Whether it’s thrashing down a mountain of fresh powder or scouting rice fields, Keith Shelton attacks both with a sense of determination and curiosity that helps him find solutions and success. It’s that grit and intensity that earned him the honor of this year’s Rice Consultant of the Year, sponsored by Corteva Agriscience.
Shelton of Lonoke, Arkansas, was introduced to rice scouting when he was looking for a job the summer before entering college. He was raised in a county that has a rich tradition of rice farming, so he understood the importance of the crop to the area — even though he didn’t grow up on a farm. That first summer job propelled him to a career that he didn’t know possible before then.
“I needed a job, and the Extension office was looking to hire a rice scout,” Shelton said. “Who knew that summer job would lead me to a career that has given me so much?”
After that first summer, Shelton entered Arkansas State University, where he earned a degree in plant science. During summers, he would return to Lonoke and continue scouting rice fields.
“Quinton Hornsby [with the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service] got me started in this career,” Shelton added. “I owe him a lot, as he taught me everything I needed to get started.”
In 2000, Shelton started his independent scouting business, Shelton Ag Services. Today, he scouts primarily rice, soybeans and corn for customers who have become family.
Shelton credits the family atmosphere he’s developed with his customers for the open communication he shares with them. He approaches each field as if it were his own, meaning that, sometimes, he has to share information they may not want to hear.
Keith Shelton credits and thanks his family for the ongoing support that allows him to keep the hours needed to scout fields during the busy growing season. The Shelton family (L to R): Keith, Misti, Kennedi and Reagan. (Photo courtesy of Keith Shelton)
“I believe it’s important I tell them what's going on,” Shelton said. “I tell them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. I’m their eyes, ears and feet out in the field.”
Shelton’s customers agree. In the Rice Consultant of the Year support materials, his customers praise him for his genuineness and dedication to his profession.
“To me, consulting is about building budgets, implementing a soil fertility program, seed selection, reducing costs, saving water and, frankly, learning how to win,” writes Dow Brantley III with Brantley Farms, England, Arkansas. “Consulting also is about being a mentor and coach. Keith does all those things alongside us day in and day out, not just for my family, but for many others in our community.”
Over the years, Shelton has seen several shifts in the rice industry, with the biggest being the consolidation of farms and agricultural companies. As with other industries, he reports continuing to do more with less to stay on budget.
Another shift has been weather patterns, which have changed how he works with his customers to prepare fields.
“The rainy springs leave a short window to get seed in the ground,” Shelton said. “That means we have to get more field work done in the fall to plant early in the spring.”
As the boots on the ground for his customers, Shelton also knows that early weed control is critical to year-long success. He advises his customers that the best way to control a weed is to not let it come up.
“You can save more on the front end by not letting weeds come up,” Shelton explained. “Debt is a great motivator, and we run into something new every year. I treat these fields like they’re mine to make sure my customers are successful.”
When he started his career scouting rice fields, Shelton spent the winters out West, working at ski slopes. It turned out to be fortuitous for him, as that’s how he met his wife, Misti. He still makes it a point to hit the slopes each winter, but most of his free time is spent with his wife and daughters, Kennedi and Reagan.
“I’m thankful for my family and my customers, who have become family,” Shelton said. “This is an honor for me, to be named the Rice Consultant of the Year.”
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