Chickasaw agriculture attorney Janie Hipp was recently nominated for a key role at the United States Department of Agriculture by U.S. President Joe Biden and confirmed as general counsel of the Department of Agriculture on July 30.
A staunch advocate of farmers and ranchers, Ms. Hipp has stressed the historic and current importance of Native people and their contributions to agriculture, as well as the critical need to engage more young women in agriculture during her 35-year career.
Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby said that Ms. Hipp is very deserving of the presidential appointment.
“Congratulations to Janie Hipp upon being confirmed to serve as USDA General Counsel,” said Gov. Anoatubby. “Ms. Hipp has dedicated her career to promoting the important role of women and First Americans in advancing food security, sustainable agriculture, and equitable agriculture policy. Her keen understanding of the agricultural community, experience, legal skills and commitment to fairness make her uniquely suited for this important role.”
Ms. Hipp, the first Native American to be appointed to this role, said she is honored to be nominated and confirmed for the position that culminates from working for more than three decades in agriculture law.
“The General Counsel’s office is so important to the entire USDA agency because it is relied upon to interpret the law, policy and regulations and prepare the department to respond to the mandates Congress creates and it helps the department implement policies Congress sets in motion.”
“As General Counsel, I am thrilled to be working alongside an entire office of agriculture lawyers. That’s like a dream job for me. I hope I can bring all of my kinds of exposures I’ve had to different issues all along the way the last 36 years.”
Ms. Hipp said she will make use of her agriculture background and vast experience as she encounters challenges in her new role.
Ms. Hipp is the granddaughter of the late Chickasaw citizen Irene Spencer Simms, an original enrollee. Her father was Thomas Spencer Simms, and her uncle was Barry Simms. Both men were veterans. Her father had a successful career as an engineer and her uncle practiced law in Oklahoma for more than 50 years. Her cousin, Linda Giles served the Chickasaw Nation for many years.
A native of Idabel, Oklahoma, Ms. Hipp’s family has been involved in agriculture and education for decades.
Her maternal grandfather operated a tractor dealership in Idabel for many years.
“While I was growing up and well into my college years, my grandfather ran a tractor dealership. We sold four different kinds of tractors in the four-state area.
I grew up sitting around the tractor dealership listening to farmers and ranchers come in to pay their bill, or have coffee, because that is what you did,” she chuckled.
“I grew up deeply around agriculture. My cousins are still farming and ranching around Idabel. Agriculture is just what everybody did. Our small tractor dealership was part of the agriculture fabric.”
After completing a bachelor’s degree in social work, Ms. Hipp worked in the social service field for almost a decade when, on a dare, she applied and was accepted to law school.
“I worked for the state of Oklahoma in the mental health and substance abuse area and just loved it, but when you get a dare to go to law school and you actually get in, what a concept. I am always one to rise to a dare. I went and absolutely loved it and felt it was a good path for me,” she said.
Her first job out of law school was with a downtown Oklahoma City firm where she practiced commercial litigation. But, she felt a bit out of place and pursued an opportunity in the office of then Oklahoma Attorney General Robert Henry.
Working in Henry’s office set her on a path that defined her career and eventually led to the appointment at the USDA. She credits Henry for his guidance.
“He is such an historian committed to tribes and committed to self-governance. It was such a joy to go to work for him.”
Henry, now a retired federal judge and former president of Oklahoma City University describes Ms. Hipp as a “brilliant legal mind.”
“Janie Hipp will make a superb general counsel. She has a noble heart and a great Oklahoma work ethics. This is an outstanding appointment,” he said.
While Ms. Hipp was working in Henry’s office one fateful day he polled his staff, asking who among them was from rural Oklahoma.
“Of course my hand shot up,” she said, “so he sent me to a meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General Agriculture and Rural Legal Affairs Committee.”
The newly-formed committee was instituted because of the farm financial crisis in the 1980s that was devastating the farm belt states, including Oklahoma.
“People were losing their farms and livelihood. It was extremely chaotic, volatile and very gut wrenching. I was from a rural area of the state and I knew what was happening. Tractor dealers all over the country were among the first businesses to go down because of the way the agriculture sector was struggling. The farmers were not far behind.”
Attending the meeting was life changing for Ms. Hipp, and she began to shape a career which combined her Chickasaw heritage, agriculture background and an innate desire to lend a hand to those in need.
“I came back and had a bigger sense of not only what Oklahoma was facing but what tribes and the agriculture sector were facing. I was struck with how sad it was, but I was also struck how that same story is what our people went through. The parallels were not lost on me.
I understood where these farmers and ranchers were coming from, because I knew where Chickasaw people had come from – losing your land, losing your livelihood and losing who you were, which is deeply connected with the land and what you do on the land.”
“I have always had a reverence for anyone involved in agriculture and feeding us. That is my mission in life: to revere, honor and do whatever I can to help them. But I was always struck by the parallel of loss.”
Statewide public meetings with farmers and ranchers were launched by the attorney general’s office to discuss debt restructure, to analyze the situation and deal with the calamity that was happening.
“Oklahoma was literally on the cutting edge of a lot of efforts to try to save farms,” she said, adding Oklahoma also had one of the highest suicide rates of farmers and ranchers in the country during the farm crisis.
Eventually, federal legislation was passed to allow farmers and ranchers to have their debt restructured, an option that wasn’t on the books before its passage. At that time, Senator David Boren was in Congress and he was instrumental to passage of these new laws.
“It was if you failed you went into foreclosure and that was it,” she said. After Congress passed the Ag Credit Act of 1987, there were now options for restructuring debt and other measures were passed creating mental health services for farmers and ranchers and ag mediation programs throughout the country. Again, Oklahomans were in the middle of those initiatives.
As a result of the farm financial crisis of the 1980s, the University of Arkansas created a first-of-its-kind master’s in law degree program in Agriculture Law.
“I found out about this new master’s specialization in the law and I knew I needed to go to Arkansas and learn more, because agriculture is so complicated and complex. The laws surrounding it are at the state, local, federal, international level. The layers of laws and regulations that impact our food and the act of growing our food and taking care of the land are immensely complex, and they have been there for a long time, since the beginning of our country and the beginnings of the Chickasaw Nation,” she said, adding she has researched the agriculture laws established by the Chickasaw Nation before statehood.
Ms. Hipp earned a Masters in Law in Agriculture and Food Law from the University of Arkansas, enhancing her specialization focusing on the legal complexities of agriculture.
She joined the National Center for Agricultural Law Research and Information where she worked regionally, nationally and internationally in agriculture law and policy. She also served two terms on the USDA Secretary’s Advisory Committee for Beginning Farmers and Ranchers.
She later went to Washington DC and served as the National Program Leader for farm financial management, risk management education, trade adjustment assistance and the beginning farmer and rancher program at USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. She later served as director of the Risk Management Education Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency.
She was asked thereafter to serve as Senior Adviser for Tribal Relations to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. From 2009-2013, Mrs. Hipp established the USDA’s Office of Tribal Relations in the Office of the Secretary.
Following her first stint in Washington, D.C., Ms. Hipp returned to Arkansas and established the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law and served as the founding chief executive officer for the Native American Agriculture Fund, the largest philanthropy in Indian Country with a sole purpose of supporting Native farming and ranching and food production.
The need for these programs and services had been apparent to Ms. Hipp early on in her career.
“Back in the 1970s and 80s I could call tribal headquarters around the country and say, ‘I need to talk to your agriculture people,’ and they really didn’t know where to send me. They didn’t know whether to send me to the realty office or outside the tribal headquarters to talk to a rancher who is native,” she explained.
“Sometimes I would get sent to the Nutrition Office or the Health office; it was all over the map. But, I kept doing work in Indian Country agriculture. I thought this cannot be something that is not on our radar. We have so many Native people all-around the country who are deeply involved in food and agricultural and ranching and have been since before the United States became the United States.
“All of our peoples have history in food and agriculture and cultivation of crops. It’s a rich and complex history and part of my work was always in Native agriculture.”
Opportunities to work with First Americans kept materializing and Ms. Hipp came to the realization that Native people needed to have food plans.
“We need to support producers no matter what they grow or raise and we need to be mindful of the history and culture behind our relationships with our foods, and also what do we do moving forward. That conversation applies to all people, not just Native people, but it really is at the heart of national and international food security. I’ve never strayed from this path because it is so intellectually interesting but it also speaks to your soul and it really is important.”
Ms. Hipp said she hopes to continue enhancing the USDA’s relationship with all tribal nations.
“The USDA is an incredibly important department. We know it’s important to rural people and places. I’ve known how important it is to tribal nations for a really long time.
She plans to serve the department with a servant’s heart and is prepared for the looming challenges ahead.
“They are substantial. We’ve got a lot of hungry people in this country right now and that is going to be a huge challenge,” she said, adding climate change is an imminent threat to agriculture.
“The severity and the shifts in the climate are impacting agriculture production. It is clear, we have to do a better job of supporting food producers. We have to think clearly about what they are going to need to stay in business,” she said.
Among her numerous awards and honors, Ms. Hipp has been recognized as a distinguished alumni at two universities and has been recognized twice by the American Agriculture Law Association. She recently was honored by the Congressional Hunger Center as the recipient of the 2021 Trailblazer Hunger Leadership Award. The Trailblazer Hunger Leadership Award is presented to individuals who are creating new paths to achieving food security in their community, and who use their voice and influence to create real change in reducing hunger. Ms. Hipp was honored this year for her profound knowledge and leadership on the complex intersection of First American law and agriculture and food law, and her dedication to building a fairer and more just food system and ensuring the legal rights of communities in Indian Country.
Ms. Hipp resides in Arkansas with her husband, but her Oklahoma rural roots run deep, and she is thrilled to begin her tenure in the USDA.
“What an honor to be nominated to serve in this way. I come from a long line of people who serve. So, you don’t say no when you are asked to serve.”