Production Blog

The Illinois Corn Farmer

Pam Smith
By  Pam Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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This is how Tom Burrus (center) approached life -- gung ho and smiling -- even in the face of drought, which was evident in their seed fields in 2012 when this photo was taken. His brother Todd, and son-in-law, Tim Greene are standing alongside. (DTN photo by Pam Smith)

DECATUR, Illinois (DTN) -- Agricultural journalists aren't called upon to write obituaries very often. Thank goodness, because when we do, the situation is almost always painfully personal.

That's the way it is for me with Tom Burrus who passed away suddenly on Saturday. Tom, along with his brother, Todd, are the second generation owners of Burrus Brothers and Associated Growers, a company founded in 1935 in the Illinois River valley near the small town of Arenzville, Illinois.

Most knew Tom as a strident supporter of independent seed production -- the president and CEO of a family seed business that has survived in an industry known for consolidation. He served as president of the Independent Professional Seed Association in 2006 and has a long resume that represents his belief in the value of service to the agriculture industry and his local community.

However, I first knew him as "one of those Burrus boys." That's how my father referred to them when we went head-to-head in the swine show ring at the county fair. Todd and I would later cement our friendship in college, but long before that, I recognized the Burrus Brothers as a special kind of competitors -- fierce, but friendly and fearlessly fair.

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As my journalism career progressed, I often called to Burrus headquarters for a gut check on seed and agricultural issues. I can't remember ever being turned down for an interview. They generously offered their seed fields and production plant for photos. I was never surprised to return to my truck to find sweet corn tucked into the back seat. I drooled over Tom's collection of artwork with, not surprisingly, corn as a theme. His collection of old seed sacks was a trip down memory lane of the many companies that had passed.

Still, no one embraced the future like Tom. He was forever sending me random notes about some new development he'd seen that excited him about corn.

Then again, he was awfully proud of his children and grandchildren and wasn't ashamed to brag about them either. He purely loved conversation on the things he cared about most.

Amazingly, I found I have more than 200 saved emails from Tom with a common thread run through each one. He nearly always encouraged me to keep asking questions. He was forever telling me: "Keep challenging us to do better."

Illinois poet Carl Sandburg wrote the poem "Illinois Farmer" nearly 100 years ago, but it serves my remembrance of Tom so well:

Bury this old Illinois farmer with respect. / He slept the Illinois nights of his life after days of work in Illinois cornfields. / Now he goes on a long sleep.

Sleep well, my friend. I know you'll be dreaming of Illinois corn.

Pamela Smith can be reached at Pamela.smith@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN

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