Keith Sexton's story may have started in the Army, or perhaps it was that stint in New Zealand, or working at a bank on the far side of the state. All those experiences have been important to his success on the farm.
Sexton has farmed near Rockwell City, Iowa, for 43 years — but that's changing, too. "I'm mostly retired," he says. "I'm working with a young local farmer to farm and improve our operation." And perhaps that move shows how, over his career, Sexton has been open to new ideas.
When he graduated high school, it was on to college for a degree from Iowa State University. The Vietnam conflict was going on at the time, so he did a stint in the Army as a military policeman. When his tour was over, he did something not every young man does — he immigrated to New Zealand. The idea came from his grandfather, who took a trip there, and, when he returned, said that if he were to start over again, he would probably do it in New Zealand.
From there, Sexton went to work as an ag banker in Clinton County, but all the while he had his eye on one goal — returning to the farm. "I always wanted to come back to the farm," he recalls.
When he was growing up on the family farm, Sexton says the family raised crops and livestock. "But Dad got out of livestock when I went away to college," he jokes. Leaving for the Army and the rest of that off-farm time experience has since paid off for Sexton.
A focus on economics
Sexton moved back to the farm in 1979. He had just contract-purchased 40 acres close to the family farm. In those early years, Sexton was labor for his father, in return for a portion of the crop plus use of equipment on that 40 acres. In 1981, he and his new bride were able to purchase 80 acres that has become their home farm; in 2011, it became a Century Farm. And over the years, through 1031 exchanges with his parents, he and Barb built up a contiguous operation.
All this growth and change happened right through the mid-1980s, when many farms were hit by the farm crisis. The Sextons started out with very little equity, but they also had very little debt. Devaluation of farm assets worked in their favor, as they were able to acquire good used machinery at a lower cost than if they had started earlier. Barb Sexton worked off the farm as an Extension home economist for Calhoun and Carroll counties, providing supporting income and benefits.
Sexton closely monitored expenses on spreadsheets to track every farm cost. The focus was not so much on higher yields, but on the concept of maximum economic yield. "I guess I'm just tight," he jokes. "If we don't need something very bad, we don't buy it."
As he came into the farm, Sexton brought his perspective to the business. "I was seeing black snow in the road ditches in the winter, and I thought that was wrong," he recalls. At the time the moldboard plow was still a popular tool, but for Sexton parking that plow made more sense.
"My father had discontinued fall tillage on soybeans, and that was unusual at the time," he recalls. Since then the farm has incorporated reduced tillage approaches. But he says that tillage doesn't follow a set pattern. "Often it depends more on what we think is needed to accomplish our goal," he says.
A change in management
Over his career, Sexton has looked at a range of crops, with an eye to bring new income and new challenges to the business. From popcorn to sorghum to asparagus to cereal rye for seed, the farm has seen a range of cropping ideas. In recent years, he turned to non-GMO crops — and for that, he's earning a premium for the soybeans.
"The main advantage of non-GMO corn is the lower seed cost — plus it makes cleaning equipment for use on non-GMO soybeans less critical, and consequently, less time-consuming," Sexton says.
But tough-to-control weeds may change that. Sexton says he will probably switch to herbicide-tolerant soybeans to control some challenging weeds.
However, that decision is no longer his, because there's change ahead. Most of the farming operation will be rented to and run by James Hepp. Hepp; his wife, Paige; and their new son, Karsten, are just starting out in agriculture.
"I was hopeful our operation was large enough to help a young family get started," Sexton says. "This career has been good to our family, but retirement is in my vocabulary, and we are pleased to help someone from our community."
Sexton is not fully retiring yet. He will be farming a couple of fields now with management assistance from son Brent, who is a swine veterinarian. And son Brian, who teaches in Sac City, Iowa, provides some labor. Daughter Kyle works with clinics records in the Home and Public Health Department at St. Anthony Hospital Public Health in Carroll.
During his farming years, Sexton says his management style relative to something new was "timing." His approach was to not be ahead of the curve, but to engage tools as needed. He did bring in key technologies like yield monitors and autosteer relatively soon after they became economically available.
Hepp, who also sells crop insurance, will use a combination of buying and leasing Sexton's equipment to farm the land as part of their arrangement. He has been a friend of Brent Sexton’s since high school. Sexton is keeping the land in local hands.
Engaged off the farm
While Sexton was trying to run a successful farm business, he also became involved in organizations both locally and nationally. His volunteer work included being president of Calhoun County Farm Bureau, which Sexton says got him involved in more statewide groups. "What I observed from that experience is that not all good thinkers live in Calhoun County, Iowa; and if I could do more of those types of activities, I may be able to pick up something beneficial just by osmosis," he says.
He has held various local and state offices with Farm Bureau and the Iowa Corn Growers Association. The list of activities provided by his nominator, son Brent, is long, and he's been honored for his work.
But all of those activities, Sexton says, were only possible thanks to Barb. "As with just about every farmer who has school-age children, I would not have been involved with farm organizations to that extent if a spouse was not at home to make sure the kids' schoolwork and their home and farm chores were done," he says. "I'm extremely fortunate that Barb was willing to do all that, so I could be a contributing member to those groups rather than a part-time member."