A farmer for 50 years, John Keller of Maryville, Tenn., has long been close to the land he farms in the shade of the scenic Great Smoky Mountains.

He farms about 788 acres, including 226 acres of rented land and 562 acres of family-owned land. His crops include corn, soybeans, wheat, rye, hay and pasture. He also raises cattle. He grows and sells straw from both his wheat and rye, and also sells bundled cornstalks for use in decorations.

As a result of his long success as a diversified farmer, Keller has been selected as the Tennessee state winner of the 2014 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Keller joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 14 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

His per acre yields last year were 150 bushels for corn from 123 acres, 49 bushels of soybeans from 316 acres, 60 bushels of wheat from 150 acres and 2.75 tons of hay from 140 acres. His pastures consist of about 130 acres.

Keller owns about 70 beef cows and finishes about 20 head per year for his custom freezer beef business. He sells the freezer beef directly to customers and hopes to expand these sales to reach new customers.

He markets calves through auction markets and graded feeder calf sales. Most are sold as weaned, conditioned calves, and others are backgrounded prior to marketing.

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“Our main crops are corn, wheat and soybeans,” says Keller. He markets them using cash delivery at harvest, forward contracting, and selling stored crops after harvest. He has expanded his grain storage and now stores about 40,000 bushels to take advantage of later higher prices.

As local market outlets declined for wheat and soybeans, he contracted with trucking firms to haul his crops to market. Lately, he has sold wheat to the Tennessee Farmers Cooperative, and sold soybeans to markets in Gainesville, Ga., or Guntersville, Ala.

From 150 acres of wheat and 68 acres of rye, he sells about 20,000 bales of straw per year to agribusinesses and retail markets. He also sells miniature bales of straw in the fall for use at local fairs and festivals.

“We add value to our crop enterprises by marketing the specialty bundled cornstalks,” he explains. He sells about 5,000 bundles of stalks from five acres of his corn. The cornstalks complement his seasonal straw sales. The bundled stalks also provide exposure for the farm and its products to potential customers.

He hopes to develop his cornstalks, straw bales, mini straw bales and other items into a comprehensive line of fall and harvest-time items that can be used for landscaping and decorating. To do this, he bought a 70-year-old pto-driven machine that bundles the cornstalks. He also bought a custom-made baler to re-bale the square straw bales into the miniature bales. “We hope this equipment will let us expand our specialty product sales to more than 20 retail outlets,” he adds.

As a child, Keller loved driving tractors. He farms land his grandfather bought in 1890. In 1966, he grew some of the first no-till soybeans in Tennessee. Now, two thirds of his soybeans and all of his corn are planted with no tillage.