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August 4, 2022

By: Eleanor Ross, ASU Food Systems graduate student.

They say never meet your heroes, but that is only because they haven’t had the pleasure of speaking with Janie Hipp. One of the biggest highlights of our DC Immersive trip was sitting down with the General Counsel for the USDA. A hugely important and impressive role, the General Counsel is tasked with legal services and oversight across the USDA mission and programs. While the gravitas of this position can be intimidating, our time with Janie Hipp was filled with honesty, humor, and passion.

Janie Hipp has had an outstanding career; she previously served as the USDA Tribal Liaison, an appointment by the Obama Administration, and began the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law. Despite these accomplishments, Hipp began our afternoon with talking about her self-described modest start. As a member of the Chickasaw Nation, Hipp spoke of her childhood, remembering when the Tribe had three employees and is now the largest employer in the state. During this time, her family worked at a tractor implement dealership with a dirt floor. These beginning interactions with farmers and ranchers, tribal and non-tribal members, were essential to understanding the interconnectivity of working together and the importance of land. Hipp learned over the years that you’ve “got to have allies; mainly you trust their hearts.” This clearly has steered Hipp in her work as a tirely advocate for farmers, ranchers, rural, and Indigenous communities. Talking about her work during the farm financial crisis in 1984, Hipp was particularly clear in the effect that policies have on every person. During this time, her home state of Oklahoma had the highest rate of suicide of farmers across the country. With passion in her voice speaking about her home, she pleaded that “the world can’t afford to lose any more farmers or ranchers.”

The honesty and empathy of her stories evoked a need to get to work. On this front, Hipp assured our cohort that anyone can succeed…you just have to have “grit, determination, and a plan.” It sounds like her plan is to keep throwing out the way things have always been done. By that, Hipp recognized that so often in the federal government and USDA in particular, broad ‘one size fits all’ models have a tendency to be the norm, which does not work because agriculture is very site specific. We spoke about water, land, and air rights, all of which are increasingly needing more spotlight, more understanding, and more recognition of Indigenous rights. Hipp had such a keen, clear voice in illustrating the important intricacies of policy, law, and litigation. A piece that particularly struck me was when speaking about the importance of resources, Hipp said that “when you take someone's land, you take who they are.” Recognizing the land, resources, and people as equal parts is essential and so beautifully done by Hipp. Under her lead, the USDA General Counsel is bringing everyone to the table and I, for one, am excited to pull up a chair. 

This blog is part of a series from the May 2022 Washington D.C. Immersive component of the Swette Center graduate programs. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House, and Congress alongside many other important influencers of policy in industry and non-profits.