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Nixon is 2018 Walker Award Winner

29 years of service makes TFC history
Story by: Glen Liford, photos by Sarah Geyer 12/31/2018

Kenneth Nixon’s unprecedented 29 years of exemplary service as a Tennessee Farmers Cooperative director has earned him TFC’s highest honor — the James B. Walker Cooperative Spirit Award. The award was presented at the business luncheon of TFC’s annual meeting on Monday, Nov. 26 at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville.

As the 2018 honoree, Kenneth became the 20th person to be recognized with the coveted award since its inception in 1999. The award honors an individual whose contributions have had a positive and enduring impact on Tennessee’s farmers, our state’s agriculture, and our cooperative system. The first recipient was the award’s namesake, the charismatic James B. Walker, who worked tirelessly during his lengthy career to promote Co-op.

 As the longest-serving director in TFC’s history, Kenneth served four times as board chairman, three times as vice chairman, and two terms as public director. He also served as a director of Smith Farmers Cooperative for 14 years and in leadership positions for a wide range of interregional cooperatives, including FFR, CF Industries, Universal Cooperatives, and CoBank.

With his steady guiding hand at the helm of Co-op and his unwavering commitment to the cooperative business model, Kenneth helped steer the Co-op system through significant transitions.

During his time on the board, Tennessee agriculture experienced foundational changes — a decline in the number of dairy farms and swine operations; diminished acres of tobacco; the growth of the beef industry; and the development of numerous niche markets.

The Co-op system changed, too, going from 79 member Co-ops with 113 retail outlets in 1985 when he began his tenure on the board to 53 mostly larger Co-ops with some 165 retail outlets today. Growing ranks of rural lifestyle shoppers have joined the cooperative’s traditional farmer owners and influenced the direction of many retail stores across the Co-op trade area.

Kenneth credits his wife, Linda, and their family’s love and support as crucial to everything he has accomplished. The Nixons have three children: Mike, Stacey, and Joey, and six grandchildren ranging in age from eight months to 26 years old.

In addition to his Co-op work, he has also served his community, including 50 years as a Civitan International member, a member of the South Carthage Volunteer Fire Department, and as a Smith County Commissioner.

Kenneth was born in Defeated in rural Smith County on October 4, 1943 to parents Clifton and Lillie Nixon. He grew up working alongside his parents and siblings, Ray and Patricia, on the family’s 120-acre hillside farm. Like many of their neighbors, the Nixons “milked a few cows, raised some hogs to eat, had a few sheep and cattle, and grew burley tobacco.”

“It was a hard day’s work every day, six days a week,” says Kenneth. “Sunday morning we went to church and Sunday afternoon in the summer, we played baseball. So I guess that developed my love for sports.”

Those afternoon games instilled in young Kenneth a love for sports that followed him through his years at Defeated Elementary School and later at Smith County High School in Carthage, which he graduated from in 1961. He played football, basketball, and baseball.

It was at Smith County High where he met the vibrant Linda Waggoner. The pair starred together in their senior play, “The Father of the Bride,” where they portrayed a young couple who got married. They began to date after the play. After graduation, Linda headed to college in Mississippi, while Kenneth was signed to play professional baseball in the Milwaukee Braves system.

“I graduated on Friday night and by the first of the next week, I had signed a contract with the Braves,” recalls Kenneth. “I left the next week for Davenport, Iowa. I was a country boy who had never been anywhere. I got on a plane and flew to Davenport, scared to death. I played for seven years. I wouldn’t take anything for that experience.”

As exciting as that summer was for Kenneth, he knew something was missing. He didn’t want to head back to spring training without Linda, so the couple married in spring of 1962. Son Mike followed a year later, then a daughter, Stacey, and finally son Joey.

Working his way up the ranks, Kenneth played Double A and later Triple A ball in a range of cities. In addition to Davenport, the couple spent time in Eau Claire, Wis.; Toronto, Canada; Richmond, Va.; Austin, Texas; and West Palm Beach, Fla.

Kenneth worked out in spring training with Hank Aaron and played alongside Bobby Cox, who years later would become the club’s iconic manager.

In his last game, Kenneth blew out his arm pitching in a grueling 15-inning stretch. It was a career-ending injury.

Returning home, Kenneth managed a service station for a little while, drove a truck for a year, and did a lot of odd jobs. He had purchased his first farm in 1964 with some of his baseball earnings, and he eventually decided farming was what he wanted to do. He began raising beef cattle and tobacco, starting small and farming alongside his dad.

“[Farming has] provided a good income and a good life,” says Kenneth.

Today, the Nixon operation has scaled back a bit. Kenneth and son Mike now farm nearly 350 acres. He stopped raising beef cattle some years ago, and last year’s tobacco crop was his final one as the contract buyer he was dealing with pulled out of Tennessee. This year, for the first time, his farming operation included only row crops. Ever the innovator, he’s looking at the possibility of raising hemp.

What has been consistent, however, is the role that Co-op has played in his business.

His grandfather was one of the earliest shareholders of Smith Farmers Co-op. And Kenneth has seen firsthand the value that Co-op provides its member owners. Before the Co-op was established in 1961, he remembers his dad buying fertilizer and feed from a country store and one local feed mill.

“It wasn’t the best of times as far as service,” says Kenneth.

The cooperative operated under TFC contract for several years until it was turned over to local control in 1973, and Kenneth recalls those years of pulling together as good for the farmers and for TFC.

“We all recognized how important the Co-op was to the farmers of Smith County,” he says. “We had a duty to make sure it survived.”

When he was first asked to serve on the board of Smith Farmers Co-op by Manager Larry Bennett, Kenneth was glad to help. When he was later asked to run for the TFC board, Kenneth felt a similar calling, knowing the importance of Co-op to farmers all across Tennessee.

Getting involved at the TFC level gave him a better perspective about the cooperative system, he says. He gained a greater appreciation for the loyalty needed for Co-op to survive and showed him the true diversity of Tennessee agriculture.

Kenneth was only 41 years old when he came to the TFC board, and he was the youngest member. The older directors, he says, took him under their wing and served as mentors. He mentions directors like the late John Wheeler, the late Frank Sorrells, and Larry Paul Harris among many others as men who were always ready to talk

Co-op, believed fervently in the Co-op’s purpose, and shared a common goal: to keep Co-op strong and financially healthy.

Kenneth offers sage words of advice for younger farmers being asked to serve on their local Co-op’s board and even the TFC board:

“If younger farmers with a level head don’t [serve], then their Co-op at the local level is not going to be there. And it is sure not going to be as efficient as it needs to be. Who would know best about what the Co-op needs to be than the farmers who patronize it?”

Kenneth Nixon joins the ranks of Walker Award winners

Past winners of the James B. Walker Cooperative Spirit 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; Larry Paul Harris, 2016; and Fred Brewster, 2017.

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