Kenneth McAlister, Wichita SWCD Board member for over 30 years, farms and ranches on historic family land in Wichita County, Texas, on property that runs along the southern bank of the Red River. Kenneth has worked with NRCS to improve his soil health using no-till practices and cover crops.
Story compiled by: Dee Ann Littlefield, Public Affairs Specialist, Henrietta, Texas
Photos by: Dee Ann Littlefield, Public Affairs Specialist, Henrietta, Texas
“If you call 911 and the police aren’t there, Kenneth will be there,” says USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Resources Team Leader, Eileen Vale. And she’s serious.
Vale, who has worked with Kenneth McAlister for more than 16 years through a rich collaboration based on innovative land management cultivated by the NRCS principles, enjoys sharing uplifting and inspiring stories about her long-time friend, and valued partner in conservation farming.
According to Vale, the fourth-generation farmer goes above and beyond for family members and community members. Far beyond the nutrient-rich soil fields of K&D Farms in Electra, Texas, where he can otherwise be found tending to crops of cotton and wheat, or rotating his cattle, from sunup to sundown.
Vale shares about the time back in 2009 when a fast-moving winter rainstorm turned snowstorm resulted in a Christmas Eve blizzard, dropping more than 2 feet of snow as it moved through Western North Texas. 40 to 60 mph winds along with visibility of less than 100 feet left cars stalled out and abandoned as unsuspecting travelers became stuck in snow drifts. The situation quickly turned from merely unexpected and a nuisance to life threatening for some and fatal for others.
“It was the night before Christmas and families couldn’t make it for Christmas Eve dinner,” recalls Vale. “Kenneth and his family were out there with their equipment pulling out vehicles all hours of the night and making way for vehicles to get out.
That’s just the type of person he is.”
Vale implies this is just one of many acts of bravery and selflessness on the part of McAlister. “He’s always taking people under his wing. He’s just such a good person. If you’re in an emergency type situation, Kenneth and his family will be there for you,” she says.
Looking out for the Land
Like his philosophy of giving his all when it comes to family and community, Eileen Vale confirms McAlister’s commitment to being a good steward of the land as well.
“We do cover crops, no-till, strip-till, and residue management,” Vale says.
No-till is where cover crops are used to cover the soil to retain water and nutrients. Strip-tilling is very similar to no-till where the old crops are cut just at the top, allowing the roots and main stem of the crops, still established in the soil, to provide cover from the sun and elements plus maintaining the biology below the surface in the soil.
K&D Farms is in a unique location with the Red River just up the road. This allows for a richer soil, but it also makes McAlister more aware of how he is treating his land because soil from this location can get washed into the river and ultimately end up in the Gulf of Mexico. His goal is to retain the soil as much as possible and prevent any runoff.
John Sackett, a soil scientist with NRCS for 16 years, has worked with McAlister since 2012.
“Ken says that the better he can understand the soil that he has, the better he can manage it,” says Sackett. Together they look at physical, chemical, and biological components to see where McAlister can tweak his management with the goal of improving his soil, and in turn, improve the productivity of his fields.
“It’s important that the water leaving his property is as clean as it can be.”
Putting Family First – Past, Present, and Future
Kenneth McAlister and his wife of over 30 years, Diane, own and operate farmland in Wichita and Wilbarger Counties with their ever-growing family. McAlister started his farming operation in 1985.
“I grew up on the farm and loved doing it,” says McAlister.
He admits that he was not overly enthusiastic about school, saying “After graduating high school and heading off to college, I realized that my dad was home busting his guts (on the farm).” McAlister ended his college career to come home and work the farm to help his dad out at the time, eventually getting married and starting a family.
He says he was thankful that his father was open to new technologies, explaining that although they’d been tillage farmers for years, around 2005 they had the opportunity to get more land and subsequently needed to make some major changes in how they maintained their land to be profitable.
That’s when Kenneth started learning about some newer farming tactics; strip-till and no-till farming. He visited with the local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff.
“We took that venture, and my dad was young enough to be innovative enough to let us do it,” says McAlister.
By 2007, they had transitioned completely to be strictly no-till. He is thankful they made the switch when they did, as the next five years would prove to be dry ones on the farm, which would’ve been disastrous had they stuck with traditional farming methods. By not turning up the land, their soil had more root systems and density and less loose topsoil. When the dry spell came, many of their neighbors’ lands would blow inches of topsoil away with windstorms, while the McAlister’s land held strong.
Since then, he has continued to learn and adapt and improve, by taking on new techniques, like cover crops, and testing them out for success.
More so than farming successes, though, McAlister beams as he talks about his children, their spouses and significant others, and his feisty grandchildren. He is a proud father and a devoted grandfather.
And it’s not uncommon for his family to all be talking at once, laughing and sharing memories and ‘remember when's’, joking around at each other’s expense in a kidding, loving way.
And much like he once returned to the family farm to help his own father, so too have two of his sons come back from other pursuits, realizing their own passion for the land, to help out and continue the family tradition.
Of his hopes for his family and generations yet to come, McAlister offers, “I grew up doing this. It’s not a bad life. It’s not an easy life. But it’s not a bad way of living and teaching and enjoying.”
He recalls working with his grandfather side by side. “He was teaching me things to do—right and wrong. My other grandfather said, ‘you do whatever you wanna do and just put it back where you got it from,’ so it was good to work with both of them,” says McAlister, clearly grateful for those who took the time to share their knowledge with him.
“It’s fun to me now to be able to take my granddaughters and teach them what I need to teach them,” he says.
His stories of teaching his sons how to drive on back country roads as well as teaching his granddaughter how to escape a direct hit tornado demonstrate not only his drive to continue passing on how to make it in a tough world, but also to enjoy the experiences with those who matter the most—his family.
How Do You Get There?
He calls upon these memories, lifelong learning on the farm, and looking at the world through the eyes of his children and grandchildren when helping fellow farmers who are hesitant in change.
McAlister points out that when you’re asked the question of “How do you get there?” he says it’s important to first understand and be able to respond with where you’ve been. Similarly, when it comes to knowing what you need to do to change from a full-till to no-till operation, you need to understand what you’ve been doing up to this point and what you hope to accomplish by changing. This is especially important in order to stay relevant in an increasingly difficult and competitive industry.
“It can be a mindset thing. If it’s in the back of your mind that this is the way I’ve always done it and I’m not going to change, then you’re not gonna change,” he says.
“There’s a lot of challenges to farming all the way around whether it’s till or no till.”
Thankfully for his neighbors and the farming community at large, McAlister is more than happy to share his successes and his mistakes in order to help others to be successful both in the field and in life.
Not only does McAlister help to educate those in the community on no-till farming, but he's been reached internationally as well, including a group of approximately two dozen wheat farmers who visited from Victoria and South Wales, Australia as part of a nationwide tour to see how American farms practice no-till management.
A True Community Guru
Everyone in town knows McAlister and so it’s no surprise that he’s more than earned the title of “community guru” from those who know him, due to his unwavering community involvement be it with the local church, volunteer fire department, or helping farmers to find solutions to their problems.
So, what’s the driving force behind his passion to give back to his community?
“I believe you are on this Earth to serve your neighbor,” he says.
And serve his neighbor he does. McAlister is very active in local and state agriculture chapters.
He can be found helping at county stock shows, maintaining close relationships with county commissioners, and serving on the National Association of Conservation District’s Soil Health Champions Network.
For NRCS, McAlister serves in the role of mentor for other landowners because of his experience, knowledge, and willingness to share what he’s learned over the years.
The agency has elected him to serve on their board and he’s hosted numerous soil health workshops and practice seminars with up to 254 participants over the years.
In response to a growing wild hog population, McAlister also sits on the Wichita County Soil & Water Conservation Board helping to manage the Feral Swine Eradication Pilot Program in Zone 5 that will eventually spread across the state and, ideally, into the nation.
Farming With the Future in Mind
Trent Manley, an agronomist with NRCS in Zone 5, started working with McAlister about five years ago as the farmer began implementing even more conservation methods.
“Kenneth is a character for sure, but when you really get down to it and start working with him, to say he’s passionate is an understatement. He’s someone who cares,” Manley says.
“You can feel it when you’re around him; how passionate he is about his operation and the livelihood – about passing it on to the next generation, which I think is something that’s pretty special,” states Manley. “He’s not just worried about himself, but the next generation and making sure that the things he’s learned along the way gets passed down to the next generation.”
When asked for some final advice for those who are looking to improve their soil health, Kenneth has one message. “When you talk about trying to bring it together and make soil health the best thing there is—we could do it with cover crops, we could do it with fertilizers—there’s a lot you can do. But the best thing you could do is quit plowing. Leave the soil structure alone.”