Farmers Exchange changes owners as fourth – and fifth – generations step in

Farmers Exchange, the iconic purveyor of lawnmowers, chainsaws, trimmers, animal feed and garden supplies, has passed to a new generation.

Christopher Ingersoll, great grandson of one of the original owners of the Kennewick business, bought it from his uncle, Keith Silliman, in a deal that closed Oct. 1.

Silliman said he was thrilled to pass it to the next generation and pledged to support his nephew any way he can to ensure its continued success. The transfer included the $1.25 million sale of Farmers Exchange buildings and land at 215 W. Canal Drive as well as on North Benton Street.

Ingersoll is the fourth generation of the Silliman family to lead the store, founded in 1923 in the parking lot of Washington Hardware as a spot for farmers to exchange goods and services.

Emerald Ambrose Silliman became a partner in 1930 and would sell it to his son, Clint, in 1948. Clint’s brother Ken Silliman joined shortly after that, after serving as a photographer in the Air Force curing the Korean War era.

Keith bought out his father, Ken, in 1997. Ken Silliman, his son and grandson noted, didn’t know the meaning of the word “retirement.” He worked in the store until three weeks before his death earlier this year at 89.

As Keith Silliman transitions out, he said it was a wonderful place to spend his working life. He drew a paycheck from Farmers Exchange from the age of 15.

“I have had a wonderful time,” said Silliman, who together with his significant other, Lisa, plans to travel and settle into semi-retirement. Their first grandchild is due in the spring, said Lisa, the store’s longest-serving employee.

Ingersoll, like his mother, his uncle and his grandfather before him, grew up at Farmers Exchange as well, though not always for the right reasons.

He was prone to getting in trouble at school – he went through Park Middle School and then Kennewick High.

His mother worked at the family store, so his grandfather would fetch him from school and bring him back, assigning chores as punishment. It happened “more than it should have,” said Ingersoll. He graduated from Kennewick High and left the Tri-Cities to attend college and serve in the Air Force, where, like his grandfather, he served as a photographer.

After his discharge, he finished a degree in communications at Oregon State University, worked briefly for the Bend Bulletin and moved to New York for a Veterans Administration post. He returned to the Northwest as an emergency services manager for the Oregon Military Department.

He and his family were happy in Salem. But when he heard his uncle talk about selling Farmers Exchange so he could retire, the tug of home pulled him back to Kennewick.

He and wife Nicole have five children, with two younger children now at Kennewick High. Both work at Farmers Exchange, putting the fifth generation on the scene.

Ingersoll said he has no major plans to alter the customer-focused approach that has helped Farmers Exchange compete successfully against the big box retailers and their massive garden centers. A recent visit to Toro headquarters confirmed Farmers Exchange sells more Toro-branded mowers in the market than its competitors, Ingersoll said.

He will spend the first few years learning the ropes and getting to know the 30 to 35 employees.

Farmers Exchange launched in 1923 or 1924 as a literal farmers exchange in a downtown Kennewick parking lot. By 1930, the first Silliman was a partner and the business moved into its longtime home on Canal Drive.

The building, constructed in 1912, was built as a literal stock exchange. Cattle traded in the basement.

When Ken and Kent Silliman took over in the 1950s, it shifted its focus to the growing middle class and its endless appetite for items for their gardens, from plants to power mowers, chainsaws and trimmers.

It retains its farm atmosphere but serves Tri-Cities customers through three lines of business.

The feed, fertilizer and seed business is housed in the original building, the power equipment in a former auto repair shop across the parking lot and the nursery is in the rear.

“In the future, we’ll see where it goes,” Ingersoll said.

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