Connected to the community
Farmers play vital role in feeding the world
Sweat drips from Keith Lowry’s brow as he works to get crops into the freshly plowed ground. Long days during spring planting and the fall harvest keep him and his crew busy from sunup to sundown.
Despite the tiring work, a smile comes easily as Keith’s 11- and 12-year-old grandsons run around, working some as they watch and learn. It takes him back to the days he worked alongside his grandfather each summer, helping with the tobacco and row crops. By the time he was 14, he and his father raised their first crop on the family farm, and he’s been farming ever since.
The techniques have changed, but Keith’s heart remains the same. Farming is in his blood.
Keith was born in Graves County in 1960, and his family later moved to Birmingham, Alabama. He loved nothing better than visiting his grandparents, B.G. and Allene Lowry, on their farm in Pilot Oak each summer. His other grandmother, Mary Jane Vincent, lived nearby and he saw her often, too.
“I would get out of school for summer and leave the next day on my motorcycle,” he says. “I’d drive about two hours, and I’d stop. I had $1 for gas and for something to eat and a dime to use the pay phone to call my mother. I’d drive two more hours and stop again near Savannah, Tennessee, and I’d call my grandmother. By the time I got to their house two hours later, she’d be waiting for me on the porch. I would stay all summer.”
When Keith’s parents, Jimmy and Janice Lowry, asked him if he was ready to move to Kentucky, there was no hesitation. “We moved back and helped my granddad,” he says.
Eventually, Keith and his father handled all of the farming operations, expanding the farm by buying and renting more crop land. His father died in a small plane crash in 2001, but Keith and his four sons continued to work on the farm.
In 2015, the Kentucky Farm Bureau honored Keith as Farmer of the Year for the state, and he was a finalist for the Swisher Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year, which includes farmers from 10 states. “There’s no way I could have done these things without my wife, my family and employees,” Keith says.
The awards are based not only on farming practices but also on community involvement and farming advocacy. “It’s up to us, as farmers, to be out in the community to make sure everybody knows that all our farmers are feeding the world,” he says. “I want to brag on every farmer in our area and our state.”
At his peak in 2017, Keith and his crew farmed 11,000 acres of corn, wheat and soybeans, and he operated trucking and excavation companies. Then, a health scare forced him to make some changes. “I got the message that I had to slow down,” he says.
Now he farms 4,000 acres and has the trucking company on the side for his own use to take crops to market. And although he farms less acreage now, the yields are actually greater. He credits technology and his wife, Rita, for more efficient operations — after retiring from 45 years in the banking industry, she manages the finances.
Technology like GPS on equipment helps with efficiency. “Years ago, when we farmed more acres, if we made 100 bushels an acre we were happy,” he says. “Now, if we don’t make 200-300 bushels an acre, we’re disappointed. All the data is at our fingertips to help us operate more efficiently.”
He can remove each tractor’s data card and upload information to a computer in the office to track all the statistical data. “We couldn’t operate as efficiently as we do with access to the internet,” he says. “It makes all the difference in the world.”
Like Keith, most of the local farmers in Graves County escaped damage when a tornado left a path of destruction through the heart of Mayfield, the county seat, the night of Dec. 10.
Those farmers, though, are some of the first who responded to a call for help. “We’re about 10 miles south of Mayfield, but we could hear the roar,” Keith says.
About 2:30 the next morning, Keith received a call from the mayor. Keith still had excavating equipment, and he loaded it up and headed to Mayfield. “When we got there it was like a nightmare,” he says. “It was like a bomb had gone off.”
Keith and about seven or eight other farmers got to work clearing debris. As the hours turned into days, much of Mayfield remained without electricity. Keith worked with his lender, River Valley Ag Credit, to get generators donated, and he worked with his fuel supplier for fuel donations. “It took 10 days after the tornado hit to get the generators up and running,” he says.
Over the next several weeks, Keith and other farmers helped clear debris from demolition of two of the largest churches in Mayfield, and there were lots of truckers volunteering to haul debris to the designated dump site. The tornado hit the granary where many of the farmers took their crops at harvest, and grain spoiled in the storage bins. “We helped haul that grain out,” he says.
Keith also serves on the Board of Trustees at Jackson Purchase Medical Center, and saw firsthand how the medical community came together. “Those in the medical field, much like the farmers, just pulled together to get the job done,” he says.
Keith says his answer to a question during the interviews for the Farmer of the Year honor sums up his life. “They asked me what I wanted on my tombstone,” he says. “I told them I wanted to be remembered as a good husband, a good father and a hard worker who has helped make my community a better place. We’ve been blessed, and I feel like it’s our responsibility to give back to the community.”