Organic Farming Helps This Farmer Think Outside the Box
Farmer Profile – Jackie Keller
by Jean Stramel
Whether she is cultivating her corn, doing administrative tasks for her OCIA chapter or serving on the Farm Service Agency County Committee, there is no doubt Jackie Keller is fully devoted to advocating for farmers and helping create a healthier food system. She is one of the few women in Kansas who is managing and doing the primary labor raising row crops.
Jackie is working the farm her parents bought in 1969 where they moved to from Topeka when she was 11 years old. Jackie loved to ride, jump and show horses until she was in her early thirties. Then a light bulb went off in her head while she was studying organic agriculture in Cuba while earning her MA in International Relations at San Francisco State.
“Why don’t I move back to Kansas and transition mom and dad’s farm to organic?” She gave notice to her boss at the San Francisco Department of Environment where she worked on the Pesticide Reduction Program, handed in her thesis on sustainable agriculture, and got on the plane.
When she was ready to take over the farm and suggested organics, it took some convincing. Ed Reznicek, an organic farmer who worked at the Kansas Rural Center (KRC) at the time, came out and walked the farm with her, which convinced her mother that there was help and other people doing it. Jackie’s sister also pointed out that the farm was too small to make much from just renting it out, and an organic premium price would be helpful; plus using organic farming methods fit Jackie’s philosophy of stewardship better than conventional farming.
Jackie’s farm is 200 acres of certified organic land, which includes 112 of cropland, filter strips along the creek, some timber and the farmstead. The farm is in Shawnee County west of Topeka along Mission Creek. Jackie raises corn, soybeans, wheat, milo, alfalfa and red clover hay. In previous years, part of her acreage was rented to a Shorthorn cattleman, who was pleased with the gain his cattle had from the red clover pasture. “There were 60 acres of row crops on either side this year. If they get out, they can do $2000 worth of damage real quick.” She decided it was “OK to take a break this year.”
Jackie participated in the KRC Clean Water Farms program in 2002, completing the River Friendly Farms whole farm plan and assessment notebook. By 2004, half her acres were certified, then the whole farm in 2005. Since 2003, she has been the administrator for the Eastern Kansas Chapter #2 of the Organic Crop Improvement Organization (OCIA), a certifying agency with about 30 local members. She finds it provides networking, mentorship and support.
Starting out in farming was frustrating. “How many people are going to let some first timer cultivate for them? You just have to get out there and do it. I was lucky to have a farmer show me how to plant rows – that was critical information. We’re farming fields here that aren’t square, you have to back up, back up – that’s where the grass buffer is helpful – for turning around instead of end rows.”
Jackie feels organic farming is a mindset. “I used to see just the weeds. But now I see the cup as half full – look at all those beans! I had to gradually learn that. I remember the inspector being here in 2005. He said, “Jackie the worst thing about all those weeds is your pride. Weeds are just part of the deal.”
Jackie occasionally tries a new crop; last year it was triticale. About 90% of her crops are marketed through the Kansas Organic Producers Marketing Cooperative, but she makes a few deals on her own. She sells lesser quality grains to an Organic Valley pork producer near Manhattan. “He likes it because it’s cheaper, I like it because I get rid of it and still get a premium.” This also fulfills one of her Conservation Stewardship Program “enhancement” requirements, in that she is selling to a local (within 400 miles) market.
She sold corn in 2014 to an organic egg facility near Lyons, Kansas, and ended up buying 2 semi-loads of certified organic chicken manure from them, which was applied as raw manure at 1 ton/acre with her manure spreader, purchased used. In 2014, she spread pelletized chicken litter at a target rate of 1 ton/acre, which took three passes since the rented fertilizer buggy had a maximum application rate of 700 pounds. Soil tests show Zinc and Boron levels have come up a bit, something that was needed. With recent drought conditions, it is hard to say what results these fertility enhancements have produced. Crop yields are not optimal, but the ears look good this year. Organic matter (OM) runs 2.5 to 3, which she is told is typical of her area but would really like to see it much higher.
Crop pests are not a big problem, but she has spread “semaspore” bait around the barnyard, as grasshoppers have been bad the last few years. She has also tried 20% acidic vinegar on bindweed. The sun has to hit the plants after application, and multiple applications are usually needed. She buys the vinegar in 55-gallon drums. Jackie agrees that the crop rotation required in an organic cropping system is the best way to control pests. Because of the red clover in her rotation, it varies how many years of row crops are grown, rarely up to three before re-seeding the clover. She is ready to try alfalfa again after a long break, “It’s often hard to deal with hay, but it’s the best to build soil, address poor drainage and feed the newly arrived bees!”
Jackie participates in USDA conservation programs through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Through USDA NRCS’s EQIP, she secured watering systems for livestock and an animal walkway between two fields to facilitate summer grazing for Johnson grass control. The Conservation Stewardship Program “enhancements” include inter-seeding red clover into the pastures, seeding pollinator strips, incorporating manure pellets within 24 hours of applying, plant tissue tests, and extending a field border of native grasses, which was originally a CRP filter strip along the creek.
Another enhancement is “Integrated Pest Management (IPM) for Organic farming” which is basically crop scouting and record keeping of application type and timing.
Young vegetable farmers getting involved in growing around the Lawrence and Kansas City area encourage Jackie. She is not happy about the increase in the mega-sized organic farms and was encouraged when she heard Joe Maxwell of the Humane Society speak recently, who suggested organic farmers get on board with the Animal Welfare label. “Consumers are looking for not just organic. They want to know how animals are raised and treated,’ she explained. “K-State can’t ignore that organics is a $54 billion a year industry – they need to provide research/support. The US now imports organic grains because we don’t meet demand.”
Jackie would like to see more local support from Extension and Conservation Districts for organics. She is currently taking the Shawnee County Master Gardening class and feels there is a need for more education regarding organic certification and inputs. After attending a Soil Health workshop, someone asked if she was going to quit tilling so much now, as tillage is often touted as the bane of organic farming. Her reaction is that she would like to have access to a No-Till roller crimper to rent like a grass seed drill program through the Conservation Districts, then she could try Organic No-Till. “They are only $5000, a grass seed drill is 10 or 15 thousand.”
Maybe her “out of the box” ideas will trickle down and become mainstream one day. In the meantime, Jackie will get on her tractor and keep planting the seeds of organic agriculture, both on her farm and in the minds of the people she meets with each day.
(Jean Stramel is a freelance writer, retired from USDA NRCS. She interviewed women farmers for the Kansas Rural Center’s Women in Farming Project in 2015. )