Webfoot Kennels and Forrest Keeling Nursery
It’s 6 a.m. on a hot, humid, and hazy August morning near Elsberry, Missouri, a tiny town 30 miles north of St. Louis and not far from the Illinois, Missouri, and Mississippi River confluences.
A confluence of another kind is coming alive at daybreak in the hills just outside of town, where two seemingly unrelated businesses – Webfoot Kennel and Forrest Keeling Nursery – are preparing for the busy fall season.
The front door of Webfoot Kennel training facility swings open and out ambles 15-year-old Jetta, a sweet yellow Labrador Retriever who has whelped 47 puppies, hunted in seven states, earned her title as an AKC Master Hunter and is now the official greeter of Webfoot Kennel. Close behind Jetta is Mitch Hainsfurther, Webfoot’s owner and head trainer who has worked with dogs since he was a teenager and left the corporate world to live his lifelong dream to train retrievers.
Just down the hill from the new kennel building is headquarters for Forrest Keeling Nursery – the country’s largest native species nursery. There, Forrest Keeling President Kim Lovelace Hainsfurther and her official greeter – a loveable Airedale named Frasier – are just starting their day.
While Mitch and his team tend to some 50 retrievers, Kim and her team tend to hundreds of thousands of trees, shrubs and grasses.
Mitch and Kim became husband and wife with a “COVID wedding” three years ago and today share the land, a purpose and a passion steeped in conservation and connecting people with nature.
Location, Location, Location
The first tenet of real estate also applies to Webfoot Kennel and Forrest Keeling Nursery.
Founded in 1948, Forrest Keeling occupies 350 acres of fertile loam soil and gentle rolling hills with lakes and ponds that serve as a water source for the nursery and a resting place for migrating waterfowl along the Mississippi Flyway.
“We’re on the ‘X’ for the duck flyway,” Mitch says, with ‘X’ being a term waterfowlers use for the exact place ducks and geese want to be. “This is really an ideal location for dog training. And we’re just a few miles from many of the famous duck clubs located along the river confluences.”
Ducks attract duck hunters, and duck hunters love their retrievers – especially well-trained retrievers.
“We enjoy taking dogs from kindergarten through to their advanced master’s degrees,” Mitch says, also crediting his assistant trainers. “I love it when our clients see their dogs reach their potential and say, ‘How’d you get them to do that?’ “
Owners send puppies to Webfoot Kennel’s Puppy Head Start program to learn obedience and basic retrieving skills on land and water. Most of the puppies continue training until they’re “Started Dogs” and ready for a hunting career. Some of the dogs continue advanced training and compete in American Kennel Club (AKC) Retriever Hunting Tests or Field Trials.
“August and September is a busy time because it’s tune-up time for a lot of retrievers with dove season, teal season and waterfowl season fast approaching,” Mitch says.
Fall is also the best time to plant a tree. And there is plenty to plant at Forrest Keeling.
“We have somewhere north of a million plants on the ground here at any one time,” Kim Lovelace Hainsfurther says. “Fall is our biggest season and we’re big proponents of fall planting. You can really get a jump-start versus waiting until spring.”
The other jump-start at Forrest Keeling is the patented and proprietary Root Production Method (RPM) featuring a 12-step process that creates superior root mass and promotes rapid plant growth.
“The RPM system was developed here by my dad, Wayne Lovelace,” Kim says. “He grew up on the neighboring farm and he’d walk over here to work for the nursery owner and founder, Hugh Steavenson. Dad still comes to work here every day.”
As if on cue, Wayne Lovelace enters the office. A short man with a gentle smile and firm handshake, Wayne remains Chairman of Forrest Keeling and recounts the early days of the nursery. “The only job I was qualified for was pulling weeds, so I walked across the field to pull weeds for Mr. Steavenson. I’ve spent my whole life here and learned a basic love of nature. That’s probably the best thing – being able to work with nature.”
Wayne Lovelace purchased Forrest Keeling Nursery in 2004 and Kim became Vice President and General Manager. The nursery continued to grow rapidly and specialize in RPM-produced native plants, including more than 270 native tree and shrub species and more than 100 perennials. Kim shares her father’s love of nature and is passionate about conservation and restoration and ensuring native plants contribute to a sustainable environment. That passion helped Forrest Keeling earn the Corporate Conservationist of the Year Award in 2023 from the Conservation Federation of Missouri.
Forrest Keeling is a major supplier of plants and trees for restoration and conservation projects – including wetlands restoration. That connection resonates perfectly with Mitch and his Webfoot Kennel.
“Duck hunters are passionate about two things: their retrievers, of course, and improving habitat for ducks,” Mitch says. “Many of our clients own and manage duck clubs and want to enhance their club grounds with Forrest Keeling stock. They can create waterfowl habitat using native plants and construct wetlands that will attract ducks and provide food for the annual fall migration.”
At the same time, retriever trainers like Mitch design and build technical ponds that emulate hunting or competition training scenarios to challenge and develop their dogs. Mitch coined the phrase “wet-tech” and employs a honeycomb-like design that retrievers negotiate to make retrieves during advanced training.
“Our wet-tech ponds include nine water features or potholes,” Mitch says. “We also use duck blinds on Forrest Keeling wetlands and water sources to train and simulate hunting situations. We want to train dogs so that wherever they go to compete or hunt, they act like they’ve been there before.”
In addition to building new ponds and training features, Mitch adapts the nursery’s existing footprint to his training regimen.
He points to rows of young trees spaced 30-feet apart that stretch for 200 yards.
“Here’s how we get dogs to run straight,” Mitch says. “We place 18 bumpers at the end of the 200 yards. In just five days most of the dogs will figure out the prize is at the end. They learn to run straight down the tree row and run hard, and when they do that something good is waiting for them.”
Something good also is waiting for them inside the state-of-the-art 5,000-square foot kennel building – a pallet of Purina Pro Plan Performance 30/20 dog food.
“Good enough is not something we train for, it has to be great,” Mitch says. “Nourishment and fuel for our dogs must be the best. That’s why we choose Purina® Pro Plan® Performance for all our dogs.”
Webfoot Kennel has capacity for 64 dogs and features shiny, clean kennel runs and a spacious room for indoor training during inclement weather. A trophy case of ribbons and plaques greets visitors along with stunning photos of Webfoot-trained retrievers at work.
“After duck season ends in Missouri, we travel to south Texas for the winter,” Mitch says. “Warm water there is perfect for water work, and in late spring we head back to Missouri.”
Mitch and Kim agree that Webfoot Kennel and Forrest Keeling Nursery share a mission to ultimately connect people with nature – whether that’s spending time in a duck blind or enjoying the shade of a beautiful oak tree.
“The businesses may seem unrelated,” Mitch says, “but together, we can enhance the land to propagate more trees and plants and shape the land as training grounds that make well-trained retrievers.”
Kim adds, “We are only brief guardians of the land. Working with our clients, we’ve played a role in restoring the earth ‘one tree at a time.’ Together, we are healing our planet while healing ourselves and continuing to grow.”
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