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Willis family exemplifies commitment to preserving the OgallalaWillis family exemplifies commitment to preserving the Ogallala

Young, next-generation family committed to keeping water for irrigation available for farmers of the future

PJ Griekspoor

October 2, 2016

3 Min Read

Dallen Willis is the very picture of the kind of farmer who is committed to conserving the Ogallala Aquifer. This is his third harvest working with his uncle, Tom Willis, and they are working out a transition plan to help him buy land of his own, expand into livestock operations, and move toward being the next generation to farm in Finney County.  He and his wife are expecting their first child and already know the baby is a boy.


This makes it only natural that he would join his uncle, other farmers, businesses and governmental agencies in a public/private partnership effort to collect definitive evidence of which water conservation technology systems provide the best results in full-scale farming operations.

"I grew up on a dryland wheat farm in Montana," he said. "I had three brothers and a little sister and I have very fond memories of being out in the fields with my dad and my brothers. I want my children to grow up with those kinds of memories and I feel really lucky that my uncle was able to offer me an opportunity to make that happen."

One thing that could prevent that happy future is the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer which provides the irrigation water that sustains farming in the region. Without irrigation, the land loses significant value and the dryland crops that can be grown are worth less than irrigated crops.

Willis said his dad left Montana when he was 16 to unite with other family members in northern Utah. Meanwhile, his dad's brother, Tom Willis, was forging a new frontier in Kansas.


Tom Willis, who has a long history in agriculture and agribusiness, came to Kansas because of his involvement as manager of the white wheat program for General Mills, where he worked for 16 years. He went on to become CEO of the Right Co-op at Wright and lead a re-organization there. At the end of his tenure with Right Co-Op, he became CEO of Conestoga Energy Partners, which owns ethanol plants in Liberal, Garden City and Lewelland,Texas.

Earlier in his career he worked in the area of grain risk management with both JR Simplot Company and Columbia Grain International. He served as President of the Montana Grain Elevator Association, and as a board member of the Idaho Feed and Grain Association. He was a founding Director for AV Energy, LLC and is currently serving on the National Grain and Feed Association and Biofuels committee.

"He's always interested in new crops and new technologies and I'm kind of the same way," Dallen Willis said. "We make a good team.  I feel like this is my farm. He explains his thought process to me and helps me understand the decisions he makes and how hard he works to make sure they are good for the farm and good for the family. I'm really lucky to get to benefit from the lessons he's learned."

Related Story: Preserving the Ogallala starts with innovation, reseach

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