary idea of a convenience store/filling station with electric car chargers, great coffee, and local food. Kristopher also manages a meat processing plant and oversees several land preservation projects.
Daughter Katie graduated from Centre College in Danville, KY with a BS in Psychology and from the University of Chicago with an MS in Social Sciences. For seven years she worked with college students at Dominican University in Chicago, both in residence life and student leadership/development. In 2015 she and her husband, John Kramer, returned to Kentucky where Katie is working to get back to her farming roots with the goal of raising bison in the coming years. John works remotely as a vice president and senior consultant for Northern Trust, a Chicago-based wealth management company. They have two daughters, Sara and Leah, ages five and seven months.
Kelley said, “Both of our children are active members of the National Bison Association. They both deeply value having grown up on our farm—one of the great blessings of my life—and we continue to stay connected as we work together to make future plans. They will collaborate to manage our land when Melanie and I are no longer running things. Their goals align with ours in that they will continue to focus on sustainability and preservation.”
Kelley Farms owns 2,504 acres with Kelley personally farming 1,275 of those acres. Crop yields at Kelley Farms are as follows: 210 acres of corn yielding 175 bushels/acre; 70 acres of soft red winter wheat for grain yielding 70 bushels/acre; 815 acres of soybeans produce 55 bushels/acre; 600 acres of wheat cover are also planted. In addition, the farm has a 160kW solar electricity system. Eight hundred acres are leased for hunting duck, deer, and turkey, and 190 acres are allotted for timber to produce saw logs. A final source of revenue is the growing of seed stock soybeans, which can, depending on the quality, sell at a premium over commercial beans.
Kelley commented, “By reading marketing commentaries and farm publications, as well as talking with grain merchants, we gain a better understanding of the local and global grain markets. Having nearby an ethanol plant, two chicken feed facilities, a soybean processor and two river ports delivers more opportunities to maximize our grain prices. We use basis contracts, hedge to arrive contracts, cash sales, and option contracts to price our grain. When we can lock in an acceptable profit, we forward price some of our grain crops. Having sufficient grain storage allows us to sell the remaining grain on rallies in the market.”
Kelley Farms uses no-till planting to protect soil and water and save on fuel and labor. Kelley said, “Finding solid, dependable labor is very difficult these days. But, when necessary, we do contract help with harvesting. We prefer the no-till method of planting because it is less labor intensive than conventional land preparation for planting, i.e., disking and harrowing. To combat soil erosion, especially in recent times of torrential downpours, we plant cover crops in the fall.”
Kelley also uses GPS guidance to apply fertilizer, plant, and harvest his crops. This keeps overlap to a minimum and saves inputs and energy. Spraying is contracted out to an agribusiness, also saving time and labor costs. To further conserve soil, water, and nutrients, they’ve installed grass waterways and dry ponds that hold and slowly release water.
Another innovative technology Kelley uses is solar energy. He said, “In 2012, we were the first in the Purchase Area to install solar panels on our farm. We enjoy producing electricity from a renewable resource. We like to say our farm is ‘powered by the sun’ because we produce both electricity and crops with its energy. Tennessee Valley Authority and Western Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation contract with us to purchase the electricity produced by our solar systems. This environmentally friendly practice is very gratifying.”
This past year Kelley enrolled in two additional conservation programs. The first is the Conservation Stewardship Program that helps, through incentives, to build on existing conservation efforts while enhancing the farm. The second is the Precision Conservation Program, which helps to identify conservation solutions that will impact the farm financially and reduce management risks.
Kelley commented on one of the benefits of collaboration and problem solving through building strong community relationships. “Back in the early 1970s, a large creek by our farm was completely stopped up with drift and trash, creating a major issue to address. The diverted creek was flowing over our farm and devastating the land. We enlisted the help of nearby landowners and were able to open up the creek and allow the water to flow downstream and off our land. That’s just one of the many great things about nurturing the bonds that tie our farming community together.”
Kelley has served as a member of the Carlisle County Farm Bureau Board of Directors, including several terms as county president. He said, “The Farm Bureau has consistently been a strong voice, an advocate for my profession, a dependable, helpful resource throughout my entire agricultural career.”
He’s also served on a number of Kentucky Farm Bureau advisory committees and participated in the KFB Young Farmer program as a young farmer. Kelley is a Carlisle County 4-H Council member and volunteer. He is currently serving as the president of the Carlisle County Extension Board, is a lifetime member of the Kentucky Soybean Association, and is a charter member of the Kentucky Corn Growers Association, serving on their board of directors and as a past vice president.
He and Melanie are also long-time active members of the Morris Valley Christian Church where Kelley is an elder and performs the duties of Treasurer. Melanie sang in the choir for 31 years and has taught Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. Melanie has also been an active member of the Carlisle County 4-H Council since 1991, where she has served in the roles of president, vice president and chair and co-chair of numerous committees. On the state level, Melanie is a board member of the KY 4-H Foundation. In 2008, she was inducted into the KY 4-H Volunteer Hall of Fame. The Kelley family was inducted into the KY 4-H Foundation Family Hall of Fame just last year. She’s also a longstanding member of Kentucky Farm Bureau with involvement at the state and county level.
When the extended Kelley family takes a vacation break, they enjoy trips into northern regions in the summertime—places like Michigan and Alaska. Kelley noted, “We have a special fondness for Denali National Park with all its diverse wildlife. And of course we attend the Kentucky State Fair every year and manage to get in some fishing time with the grandchildren.”
In the future, Kelley said that he will likely purchase more land to expand operations but, more importantly, he feels the obligation to take care of the acreage he and his family already have. He noted, “Our overarching purpose is to leave our farm land in better condition than when we received it. This is not only our duty but our privilege. We must be deliberate in our methods to reach that result, not only for our two children who will inherit, manage, and preserve our agricultural land but for future generations.”
He added, “We are experiencing challenging weather patterns affecting our land. To deal with these we must be willing to adapt our farming methods for future productivity. Technology and plant genetics continue to rapidly advance, so we endeavor to be informed about new breakthroughs in these and other areas. We also consider it part of our mission to help our city counterparts understand that farmers want to protect and preserve the land and provide safe food for families everywhere. It all goes back to the fact that it still gives me joy to see the miracle of life spring up from a seed I planted.”
When reflecting on life lessons he has learned from his farming enterprise, Kelley said, “I am always reminded to practice patience, share time with family, and never give up on my aspirations and dreams.”
Stephen Kelley was nominated Kentucky Farmer of the Year by Larry J. Reddick, Kentucky Farm Bureau Agency Manager for Carlisle County. He said, “I’ve known Steve for over sixty years, having attended high school and college together at Murray State University. We’ve worked together in many organizations, and he has a particular talent for leadership, including holding various offices on the watershed board, the county extension board and the county extension council.”
Reddick added, “Steve has been farming for 49 years, and his care for the earth—through no-till planting, cultivation of cover crops, use of GPS technology, and installation of solar panels—is evident in his total agricultural outlook. He continually works to learn new ways of increasing production while improving the soil and protecting his land.”
As the Kentucky winner of the Swisher/Sunbelt Expo award, Stephen Kelley will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Florida. A Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply will be given to each state winner and nominator. Syngenta will donate $500 to the state winner’s charity of choice. Kelley is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize awarded to the overall winner by Swisher. Massey Ferguson North America will provide each state winner with a gift package and the overall winner with the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year or 250 hours (whichever comes first). A Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply will be given to the overall winner. Syngenta will provide a $500 donation to the charity of choice for the overall winner who will also receive a Hays LTI Smoker/Grill. In addition, the overall winner will receive a Henry Repeating Arms American Farmer Tribute Edition rifle from Reinke Irrigation.
Swisher International, through its Swisher cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 31st consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,204,000 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, 2006; Scott Travis of Cox’s Creek, 2007; Loretta Lyons of Tompkinsville, 2008; Doug Langley of Shelbyville, 2009; Joe Nichols of Cadiz, 2010; Jim Sidebottom of Greensburg, 2012; Scott Travis of Cox’s Creek, 2013; Ray Allan Mackey of Elizabethtown, 2014; Jack Trumbo of Simpsonville, 2015; Keith Lowry of Water Valley, 2016; and Mike Batch of Owingsville, 2017; Darren Luttrell of Beaver Dam, 2018, Danny Cunningham of Murray, 2019.