Growing Kentucky’s Wheat Industry: Remembering Kentucky Farmer Don Halcomb


By Jennifer Elwell, TeachKyAg

Within a few weeks of earning my agriculture degrees from the University of Kentucky, I began working as communications director for the Kentucky Corn and Kentucky Small Grain Growers Association. The first day on the job involved traveling to the Kentucky Commodity Conference in Bowling Green—that was January 18, 1998—which helped me immediately became familiar with the who’s who of Kentucky’s grain industry leadership.

While every person I met had a passion for agriculture and growing opportunities for our farmers, I took special notice of Logan and Simpson Co. farmer Don Halcomb. I am sad to report, however, that I attended his funeral last month, but it was evident that the same impression he left on me was felt by hundreds if not thousands of people.

Mr. Halcomb was a visionary and a thinker. After my time in the Kentucky Agriculture Leadership Program (KALP), I came to realize that I am drawn to such people, so it does not surprise me now that I always enjoyed listening to him speak and share ideas. Halcomb, in fact, was a member of the very first KALP class in 1985, when it was known as the Philip Morris Leadership Program.

His role is agriculture, in addition to forward-thinking farmer, included working with a group of other farmers and research staff to organize the Kentucky Small Grain Growers Association in 1989 and then chair the Kentucky Small Grain Promotion Council from 1994 until his death. It was the job of the promotion council to invest a voluntary farm payment, called a checkoff, into projects and programs that promote small grains and boost profitability for farmers growing those small grains. Many farm commodities have a checkoff program in Kentucky.

From the beginning, Halcomb encouraged investment in wheat and small grain research, variety development, more sustainable growing practices such as no-till farming, and grower education through our land grant institution, the University of Kentucky. It was not that long ago that wheat was typically only grown in Kentucky as a cover crop to protect soils over winter, but through his leadership and the input from the wheat farmer and research team, Kentucky’s winter wheat industry is now one of the strongest in the nation.

As wheat production and quality improved, Siemer Milling, a major wheat buyer out of southern Illinois, constructed a mill in Hopkinsville to process the plentiful crop into flour. That was followed by the construction of Continental Mills next door, which purchases the flour to make many well-known, branded baking mixes such as Krusteaz, Ghirardelli, Red Lobster, and Cracker Barrel. Kentucky is also home to several other food bakers and manufacturers who use Siemer’s flour products.

Due to the success of Kentucky’s wheat research and market development programs, Halcomb wanted to ensure that the University of Kentucky would continue to be a leader in local wheat variety development and agronomy for years to come. In 2012, Kentucky Small Grains established the Kentucky Wheat Endowment Fund, where growers could provide monetary or grain product gifts to help support UK wheat programs. It was about this same time that Halcomb, with the help from UK soil specialist Lloyd Murdock, shared a vision that would eventually materialize into the Grain and Forage Center of Excellence (GFCE).  

Now under construction, the center at the UK Research and Education Center in Princeton “will use cutting-edge research and outreach efforts to help Kentucky grain and forage producers use sustainable, intensive production practices to better meet the needs of a growing world with minimal environmental impact.” (

One of Mr. Halcomb’s last public agriculture appearances was to speak at the GFCE ground breaking ceremony last March. He spoke of visionaries before us and his belief in the land-grant system.

To date, the Kentucky Small Grain Promotion Council has dedicated more than $3.3 million dollars to wheat and small grain research to help Kentucky farmers. Just before Don’s passing, the Halcomb family received news that Siemer Milling was dedicating $1 million to the center, a testament of their success thanks to the industry Don helped create.

It has been an amazing experience to see the vision of leaders like Don Halcomb come to fruition. Our industry has been built on the shoulders of many great leaders, and I hope to share more stories such as this in future issues.

By Jennifer Elwell,

What are Small Grains?

Small grains are typically grain crops that are members of the grass family other than corn and sorghum. They include wheat, rye, barley, oats, rice, triticale, and other less commonly grown grains in Kentucky. “Small” refers to the plant structure as opposed to the size of the grain.

Kentucky’s Wheat Industry

According to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, there were more than 2,000 Kentucky farms growing wheat for the sale of grain.

Most all wheat grown in Kentucky is of soft red winter wheat variety that is most suitable for cookies, crackers, pretzels, pastries, and flat breads. It is regularly used in at-home baking mixes.

Wheat is planted in the fall and typically harvested in June. This allows farmers to plant late-season soybeans to grow two crops in one year.

The average wheat yield per acre has doubled in the last 50 years, from about 35 bushels per acre, to 75 or more bushels per acre with adequate weather.