For the Love of the Land

Kelly Kettner on his farm planting cotton into his no-till wheat stubble in late May. Photo by Lindsay Kennedy.

It is early morning near Muleshoe, Texas. The first rays of the sun have started peeking through the corn tassles. A pickup truck rumbles down a dirt road and parks next to a big, red combine. A farmer climbs out of the truck and thoughtfully surveys the view in front of him. The last few days have been long, grueling days spent harvesting corn, and today is no different. For anyone else, this view would be considered a daunting, tiring task, but for Kelly Kettner, this view is a slice of paradise.

At Home on the Plains

Growing up in the Hill Country of Mason, Texas, Kettner came to Lubbock when he began school at Texas Tech University as an agronomy major. Although it was a big change from the small town northwest of Fredericksburg where he grew up, he fell in love right away with the West Texas scenery and lifestyle.

“Life is just slower, more easy-going out here,” Kettner said. “The people here are some of the best you will ever meet.”

After graduating from Texas Tech in 1995,Kettner moved back to Mason to raise cattle and farm with his father. However, he could not shake the thought of moving back to the South Plains and starting his own farm. Six years later, his dream became reality. He acquired 300 acres of farmland in Muleshoe, relocated back to the place he loved so much, and began the journey of cultivating a farm

Conservation Through No-Till

Today, 15 years later, Kettner farms over 5,000 acres and is a successful corn, cotton, pumpkin, sorghum and soybean producer. In addition to his diversified crop rotation, Kettner has also implemented a unique farming technique to his operation – no-till farming.

Kettner is a passionate advocate for no-till farming. He had implemented a few no-till farming practices onto his farm after he first started, but he did not realize the importance of it until he attended the No-Till on the Plains Conference in Salina, Kansas, in 2009.

“The conference took me a step further,” Kettner said. “Going and listening to the speakers helped me learn that there is a bigger goal at work here.”

Originally, my goal was just to keep the sand from blowing, but now I am focusing on conserving water and protecting the quality of the land. Kelly Kettner

Kettner said his oldest no-till field has not been plowed since 2004. Several years of plant residue blanket his corn and cotton fields, benefitting the soil and increasing water conservation. Kettner said by not plowing the soil and leaving the plant residue on top, it protects the soil, keeps the moisture in, and helps the microbes in the soil thrive.

“By preventing the ground from hardening up after years of plowing, the soil is much more permeable, and increases the capacity of the soil to hold water,” Kettner said. “This increases the ability of the plant to receive water while reducing the chance of erosion or having to use more water.”

Kettner said another benefit to using no-till farming is having the ability to grow plants that not only benefit the soil, but also provide a healthy environment for beneficial insects such as bees and butterflies. He said these much-needed pollinators are necessary to the ecosystem and to the growth of his plants. Additionally, the flourishing numbers of desirable insects will keep the undesirable pests under control.

Kettner said he wants something growing all the time on his farms continuously to benefit the soil. He has a planned rotation of corn and cotton, and he plants wheat over the wintertime to keep the microbes in the soil active and healthy between crop rotations. He also grazes cattle on the wheat until it is time to plant in the spring. On some of his fields, he has a unique combination of sorghum, millet, sunflowers, and radishes that provide nutrients to the soil and keep the ground in good condition for the next round of crops.

Pumpkin Production

One unique product of Kettner Farms can be seen adorning the front entryways to grocery stores and produce markets across the Lubbock community as autumn comes around. Starting a few years after moving to Muleshoe, Kettner grows 120 acres of pumpkins on a portion of his farm. Kettner’s pumpkins are sold at local grocers in the Lubbock area, such as United, Walmart, and Target. However, some of his pumpkins go all the way to the eastern and southern parts of Texas, along with parts of New Mexico and Arizona.

Harvest of his pumpkins begins in August and lasts through October. Each pumpkin must be harvested by hand by a crew of thirty people, and must be cleaned off, identified with a sticker, and loaded into a trailer. After harvest, the pumpkins are sorted and placed in cardboard containers to be shipped to their destination.

Kettner said the care and selection of the pumpkins is a vital component to why he has such success with the grocers and other retailers in the community. He said that anytime he picks the pumpkins to ship to the grocers, he looks for healthy pumpkins that are free of damage and disease.

“Harvesting pumpkins is a very time-consuming task, but when people go to the store and buy our pumpkins they can be confident that they are buying high-quality produce,” Kettner said.

Even after so many years, Kettner still remembers how he fell in love with West Texas in the first place. His passion for this area is still evident through his actions and dedication to caring for the people and land he loves so dearly. Looking to the future of his farm, Kettner said he hopes to continue the no-till farming with an even larger emphasis on water conservation.

“I envision more dryland and less irrigation, and I am trying to prepare myself for it,” Kettner said. “I know there is going to be a day in my lifetime where my pivots won’t be running. It is a humbling reality, so my goal is to become the best farmer I can be and conserve every precious drop of water I can.”

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