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Decades of ag dedication

After a 32-year career with the Department of Agriculture, Assistant Commissioner Jimmy Hopper returns to his roots with retirement to Madison County
Story and photos by Sarah Geyer 4/27/2017

 

Jimmy Hopper, assistant commissioner of Consumer and Industry Services, retired in April after a distinguished career with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.
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It’s Monday, April 10, and, after more than 30 years with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Assistant Commissioner Jimmy Hopper begins his first day of retirement.

Admitting he’s unsure about how he’ll fill his days, Jimmy says there’s no doubt where he’ll spend some of his time — his hometown of Denmark, a small farming community just outside Jackson.

After more than three decades of living in Nashville, Jimmy and Kay, his wife of 36 years, are looking forward to returning to their native Madison County, spending more time with family and rekindling childhood friendships. If Jimmy needs help adjusting to his new lifestyle, he can seek advice from older brother Billy Jack, who retired three years ago as manager of Mid-South Farmers Cooperative’s Jackson location after 41 years of service with Co-op.

Jimmy, along with Billy Jack and sister Ann, grew up helping their father, Billy, and grandfather, Tige, on the family’s 500-acre farm. Billy and Tige ran a Grade A dairy operation and also raised cotton, soybeans, wheat, corn, and silage. In 1969, Billy sold the dairy business to focus on raising beef cattle and row crops full time.

“Both of them worked really hard every day for most of their adult lives,” says Jimmy. “I think that work ethic is just part of our genes.”

While none of the Hopper siblings joined the family farming business after high school, the brothers did pursue careers in the agriculture industry. Billy Jack graduated from Lambuth University and went to work at Tipton Farmers Cooperative in Covington as part of the trainee program, while Jimmy chose academia and sought degrees in higher education. He attended the University of Tennessee at Martin, where he graduated with a bachelor’s in agriculture. Then, he earned his master’s in animal science at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, graduating in 1977. After graduation, Jimmy relocated to Jackson and worked as an agriculture lending officer for a local bank.

Both Jimmy and Billy Jack excelled in their respective positions, but admitted that they longed for the farming lifestyle. After much discussion and careful contemplation, the brothers left their corporate jobs in 1979 to restart the family dairy venture. They called it the Family Tradition Dairy Farm.

“Dad allowed us to use his farmland and even advised us on building a new dairy barn,” says Jimmy. “We enjoyed getting back to the land and had a very good herd, but the timing just wasn’t right. Interest rates were nearly 20 percent, and the reality of trying to make a living [on the farm] during that time just wasn’t feasible for us.”

After three years, the brothers reluctantly decided to dissolve the partnership, but both wanted to maintain close ties to farming.

Billy Jack returned to the Co-op system as manager of Madison Farmers Cooperative. Jimmy, on the other hand, was undecided about his future and continued the dairy operation on his own for two more years.

By early 1985, Jimmy decided to return to graduate school with hopes of becoming either a veterinarian or a college professor. However, fate had other plans, and a chance meeting over a yearling bull served as the catalyst for a new career.

Jimmy shares the life-changing story: “One day I asked a milk tester if he knew anyone who’d be interested in buying a yearling bull. He said he might, gave me a name, and I made a phone call. The interested buyer stopped by the farm on a Friday afternoon. I was in the middle of pulling a calf, so I told the guy he’d have to go look at the bull by himself — I was just too busy.

“When he came back to talk about buying the bull, I learned that this man, Bill Walker, not only owned a dairy farm in Haywood County but was also the Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture. We talked for a while about the future of the dairy industry, and at some point, I jokingly asked him if he had an opening for me. To my surprise, he said, ‘Well, let me see.’”

Within days, the commissioner called to offer Jimmy a position over the state’s dairy program. But the young dairyman still had his sights set on attending graduate school, so Jimmy respectfully declined. Bill called again in February, and despite recently receiving an enrollment letter from a university, Jimmy accepted the commissioner’s offer of a position as director of the Dairy and Food Division.

During his lengthy tenure, Jimmy’s hard work and dedication led to many accolades and achievements. He only served two years in his initial position before receiving his first promotion. In 1987, the Dairy and Food Division was renamed Quality and Standards and its responsibilities expanded to include oversight of feed, seed, fertilizer, and grain dealers and the Weights and Measures section. Jimmy was named director of the new division, a position he would hold for nearly a decade — when he’d earn another promotion. In the mid-1990s, Department of Agriculture Commissioner Dan Wheeler, in an effort to reduce the budget, instituted one of the department’s largest reorganizations, placing all regulatory service divisions under one person — Jimmy. As director of the new Regulatory Services Division, he was responsible for all of the department’s regulatory programs: Food and Dairy; Weights and Measures; Petroleum Quality; Feed, Seed and Fertilizers; Grain Dealers and Warehouses; Pesticides; Plant and Animal Health; Laboratory Services; and Prevention of Youth Access to Tobacco. Three years ago, former Commissioner Julius Johnson renamed the division Consumer and Industry Services and named Jimmy assistant commissioner.

“During his time with TDA, Jimmy served as a guiding force for the department,” says Commissioner Jai Templeton. “He provided strong leadership, increased efficiencies, and maintained accountability in one of the most important and demanding regulatory programs in state government. Above all, Jimmy is known for his honesty, professionalism, and integrity, and he has earned the respect of his many colleagues and countless friends. I always had the highest confidence in his advice and knew he had the best interests of the State of Tennessee at heart. He will be missed.”

As his leadership role with the Regulatory Services Division expanded over the years, Jimmy says he strived to manage with fairness and a focus on trust and communication rather than punishment.

“Our division’s main focus is to change the ‘gotcha’ perception [often associated with regulatory services] by building relationships, not only with farmers, but with industry representatives and consumers,” he explains. “We want them to understand that our first priority is working together to find a solution. Educate before we regulate — that’s our philosophy.”

That approach says Bart Krisle, chief executive officer of Tennessee Farmers Cooperative, has been appreciated by both the state’s ag community and industry.

“We have been fortunate to have an individual of Jimmy Hopper’s background, drive, enthusiasm, and integrity leading this important part of our state government for so many years,” says Bart.

“The Consumer and Industry Services Division touches all Tennesseans on a daily basis, in addition to our agricultural industry, and he made a real difference serving our industry in this vital role.”

This commitment to relationships may be the anchor of Jimmy’s leadership legacy, but he also credits his years of success in regulatory services to the work ethic he learned from being raised on a farm.

 “I think all three of us [siblings] have approached our careers with those lessons learned on the farm,” says Jimmy. “Do the right thing, do the best you can, and, above all, work hard. If you’ve got a job to do, then you do whatever it takes to get it done.”

Ann, who is four years older than Jimmy, pursued a career with Phillip Morris, working her way up the ranks to regional sales manager. She retired a few years ago and returned to Madison County to live with her mother, Jane, now 89.

Two years ago, Jimmy and Kay purchased a home in their hometown so they could be closer to aging family members. Billy Jack and wife JoAnne live nearby.

Even though the Hoppers have homes within a few miles of each other, none of them live on the original family farm. Tragically, a tornado swept through Denmark in 2003, destroying every structure on the family’s 500-acre farm, including the homes of Jane and Billy Jack.

“We discussed rebuilding, but we ended up just bulldozing the place and burying everything,” says Jimmy. “We planted pines on pastures and lots, and we rent out the farmland.”

Even though having a retirement home on the family farm would have been ideal, Jimmy says he’s content to live nearby.

“It’s not about returning to the building; it’s the people in the building that matter. [In Madison County], we’re near our friends and family, and that’s what makes the place feel like home.”

 
 
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