For the Love of Wheat: Don Keesling hands down industry passion to next generation

Posted October 20, 2014

As we sat down to chat at the family dinner table outside Chase, Kansas, on a drizzling day, Don Keesling shared his signature line. 

Photo: Keeslings around dinner table, 1998, Credit:  Kansas State Historical Society.
“I used to say, I have three loves: My Lord, my wife and wheat,” he proclaimed. “And all of them keep me busy.”

Surrounded by son Doug, daughter-in-law TJ, and granddaughter Opal (grandsons Chase and Colby were at school), I suspect that list has grown. But, there is no doubting this lifetime industry leader’s passion for wheat or that he has passed that love to the next generation. 

A Sudden Start

Transitions for the Keesling family have not always been easy. In high school, Don started farming with his father Walter after his uncle passed away unexpectedly. Unable to do extracurricular activities, Don instead worked with his father to grow and clean seed wheat, which they bagged and sold to neighbors, along with sorghum, clover and alfalfa seed. 

With the income he earned, Don attended Kansas State Agricultural College, now Kansas State University. In a special program that required 47 credits over two years, he tackled up to 27 credits a semester. 

“I was anxious to get back to farming, so I crammed in as much learning as possible,” he confessed. “There were no advisors or counselors that told me no.” 

Hooked

Don had a strong drive to learn more about wheat. He paid his dues each year to the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers (KAWG), but was not highly engaged until he went with a neighbor to the National Association of Wheat Growers convention in Wichita. 

Despite a terrible blizzard that snowed the entire convention in, Don said after the meetings, “I was hooked.” 

Don eventually joined the KAWG board, serving on the transportation, wheat breeding and research committees. He took extra time to meet with the K-State wheat breeders and understand the lines and traits they were developing. 

Back on the Farm

Photo: Don Keesling, 1998. Credit:  Kansas State Historical Society.
Don implemented that research into his own operation. For a while, he grew hybrid wheat, but with the technology at that time, the wheat “could not get the economic yield advantage needed to make a profitable year-after-year venture.” 

He also was an early advocate for hard white wheat. Don served as chair on the ad hoc committee that KAWG formed to discuss hard white wheat as well as chairing a wider industry task force from 1984 to 1988. When that task force officially became the American White Wheat Producers Association (AWWPA) in 1988, he served as president for eight years. Today, AWWPA is Farmer Direct Foods, Inc

Thanks to a series of unfortunate events, primarily related to grading for newer hard red varieties like Arkan, white wheat did not take off at that time in Kansas. Don, however, grew hard white on his farm until he retired. 

Grading Challenge Accepted

The grading issues related to varieties like Arkan spurred Don to continue his wheat education. He attended both grain grading and milling programs. He worked with the 4-H crops judging teams on grain grading and routinely examined reference samples from the Kansas Crop Improvement Association.

He recalled one particular trip to the Federal Grain Inspection Service in Kansas City. Don was challenged to grade 21 control samples; he only missed three. 

The Next Generation

Photo: Jo Keesling, 1998. Credit:  Kansas State Historical Society.
As Don attended wheat industry meetings and fine-tuned his grain grading skills, his son Doug tagged along. In the process, he met children of other wheat industry leaders and together they learned about crops judging, grain grading, grain marketing and more. Through the 4-H Foundation, Don even took Doug as part of a team to the Chicago Board of Trade, where the kids were able to do mock trading on the floor. 

But, Doug admitted he had no plans of being a farmer. 

“In high school, I wanted to do everything to get away from the farm,” he said. 

That meant going to school in California, after some time at K-State, and pursuing a degree in photojournalism and then motion effects. He worked on the set of “Cheers” and at Lucasfilm Studios. 

In the early 1990s, however, his mother Jo, Don’s high school sweetheart and an active wheat industry spokesperson herself, became ill. So, Doug came home and started farming with his father and those earlier adventures started to pay off. 

“Experiences like that led me to serving on the Kansas Wheat board,” he said. “My love of wheat comes from him.” 

Photo: Doug Keesling, 2014.
Doug is now the fifth generation on the farm. Don said the economic aspects today are much riskier, with larger costs of equipment and inputs. That, combined with new technology, means the next generation of farmers also needs to stay abridged on the latest innovations available. 

Doug, a grain grader himself and a 13 year member of the Kansas Wheat board, agreed, saying, “Being proactive in groups like Kansas Wheat can bridge farmers' need for education and new technology.” 

That unending quest for learning more about wheat and how to improve it makes Keesling Farms a story worth sharing – and repeating for a sixth generation. 

by Julia Debes