The first interview I ever did in this job was with Tom Burrus. I was a senior in college 20 years ago, writing a story on independent seed companies in an effort to get this job. I knew nothing, and understood even less.
But Tom was gracious. He explained. He made his points and answered my questions. He asked me questions. By the time we hung up, I had a new friend. That was the way with Tom.
Over the next 20 years, my conversations with Tom Burrus would prove to be a refuge in the storm. I could count on him to explain the background of a complicated situation, to answer a question honestly. To sit down together in the heat of the Farm Progress Show, where he’d look me in the eye and say, “What can we do to help you?” I have dozens of emails from Tom, often responding to something I’d written and etched with his humanity and his unwavering belief in the good found in rural Illinois. Always, he asked about our family.
Tom died suddenly this fall, on Oct. 28. He was president and chief executive officer of Burrus Seed, founded by his grandfather Wilbur and great-uncle Roy in 1935 in Arenzville, Ill. Tom’s dad, Martin, was the second generation to run the business, with his cousin Rob (Roy’s son). Then Tom and his brother, Todd, ran the company together and were third-generation owners. It’s a family business, in every sense of the word.
I think everyone must have a Tom Burrus story, and certainly the people he worked with do. Stephanie Porter joined their agronomy team nearly four years ago and says she learned something every day from Tom — things like seed business history, sure, but also how to work a 26-hour day while balancing family and still having fun. He taught her that co-workers are family, and so are dealers and customers; everyone should know you’ll go above and beyond for them. And if you screw up? Own it. Respect is earned, but not easily.
He told her this, too: “Never be afraid to stand up for what you believe is right, even when everyone else is afraid.” Words to live by, for us all.
But the people
Clearly, Tom counted his life and his work as a privilege, and he reminded the people around him to enjoy the simple honor of working with farmers, and of being welcomed onto their operations and into their homes.
Matt Montgomery spent several years as an agronomist at Burrus; Tom’s legacy for him?
“Laugh and visit with folks. Enjoy the science. Enjoy helping people hand it off better than they received it.
“Strive to keep the seed business competitive and introduce new products to feed a hungry world, but never forget the best part of this job is getting to know these people that work in this amazing ag industry.
“That’s what Tom really enjoyed about the seed business.”
During his years at Burrus, Montgomery heard over and over how much he’d missed by not knowing Martin Burrus. “Now we’ll be telling folks the Tom stories and saying, ‘I just wish you could have known him.’”
Tom Burrus was, indeed, the grand gentleman of the seed business. He was a good friend and a good man. Illinois agriculture will miss him deeply.
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