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A Dare, a Presidential Nomination and a Commitment to Serve - 2024

by Destry Holzschuh

Woman with glass

To become the general counsel for the United States Department of Agriculture, one has to be nominated by the president of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. From 2021-2023, the position was held by Janie Simms Hipp ’84.

From the forests of southeastern Oklahoma to the halls of the USDA and beyond, Hipp, who is a member of the Chickasaw Nation, has spent the majority of her career fighting for farmers in Oklahoma and across the country. Along with food and agriculture, her work also has focused on Indian law and Indigenous issues, and the topics have often overlapped.

Hipp grew up in Idabel, Oklahoma, where her grandfather owned a small tractor and farm implement dealership. Her mother and grandmother were both teachers who emphasized the importance of education, so Hipp always knew she would go to college. After high school she left for Stillwater, Oklahoma, where she attended Oklahoma State University for a couple of years before finishing her college education with a degree in social work from the University of Oklahoma.

After college, Hipp spent some time working for the State of Oklahoma as an affirmative action officer under the commissioner of mental health. Her position was a new one that focused on equality in the workplace, and Hipp was partially creating the job as she went. “If you look at my resumé and what I’ve done, that’s been a common thread,” Hipp said. “Plop me in and figure it out, then move and go figure something else out.”

Hipp was happy with the work she was doing in the mental health field and thought she might spend the rest of her career there, but one of her supervisors encouraged her to think about her future and how she might grow in her career. Then, he (a lawyer himself) challenged her to go to law school. “He issued it as a dare, and that has stuck with me forever,” Hipp said. “So now I dare young people who I work with: ‘I dare you to go get that advanced degree.’”

She decided to take the LSAT and got a score she was happy with and applied to OCU and OU. Ultimately, she decided to enroll in OCU Law’s night program. She continued working full time while attending law school in the evenings and completed her degree in three and a half years.

After law school, Hipp accepted an associate job at a private law firm during the height of the farm financial crisis of the 1980s. At that time, she was primarily representing lenders foreclosing on their collateral: mostly homes and tractors. “I just woke up one morning, and I knew that I couldn’t do it anymore,” Hipp said. “My psyche and my upbringing just won’t allow me to do this.”

Hipp went on to work at the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office under Robert Henry. Shortly after starting there, Hipp said Henry walked through the office and asked Hipp and her colleagues who was from rural Oklahoma, and she was one of a few hands raised. Because of that, Hipp was sent to the National Association of Attorneys General Conference in Minnesota to attend the agriculture and rural legal affairs committee meeting. The meeting consisted of people from across the farm belt of the U.S. who were working to save as many farms as possible.

Under Henry’s guidance, the AG’s office started hosting meetings all over the state to try to help farmers find the resources they needed to save their farms. Hipp continued this work for a few years before moving with her young daughter to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to pursue an LLM in agricultural law. “It’s [Fayetteville] all of two and a half hours from Tulsa, but in my mind, I was going to the edge of the Earth,” Hipp said. “But it reminded me of McCurtain County and home because there’s a lot of trees and water, so it kind of felt comfortable and safe.”

Hipp stayed in Fayetteville and had taken on several teaching roles since graduating in 1996. After getting her degree, she continued meeting with farmers, ranchers and food businesses and also started going to D.C. to talk with lawmakers and farm lobbyists. She began speaking on agriculture law in forums like the Sovereignty Symposium and doing some international work as well. “I started realizing that I’m an ag lawyer, but I’ve never actually worked for the USDA,” Hipp said. “I figured out I needed to crawl into the belly of the beast and see how things work.”

Hipp was appointed to be a national program leader within the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the research arm of the USDA, in the last two years of the Bush administration. After those two years, Hipp was packing up to head back to Fayetteville when she got a call from the office of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. From that call, she was offered the opportunity to be the first ever senior advisor for tribal relations. Throughout the Obama administration, Hipp traveled back and forth between D.C. and Fayetteville before eventually moving back to Fayetteville full time and going to work at the University of Arkansas School of Law. Always ready for the next thing, Hipp cofounded the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative—the first of its kind at a law school.

Hipp’s next move was the culmination of a nearly 20-year class-action lawsuit where Native American farmers alleged unfair lending practices against the USDA, Keepseagle v. Vilsack. In a landmark agreement, the agency settled the case in 2011 for more than $760 million. After distributions to the named plaintiffs, much of that settlement was used to develop the Native American Agriculture Fund, a charity to assist Native American farmers. When the NAAF was established in 2018, Hipp was named its founding executive director.

A few years later, Hipp got a call from President Biden’s transition team asking her to assist with the transition to the new administration. Soon after, she got another call asking her to serve as general counsel for the USDA. After her presidential nomination and Senate confirmation, Hipp began her time as general counsel and for two years oversaw more than 200 attorneys and 12 field offices. “It was an incredible experience,” Hipp said. “I was sitting with all of these other ag lawyers, so I was surrounded by people who were steeped in legal issues related to very specific programs at the USDA and in the ag law sector. That’s like a dream come true, and you’re all in it together.”

Incredible as it was, Hipp soon got another call that compelled her to leave the USDA: a chance to be a part of building a new organization that will provide resources to Native American farmers for a long time to come. Hipp took the chance and became the chief executive officer and president of Native Agriculture Financial Services in August 2023. “In many ways, what I’m doing right now is at the core of how I started in ag law in the 1980s, so I feel like I’ve come full circle,” Hipp said. “Standing this financing institution up within the farm credit system is going to allow the access to capital issues, to have some additional assets; we’ll have some additional options that can help native agriculture just continue to grow and thrive. In many ways that means the most to me.”

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