Delta farmer Keath Killebrew never needed much rest. Every morning at 5 a.m., he woke, fixed a pot of coffee and headed to work, where he usually stayed until late in the evening. Some nights, when he was trying to solve a particularly vexing issue, he didn’t return until the morning.
“He was the hardest working man I’ve ever known,” says Alyssa Killebrew, Keath’s wife and best friend since childhood.
Once, during a bout of insomnia, he retreated to a back room, grabbed a brush and started painting—something he had never attempted before. Alyssa, who has painted since she was 10, woke the next morning and saw the Delta scene he had created while the house slept around him. After that night, they began taking art classes together.
“I had known all along he had that creativity in him, because I would see the pictures he would take of the Delta,” she says. “I didn’t push him to pursue it because he had so much on his plate at the time, but Keath was never afraid to take on something new.”
From the beginning, Keath Killebrew was an adventurous soul. He grew up modestly on Horseshoe Lake near Tchula, the son of a bank teller and a farmer, before his family moved to Lexington in 1992. There, he met 14-year-old Alyssa, née Ellis, and told a friend he would one day marry her. The two became inseparable throughout high school and college, and in 2003 the couple made their commitment official with a beachside wedding in Jamaica.
Alongside his identical twin brother, Heath, he formed the Killebrew Cotton Company, an agricultural enterprise that grows cotton, soybeans, rice, wheat and watermelons across six Mississippi counties, from Tate in the north to Madison at the southern end. He taught welding classes at Parchman Penitentiary, and hired some of his former students after their release. In recent years, he got into beekeeping and tended his hives regularly. He even liked when the bees stung him. “He claimed that getting stung caused him to feel relaxed,” Alyssa says.
Keath’s ceaseless ambition led to an interest in the Chaco region of Paraguay, a largely flat region with farming potential similar to the Mississippi Delta. On his visits there, he began to lay the groundwork for an expansion of his cotton farming operations to the South American country. He met with development officials in the Paraguayan government, worked on irrigation plans and sampled the soil for testing. On one trip, he even met the president.
Alyssa was making plans to join Keath in Paraguay a few months out of the year, with their two children in tow, so she could help him get the business started. Then the unspeakable happened. On December 3, 2021, while in Paraguay working to establish their new business, Keath lost his life in a plane crash. Although her life was shattered, Alyssa resolved to carry on with Keath’s mission.
That resolve led her to put into action another dream they shared: To help encourage and educate the next generation of Mississippi farmers. She established the Killebrew Ag Foundation and the Keath Killebrew Charisma Award Fund at the Community Foundation for Mississippi to fund scholarships for young men and women interested in working in the agricultural field.
“We wanted to teach young people how to farm and how to manage the business side of farming,” she says. “All the dollars that we raise for this foundation will go back into the Mississippi community for exactly that purpose.”
The inaugural Keath Killebrew Memorial Rodeo, presented by the Killebrew Ag Foundation, will be held July 28-29 at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson. In addition to traditional rodeo favorites like bull riding, calf roping, steer wrestling and barrel racing, the event will feature performances from country music artists Chapel Hart and Drake Milligan. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Keath Killebrew Charisma Award Fund at the Community Foundation for Mississippi.
“Keath truly lived his life like he was preparing for a bull ride,” Alyssa says. “He was always creating new ventures with his businesses and always excited to work hard, and that’s what bull riding and preparing for rodeos is all about. You know you’re gonna get bucked off, and he did many times as he was trying to build a farm operation. But he always got back on and always kept trying.”