Tom Varilek honored as 2017 Eminent Farmer/Rancher |

Tom Varilek honored as 2017 Eminent Farmer/Rancher

Donald Marshall, SDSU Ag and Biological Sciences interim dean and director of academic programs, introduces the 2017 Eminent Farmers/Ranchers and Homemakers at the 90th Anniversary Program on Sept. 15.

On Sept. 15, the South Dakota State University (SDSU) College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences honored two individuals as the 2017 Eminent Farmer/Ranchers — Tom Varilek of Geddes and John Moes of Florence.

The honorees were recognized during a banquet at the McCrory Gardens Education and Visitor Center in Brookings. The award was established in 1927 and recognizes outstanding producers and homemakers who exhibit excellence in agricultural leadership and community.

Moes and Varilek join more than 300 portraits of Eminent Farmers/Ranchers and Homemakers, which are displayed in the “Hall of Fame” portrait gallery located in SDSU’s Berg Agricultural Hall.

Tom Varilek, Varilek CT Angus

“To have been nominated and selected to win the 2017 Eminent Farmer/Rancher award is still shocking to me. I didn’t know it was coming, and I’m still kind of in awe. It’s hard to imagine being among the same group of other successful producers who have been honored. It’s very humbling.” Tom Varilek

Varilek got his start in the cattle business following his service in the Army in 1972-73. A graduate of SDSU with a degree in animal science, Varilek always knew he wanted to be involved in the cattle business.

Upon graduation and his tour of duty, he joined his parents, Elvern and Margert, on the ranch he grew up on. In 1985, Varilek branched out on his own, starting Varilek CT Angus with his wife Carol.

While building their own herd of registered Angus cattle, together, they also adopted three children — Tess, Tara and Cody, and in addition to running a cow-calf, feedlot and diversified crop operation, they kept busy with sports, FFA and rodeo competitions.

Today, the ranch maintains 500 head of cattle, and the Varileks also background 600-1,000 head of calves, in addition to raising irrigated crops — alfalfa, corn, sorghum and hay.

“We have six irrigation pivots, and we only raise crops that our cattle will eat,” said Varilek. “Anymore, we are doing fewer crops and more grass. We much prefer to ride a horse versus driving a tractor. The days may get hot and sweaty, but by the end of the day, everyone is still smiling.”

Each year, they sell 60 two-year old registered Angus bulls, hosting an annual bull sale the last Friday of March. The bulls are raised on the open range, and customers have come to appreciate buying mature bulls that don’t melt or fall apart during the breeding season. He explains that waiting until they are two increases the bulls’ longevity and allows the bulls he sells to grow up naturally with more time seems to do well in his own operation and for his customers, as well.

A family affair

Varilek’s keen passion for the cattle business is shared by his family members. Running the ranch has always been a family affair, and the work is done together. When both of his parents passed away in 2004 and his wife died the following year, Varilek continued to work on the ranch alongside his eldest daughter Tess and her husband Duke Starr, along with their two children, Kade and Taryn.

“Tess and Duke have been at the ranch with me for the past 15 years,” said Varilek. “We are working to make that transition from one generation to the next. They do most of the day-to-day labor, and I still get in on some of the business decisions.”

Varilek remarried 10 years ago, and while he continues to stay involved on his own ranch, his new wife Bev still runs cattle and raises dogs with her son 35 miles away.

“We don’t see each other every day, but we spend a lot of time on the cell phone talking,” said Varilek. “We both love what we do and it’s hard being away from each other, but it makes us appreciate each other more when we do get together. This operation has always been a family deal. It’s a ‘we’ operation at ‘our’ place, and I’m lucky to have a great family working alongside me.”

Leadership in organizations matters

Active in several organizations including the South Dakota Angus Association, South Dakota Irrigators, South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association, American Legion, the Council on Agricultural Research, Extension and Teaching, and the local rodeo club, Varilek firmly believes in being active and contributing to organizations that matter to him.

“If you reap the benefits of an organization or industry, you need to be involved,” he said.

Over the years, Varilek said he’s worked with SDSU to do test plots and experiment with different production methods. One year, the university planted an entire section in a corn test plot. He says this partnership has allowed him to learn a lot and explore new production methods.

“SDSU has always been so dear to me,” said Varilek, who was involved in collegiate meats and livestock judging and Little International as a college student. “I can’t explain into words how much this place means to me. To have been nominated and selected to win the 2017 Eminent Farmer/Rancher award is still shocking to me. I didn’t know it was coming, and I’m still kind of in awe. It’s hard to imagine being among the same group of other successful producers who have been honored. It’s very humbling.”

As for the future, Varilek says they will continue to strive for improvements with their cattle, their land and their business.

“We live along the river, and we continue to keep improving on what we have,” said Varilek. “You can’t just stand still or get complacent. We will probably develop more irrigation and more pastures with different grasses. We do a lot of experimenting with pasture grasses. There’s always something to work on, and when you love what you do, you never really work a day in your life.”

To learn more about Varilek CT Angus, check out

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