After 50 years on the farm and counting, John Keller has been named Tennessee Farmer of the Year by University of Tennessee Extension. A third-generation farmer, Keller is owner and operator of Kelmont Farms near Maryville. With the help of his wife Susan and son Sam, he oversees 780 acres and 70-plus cattle.
Keller was nominated by John Wilson, director of Blount County UT Extension. Keller was introduced as the Tennessee Farmer of the Year March 20 at the Tennessee Executive Residence as part of an omelet cook-off sponsored by the Farm and Forest Families of Tennessee.
“My father was both a teacher and farmer and my two grandfathers were farmers. With this legacy and a fresh college degree in agriculture engineering from the University of Tennessee, I returned home in 1964 to take over the day-to-day management of Kelmont Farms,” he says. “I started with 210 owned acres and 78 rented acres, producing row-crops and beef cattle and forages.”
Kelmont Farms is in every sense of the word a family farm. Keller’s wife Susan is an integral part of the operation. “My father was a huge help in getting me started and when I married in 1966 my father-in-law also mentored me,” Keller said. “After teaching school the first five years of our marriage, Susan came home to the farm to help and, as she states it, ‘To raise kids and run John Deere’s.’ We were pleased when our son Sam returned to the farm after college.”
The Keller's son Sam (John Samuel Keller, Jr.) is now vice president of the family-owned corporation and lives and works on the farm with his own family. Their daughter, Margaret, is a food research scientist with Nestle in Solon, Ohio.
The Kellers also produce miniature bales of straw and the specialty crop stalk-corn bundles, both of which find their way to retails outlets and local fairs and festivals in the late summer and fall.
Jason Fewell was among the UT Extension faculty who set the standards for the award. “The Tennessee Farmer of the Year represents the best of our state practitioners who not only run a profitable farming business but are also excellent stewards of their resources and the environment and leaders in their communities. The Farmer of the Year must also be an ambassador for a business and way of life that is absolutely essential to our national standard of living but which is no longer understood by the majority of Americans,” Fewell said. “John Keller certainly meets those criteria.”
“John is a conscientious and innovative farmer with a mind for the business, a ready hand for the farm task and a passion for the land and livestock,” said Wilson.
Keller is a long-time member of the Blount County Farm Bureau, Foothills Farmers Cooperative, Smoky Mountain Feeder Calf Association, Blount County Mutual Fire and Blount County Livestock Association. He is presently a member of the Farm Credit Advisory Board. He is also a Blount County 4-H Volunteer Leader. On the state and national level, Keller participates with numerous professional agricultural groups.
As Tennessee Farmer of the Year, Keller will also compete in the Southeastern Farmer of the Year competition at the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Georgia. That competition chooses from among the top farmers from 10 southeastern states and is sponsored by Swisher International, Inc. The overall winner will be announced in October.