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Giving his all for Co-op

Fred Brewster receives Co-op’s Walker Award
By Glen Liford 1/1/2018


Former Co-op Manager Fred Brewster is the 2017 recipient of the James B. Walker Award, Tennessee Farmers Cooperative’s highest honor. Fred’s Co-op career spanned 41 years, but he is best known as the forward-thinking and innovative manager of the Co-op that is currently known as AgCentral Farmers Cooperative.
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When Fred Brewster accepted Tennessee Farmers Cooperative’s highest honor — the James B. Walker Cooperative Spirit Award — at the Co-op 2017 Annual Meeting on Monday, Nov. 27, his emotional acceptance remarks characteristically gave more credit to others rather than referencing anything he had accomplished during his long and successful career.

His approach was just what you would expect of a recipient of the Walker Award, an honor that has been given every year since 1999 to an individual whose contributions have had a positive and enduring impact on Tennessee’s farmers, our state’s agriculture, and our cooperative system.

Fred was quick to acknowledge his mentor, the award’s namesake, James Walker; his devoted mother, Mary Jo; his family, including wife Jo, sons, Jason and Tyson, and their wives, Julie and Shelley; and, of course, the many fellow Co-op employees with whom he worked for 41 productive years.

“In 1969 I was looking for a job, I wanted a job, but more important than that, I needed a job,” said Fred. “I got hooked up with James Walker, and he put me to work. James meant a lot to me and he meant a lot to this system. And he was very direct in what he believed in — your work ethic, your integrity, and discipline.”

Fred, a Loudon County native, began his Co-op career upon joining the TFC training program in 1969. He is best known for his 30 years as the forward-thinking and innovative manager of the highly successful Co-op in Athens that began as McMinn Farmers Cooperative, became McMinn Loudon, and later Valley Farmers Co-op, and is today known as AgCentral. With the board’s direction and Fred’s careful and progressive management, this East Tennessee Co-op has successfully navigated through mergers, consolidations, and a changing agricultural landscape to provide the farmers in the area with one of the largest and strongest Co-ops in the system.

Fred was born May 26, 1944 in Loudon County to the late Mary Joy and Ray Brewster.

Ray, who operated a general-purpose farm, was also an accomplished hillbilly singer. He, along with his brother, Willie G., frequently performed on the Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour, a popular variety show that was broadcast on radio, and later television, from Knoxville for many years.

Tragically, Ray died in a car accident when Fred was only four years old, leaving Mary Joy with four young boys and one on the way. Mary Jo’s focus from that point on was on her family, says Fred. Fred had two older brothers, Eddie and Donnie, and two younger ones, David and Roger.

“My momma never looked at another man,” said Fred. “She had a mission and that was to raise five boys and that is what she did.”

His dad’s death left a void in Fred’s life that was filled, he said, by three men during his formative years, throughout his Co-op career, and beyond.

The first was Ralph Alexander, the popular vocational ag teacher at Loudon High School, who shepherded the young student through high school and taught Fred many of the basics of agriculture and about life in general. Ralph took an interest in Fred and the relationship didn’t end when the teenager left his classroom. In fact, their close friendship lasted the rest of the elder educator’s life. Ralph passed away just this year at 100 years of age.

The second influence was E.R. (Prof) Lidvall, the iconic University of Tennessee animal science professor who played a role in the career development of countless Co-op employees and ag leaders.

And the third man was the charismatic James Walker.

“All three of those men were about discipline, honesty, and they didn’t hold anything back,” says Fred, who said the trio never failed to offer advice and instruction and demonstrate their concern.

The common thread that runs through all those relationships is a passion for agriculture. And while these three men cultivated that affection, the seed had already been sown on the Brewster family’s farm.

The Brewster operation was small — the family milked a few cows and raised some tobacco — just like many of their neighbors’ farms, but it wasn’t large enough to provide for the livelihood of all the brothers. Fred was a farm boy through and through, however, and showed cattle throughout high school and was active in FFA.

After graduating from Loudon High in 1962, Fred took a few months off to figure out what he wanted to do before he enrolling at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in January 1963.

“Everybody majored in Animal Science then,” recalled Fred. “It was all about the cows and the cowboy hats and the boots and the purebred cattle. I showed a lot of cattle. A friend I grew up with had a purebred Hereford herd, and I traveled with him a lot and went to fairs and sales. We did that on the weekends and tried to pay a little bit on the tuition.”

It was at the University of Tennessee where Fred began to make connections that would follow him throughout his career. Teammates on that college livestock judging team included Vernon Glover, who went on to become TFC chief executive officer, and Lacey Upchurch, who became Tennessee Farm Bureau president. It was also where he encountered Prof Lidval. Fred reminisced about some of the team’s more relaxed moments:

“We went to a lot of contests and we had a good team. We would travel all day, and if we left here we might go to the University of Kentucky and work out for two to three hours. And then, every day, we found a football field and played touch football. Prof was quarterback for both teams.”

After graduation in 1967, Fred was unsure of what came next. While he was considering what path his career might take, he and another livestock judging teammate went in together and bought and sold cattle for more than a year. Then Fred accepted a position at the local Massey Ferguson tractor dealer. That position occupied him for another year before he lined up an interview with Culpepper Farmers Cooperative in Virginia. He was just about to move to Virginia when Loudon Farmers Co-op Manager Harry Goodman suggested he take a look at TFC and introduced him to James Walker, who was TFC’s Director of Training.

James’ screening process was nothing but thorough.

“ James, he checked you out,” said Fred. “He went all the way back to my grammar school teachers asking about me.”

“I asked him about that one time,” said Fred with a laugh. “He said he had to go back that far to get a good reference.

“UT thinks they coined this phrase “Volunteer for life,” but if you worked for James Walker, you were “Co-op for life”. He never did let up. He believed it, he preached it, and he could teach it. “

Fred’s first assignment on the training program began in May 1969 at Knox Farmers Co-op, where he worked alongside Manager Ray Wilson and Assistant Manager Buddy Witherow. It was supposed to be a short assignment, but Fred and Ray hit it off and the veteran manager arranged for Fred to stay with the store.

Later, he would move to the Knox Farmers Co-op branch store at Halls as its manager. He served at that location until he got the opportunity to move home to Loudon County and manage the Co-op at Greenback from 1975 to ‘78, before he was called to McMinn Farmers Co-op in Athens where he would serve as manager, later being called chief executive officer, for 30 years — the remainder of his Co-op career.

Another constant source of pride and joy in Fred’s life has been his wife, the former Jo Julian. The bright-eyed brunette was three years his junior when the two met in high school.

The couple dated in high school and later while Fred was attending UT and Jo was enrolled in the Career Academy in Knoxville. The couple married in Lenoir City in 1966 at First Baptist Church. After graduation, Jo went to work at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital until the couple welcomed their first child, Jason, in 1971. Brother Tyson followed three years later in 1974.

After such a long, successful tenure, Fred modestly gave the credit for the Co-op’s success to his employees and the directors for whom he worked. His role, he said, required hiring the right people for the right positions and that function was key.

Fred also viewed the mergers and consolidations over the years as positive moves for the Co-op’s farmer owners. Each move improved the efficiency of the cooperative, enhanced services, and allowed for more efficient utilization of equipment and facilities, he said.

“One of the best things that ever happened to McMinn was merging with Loudon,” said Fred. “It was really a very good deal because the farmers came together, the boards came together, and it really put us on a path to work together and merge our assets and give people the service that they needed.”

The Loudon consolidation was followed a few years later by an agreement with Roane Farmers Co-op and a change of the remaining Co-op’s name to Valley Farmers Co-op to better reflect its commitment to farmers throughout the Tennessee Valley. Innovative ideas such as adding a dairy supply business and building its own commodity blending facility further enhanced the cooperative’s value to members.

“It’s what the farmers wanted,” said Fred. “It’s what they needed. It gave us more exposure to wider circle of customers.”

Fred believed in the power of cooperation and the premise that the Co-op was indeed farmer owned. He worked to keep the business profitable and useful to ensure that the farmers reaped the rewards of their business through patronage and the timely retirement of allocated reserves.

“That was always a big issue with me,” said Fred. “It was their money. We used it for a little while, and we needed to get it back to them. But to do that, the Co-op had to make money.”

As Fred’s Co-op career was winding down, he and the board tackled one last big project: building a new and larger store in Athens to better serve the

Co-op’s customers.

It was important to Fred to leave the Co-op in good shape for the generations of farmers to come. He recognized the expanded trade area would require a modern, welcoming store with a host of services and a greater depth of product lines.

Fred agreed to oversee building of the new store after he had formally retired as manager, working part time to ensure the project was completed. The store was finished on February 28, 2010, and that was Fred’s last day with the Co-op.

“They opened the next day in the new store,” he said. “I’m proud of that store. I don’t think there’s another like it anywhere.”

Today, Fred and Jo are enjoying retirement, taking time to travel, and doting on their four grandchildren: son Jason and wife Julie have Dylan and Jordan Kate, and son Tyson and wife Shelly have Alyssa and Carson.

But Fred’s accomplishments at the Co-op continue to inspire and motivate those employees he hired and worked with.

“He pretty much perfected the business as far as the Co-op goes,” John Walker, who succeeded Freddie as manager, told the Daily Post Athenian when he was interviewed at Freddie’s retirement. “It couldn’t have been run any better.”

Those employees, along with the strength and stability of the sprawling Co-op, are lasting testaments to a dedicated manager who gave his all for Co-op every day of his career.

Fred Brewster joins the ranks of Walker Award winner

Fred Brewster is the 19th recipient of Tennessee Farmers Cooperative’s highest honor, the James B. Walker Cooperative Spirit Award.  Past winners of the annual award are James B. Walker, 1999; Kenneth Michael, 2000; John Wheeler, 2001; J. Franklin Nix, 2002; Thomas H. Ward, 2003; Billie O. (Bill) Sparkman, 2004; W.E. Bailey, 2005; James M. Wright, 2006; Dan Smith, 2007; Philip Buckner, 2008; Allen Pogue, 2009; Vernon L. Glover, 2010; Franklin D. Black, 2011; Jerry Kirk, 2012; Johnny Daniel, 2013; David Lancaster, 2014; Sammy Young, 2015; and Larry Paul Harris, 2016.

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