By Celeste Baumgartner
SMITH COUNTY, Tenn. — Starting in farming with no family background and no acreage, is hard. But, Kyle Owen did that in 2004 when he began growing burley tobacco on 32 leased acres and farm equipment he pulled out of weedy fencerows. Now Owen is farming more than 6,000 acres and he was just named the Tennessee Farmer of the Year.
“I always felt passionate about farming,” Owen said. “When I was a child all I ever wanted to play with was toy tractors and farm sets. I don’t know what got me so involved. I worked in tobacco for a lot of different people, and hay, with cattle, and everything else just to get an opportunity to get out on a farm somewhere.”
Burley tobacco was very profitable in 2004. Owen grew his 32 tobacco acres into about 300. When asked how he was able to expand his operation, he said, “Although it was a struggle with very little labor and equipment, that first crop was a success. I had a profitable year and began a plan to grow 50 acres the next year and 80 acres the following year, and by 2011 l had purchased my first farm, and had a full lineup of equipment.
“We got to the point where we had so many acres of tobacco that we needed a crop rotation,” he said. “Sad as it is to say, I started in row cropping just to have a crop rotation for my tobacco. Tobacco was still really profitable. It was doing well to around 2011 or ’12.”
With less profit coming in per acre, Owen kept expanding in volume with his corn, soybean, and wheat operation. A couple of years ago he added 100 acres of watermelons and then five acres of pumpkins.
He also got married. Now, his wife, Miranda, is vital to the accounting, record-keeping, and management of the farm. They have two daughters, ages six and two.
At age 40, he is ready to cut back on the stress level he has had for the last 20 years. He wants to hold where he is or maybe increase a small amount on the row crop farming and get more involved in produce. He could stick a little closer to his 1,000-acre home farm that is on the river, making irrigation easy.
“We farm in five different counties here in Middle Tennessee,” he explained. “The traffic we deal with when we’re trying to get our equipment moved around, it is such a headache. I like to think that the produce and specialty crops are much less volume, a lot less acres. We could do that close to home.”
“That would be one of my main goals going forward, to specialize in that a little more and maybe specialize in some value-added things with these watermelons,” he said.
Owen’s passion for agriculture has not flagged in his time in the business and that is one of the reasons why Katie Martin, County Director, University of Tennessee (UT) Extension Smith County, nominated him to be the 2023 Farmer of the Year.
“Kyle has a great operation right now, very impressive, especially in our area in Middle Tennessee,” Martin said. “What makes him really stand out to me is that he is that first-generation farmer, that he built this himself and started small and was able to grow. He faced challenges … but he doesn’t let anything stop his growth or slow him down. He is always able to build bounce back and bounce back better.”
As the Tennessee Farmer of the Year, Owen will be honored at the UT Institute of Agriculture’s annual Ag Day event, September 23, in Knoxville. He will also compete in the Sunbelt Ag Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year competition. The winner of that competition will be announced in October at the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Georgia.