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Co-ops take center stage

Annual Young Leaders Conference communicates benefits of cooperative business model
Story and photos by Chris Villines 3/23/2018


During the Tennessee Young Leaders Conference on Feb. 24, former Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture Julius Johnson was recognized as the “Outstanding Advocate” for his promotion and support of the cooperative business model. Joining Julius and wife Karen, front center, are board members of the Tennessee Council of Cooperatives, including Tennessee Farmers Cooperative Director of Training and Education Paul Binkley, to Karen’s immediate right.
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The spirit of cooperation was alive and well at the Tennessee Young Leaders Conference Feb. 23 and 24 in Franklin, as some 350 men and women from across the state gathered to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the cooperative business model.

This annual event is a combined effort of the Tennessee Council of Cooperatives (TCC) and the Tennessee Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers. Among the attendees involved in the weekend of education, motivation, and recreation were 21 representatives from member Co-ops and Tennessee Farmers Cooperative:

Justin and Kaci Woodlee, Warren Farmers Cooperative; Adam and Heather Martin, Jefferson Farmers Cooperative; Daniel and Amy Cummings, AgCentral Farmers Cooperative; Karlyn Hayes, Gibson Farmers Cooperative; Adam and Alicia Shaw, Mid-South Farmers Cooperative; Clint Scobey and Erika Reaves, Obion Farmers Cooperative; Brent and Jessica Worley, Maury Farmers Cooperative; Matt and Rebecca Blount, Lincoln Farmers Cooperative; Jason and Ashley Waits, Tipton Farmers Cooperative; Tanner Pritchett and Tori Bryant, Robertson Cheatham Farmers Cooperative; and Tyler and Breanna Steury, Tennessee Farmers Cooperative.

“The Young Leaders Conference provides participants total access to the top leaders in cooperatives, government, and academia,” says Paul Binkley, TFC’s director of training and education and vice president of TCC. “The conference covers a variety of topics and ag-related issues facing the rural areas of Tennessee. It’s a great place to network with other young leaders across the state in a family-friendly environment.”

With the theme “Cooperatively Building a Better Tennessee,” the 2018 conference began with an offsite tour of the Music City Center in Nashville. Later that evening and the following day at the Drury Plaza Hotel in Franklin, there were a wide range of sessions, from leadership skills and growth opportunities to “advocating your cause” to a high-voltage safety demonstration conducted by Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation.

Highlighting the sessions were a top-notch lineup of keynote speakers, including Shane Petty, chief ranger for Tennessee State Parks; Dr. Alanna Vaught of Middle Tennessee State University’s School of Agribusiness and Agriscience; and State Senator Mark Green of Clarksville, a physician and Iraq War/Afghanistan War veteran who served as emergency medic in Operation Red Dawn, which saw the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Green engrossed the audience with his stories, such as the one-on-one encounters he had with the deposed Iraqi dictator and relayed the leadership lessons he learned from the combat environment. These lessons centered on character, communications, and competency.

“As a leader, nobody buys into the vision you have and the goals you set if the people you’re trying to lead haven’t bought into you,” he said. “People buy into the leader first before they buy into the goals or vision of any organization, whether it’s a farm with 25 employees or a healthcare company with more than 1,000 employees. You have to demonstrate the character to be somebody that people want to follow.

“The foundational floor to being a leader is being an honest human being. People will not give 110 percent to someone they can’t trust. And if you can’t articulate what you want in a manner that someone will understand, you’re not going to accomplish what you want. Make yourself competent in what you ask other people to do, and they’ll be far more likely to follow you to that destination.”

Green, who grew up in rural Mississippi, expressed his lifelong admiration and appreciation of the important role agriculture plays in everyday life.

“Thank you to those of you who are farming, producing the food that feeds the world and addressing the challenges of economics, weather, and an overreaching federal government,” he said. “You prove your passion for what you do through involvement in events like this.”

Following Green’s presentation, Julius Johnson, former Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture and former Tennessee Farm Bureau Chief Administrative Officer, received the award given annually by TCC’s board of directors to an individual who has demonstrated outstanding advocacy for the cooperative business model. As a part of the award, TCC contributed $1,000 in Johnson’s honor to the John Willis Memorial Scholarship fund benefiting the state’s college agriculture students.

“It’s been a joy in my career to work with ag people, who are the best people in the world,” Johnson said in accepting the honor. “But I also want to tell you this — this process of leadership development works. It causes you to hone your leadership ability, your speaking ability, and the way you present yourself in your industry. I’m proud that each of you are involved; we need more people like you for the future of agriculture in this country.”

Karlyn Hayes, a trainee at Gibson Farmers Cooperative’s main store in Trenton, was part of the Co-op contingent at the conference and said it was an “interesting, enjoyable” weekend.

“I was able to further my education about agriculture and cooperatives, and I met people from different parts of the state,” said Karlyn, who joined the TFC training program in May 2017 after graduating from the University of Tennessee-Martin in December 2016. “It taught me things that I can put to use in the future as I get to know and work with farmers in my area. I would definitely recommend it to people like me who are looking to develop their leadership skills.”

For those interested in participating in the 2019 Young Leaders Conference, contact your local Co-op or Paul Binkley at

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