At ten years old, Russ Sylvester was already hauling harvested wheat seed from the combine to the granary for his dad, Wes's certified seed business in Riley County. "That was the beginning," he recalls. "Every year after that I became more and more involved on the farm." After attending Kansas State University for one year, Russ left to come back to his family's farm and seed business to form a partnership with his dad in 1960, before attending a K-State Ag Short Course in 1964.
At that time, Russ met his wife, Sandy, who was attending Clark's School of Business in Topeka. Sandy came from a farm family in the Tuttle Creek Dam area of Pottawatomie County – not far from Russ's family. She worked at Clark's School until she and Russ married in 1961, and then moved on to the Sylvester family farm.
However, change was on the horizon. The neighboring Fort Riley began expanding in 1964. After Russ's parents had been farming there since 1932, the fort's expansion caused Sandy, Russ, and his parents to move the farm, cattle, and seed business 110 miles to Ottawa in 1966, where they farm to this day. "So many of the Sylvesters were living around there, and it scattered the family," Sandy says. "It turned out to be a good move for us, because we love Franklin County and Ottawa."
A new start
Starting with 495 acres, they now farm 1,500 acres. Although cattle are no longer part of the operation, their farm includes corn, soybeans and wheat, and test plots for the seed business, where they hold several field days throughout the year. In 1976, Wes and Russ made the farm a corporation, Sylvester Ranch Inc. In 1997, Midland Genetics Group was formed with five other organizations in the Midwest. The company contracts seed for corn, soybeans, wheat and sorghum.
At Sylvester Ranch, soybeans and wheat seed are grown for Midland. Testing the seed locally with the latest genetics and traits from companies like Syngenta, Monsanto, Bayer, and Dow,ensures customers have the seed adapted for their area. "That's the reason we have test plots not only here but in other localities, to make sure we recommend the correct variety for the part of the country people live in," Russ says. "We try to be as locally-adapted as possible."
The original Sylvester Ranch seed plant, a restored dairy barn, was destroyed in a fire in 1992. However, the Sylvesters persevered, building new, updated buildings and bins. They have continued to grow the operation since with the next generation.
New set of hands
All three of their children are involved in agriculture one way or another. All three attended K-State before returning to Ottawa. Their older daughter, Kay, earned her degree in Horticultural Therapy from K-State and works part time handling scheduling and deliveries for Midland, and helps her husband, Michael Selman in his catering business.
Their younger daughter, Kris, graduated K-State with a degree in Human Ecology and Journalism and Mass Communication and works as a secretary at Ottawa High School, where her husband, Terry Wallace is a business teacher. Kris is also a spokesperson for the Kansas Wheat Commission.
Their youngest, Ron, graduated K-State with a degree in Ag Economics and returned to the farm in 1997, where he and his wife, Angela, office manager, are shareholders. Ron has been a vital asset since. Russ relies on his brother, Clyde, and Ron for choosing the right seed genetics and treatments.
Five years ago, with Ron's insistence, they added a seed treatment building to the facility and now offer three packages of Syngenta soybean seed treatments. "Ron has been our motivation to keep growing and changing," Sandy says. "He's brought the added element of youth."