“Keith was the type of guy who would never quit.”
– DAVE MANNING
Keith Mills, a highly respected extension agronomist, is being remembered by farmers and colleagues for his energy and intellect and how much they learned from him.
Mills, who worked for Westco, a division of Viterra, died suddenly at his home in Claresholm, Alta., April 7. He was 47 and leaves his wife Sara and their three children, Isaiah, Laura, and Julia.
“Keith was probably one of the brightest guys in ag that could take pure research and translate it into practical farming methodologies that you could use,” said Miamiarea farmer Donald Orchard, who worked with Mills when he was an ag rep based in Carman and later as a Westco ACES (Agronomic Crop Enhancement Specialist) out of Darlingford. “He was just exceptional – an incredible agronomist. With his early death agriculture has probably lost one of its brightest pragmatists from the research side.”
Retired Pilot Mound-area farmer Dave Manning said he was struck by Mills’ energy and dedication while serving as ag rep in Pilot Mound during the early part of his career.
“Keith was the type of guy who would never quit,” Manning said. “If you had a problem no matter what time of day or night he addressed it.”
For a few years, Mills used his “holidays” to work for SeCan planting demonstration plots across Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Dale Alderson, who was with SeCan then and is now manager of seed marketing at Paterson Grain, worked with Mills. Alderson recalls leaving Mills working alone after a 10-day stretch to attend a meeting. When he got back two days later, Mills was just finishing up. “He just never stopped,” Alderson said. “He had amazing stamina.”
Mills, with a degree in agriculture and an honours degree in commerce, was a voracious reader. “There wasn’t a topic he wasn’t well read on,” Alderson said.
Dave Kelner worked with Mills at Manitoba Agriculture and later at Westco. Kelner, now Monsanto’s technology development lead for Western Canada, said there was nobody he liked to debate with more than Mills.
“He always had a different angle,” Kelner said.
Mills was reluctant to accept conventional wisdom and frequently did his own research.
“To him every field was a research project.”
One year, round leaf mallow was a weed problem in the fall and there was interest in how much glyphosate was needed to control it, Kelner said. Mills had the weed in his garden and turned it into a research plot.
When some people were advocating sequestering carbon from tractor exhaust into fields, thinking the nitrogen captured would benefit farmers, Mills dug into it and determined it wouldn’t be worth the bother.
Mills was a great “myth buster,” said John Heard, Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiative’s soil fertility specialist. Some farmers thought applying aspirin to crops was worthwhile. Mills demonstrated it had no merit, Heard said.
Kelner believes Mills’ stubbornness probably saved his life. Mills went on a solo sea kayaking trip on Canada’s East Coast. He got caught in a storm along a shore that was too rocky to land on, while the storm kept pushing him out to sea. Mills had to paddle for hours just to hold his position. “He thought he was done,” Kelner said.
Eventually, Mills found a spit of beach and got ashore, collapsed on the beach and slept for 10 hours straight, said Kelner. Then he turned around and went home.
Work was Mills’ life until he met and married Sara. “That finally changed him,” Kelner said.
Mills was known for his “need for speed.” He loved fast motorcycles and would often brave gravel roads to do a farm visit on his motorcycle.
NEED FOR SPEED
Mills’ obituary says he’ll be remembered in part for his… “questionable judgment when on a motorcycle.”
Mills not only helped farmers learn about agriculture, he also mentored other agronomists.
Richard Marsh, Syngenta’s technical field manager for the eastern Prairies replaced Mills as ag rep in Pilot Mound.
“Keith had done such a great job at Pilot Mound that life could’ve been hard for me there, but he provided advice,” Marsh said. “It sounds silly but he had a heart of gold. He really wanted to help people succeed. All I can say is what a great man he was, what a great person he was and good friend as well.”
The defunct Pilot Mound marketing club plans to send its leftover funds to Mills’ family and his fellow agronomists are working on setting up an award for extension agronomists in Mills’ name.
Perhaps the most fitting tribute to any extensionist is the conversation this writer overheard when two farmers were remembering Mills.
“Boy, I sure learned a lot from that guy,” the one farmer said.
“So did I ,” the other replied. “So did I.”