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Agriculturalists Who Influence: Joe Hampton

Agriculturalists Who Influence: Joe Hampton
Day 6 of 30: It's the rare ag director who combines a passion for farmers with the leadership ability necessary to navigate Springfield. It's a combination that yields influence.

Joe Hampton was named Illinois Director of Agriculture during the early days of our farming career, which don't seem that long ago until you start sifting through the issues of the day.

Those were the days when corn was worth something around $2 a bushel, and when we were all well-versed in LDPs and county prices.

When California was still angling for MTBE instead of ethanol, right up until everyone found out MTBE contaminated groundwater.

When farm groups and politicians were wrangling about what to do about the 1996 farm bill, known as Freedom to Farm.

When Illinois livestock farmers were learning the ins and outs of the Livestock Management Facilities Act, and when activist groups actively opposed farm expansion.

When, like the internet and "e-commerce," GMOs were still relatively new.

Those were the days when a farmer could still be named head of the Department of Agriculture. And he was. Joe had farmed for decades with his family at Windsor, Ill., when the newly elected Gov. George Ryan appointed him IDOA director in 1998. He served as director for Ryan's entire term, until 2002. Like Becky Doyle, he was another great Illinois farmer who shared his leadership talents in the political arena. Rumor has it, he was on George W. Bush's short list for USDA Secretary of Agriculture at one point, as well. That's a partnership that could've only been successful.

My ongoing impression of Joe during his tenure was that he was a farmer's Director. He had a relentless sense of what was best for the Illinois farmer, and he worked hard for it. He championed ethanol and trade, leading trade missions to Cuba when that was still a novel idea. He fought for what the farmer needed.

Influence, across all generations.

“Farmers aren’t happy about depending on the government for their net income, I can tell you,” said Joe, during the 2002 Farm Bill debates. “But in the absence of that, the face of agriculture would change; the face of rural America would change.”

Joe was also endlessly sincere.  He spoke one year at our Master Farmer banquet and it remains one of the great speeches ever given there. Tears welled up all over the room, and everyone there knew how sincerely Joe Hampton was working for them.

"He always identified with farmers and sympathized with their issues because he himself was a farmer. That’s a greater legacy than anything he may have done in Springfield, in my opinion," says Mike Wilson, who was Prairie Farmer editor at the time.

Joe was also the epitome of every great farmer characteristic, remaining both likeable and down to earth, no matter the situation. Greeting him at that very Master Farmer banquet, I addressed him as Director Hampton. He shook my hand with both of his and said, "Just call me Joe, Holly."

And as the years have passed and Joe has returned to the farm, I've come to know him as one of the great encouragers in Illinois agriculture. There's nothing like a sincere Joe Hampton email to make your day. Or, you know, your year.

A year ago this summer, my niece accompanied me to Ag Day at the Illinois State Fair. Kaity was contemplating a career in agriculture and I was thrilled she got to meet Joe. He never fails to build up a person, remind you why you do what you do, and to champion agriculture. This year, my 11-year-old daughter came with me; the story was the same. Joe encouraged her to keep working with her cattle, to keep working hard because, "Hard work pays off, Jenna. You just wait. It does."

Truer words were never spoken. It's a big reason why Joe Hampton is an agriculturalist who influences.

Agriculturalists Who Influence: The Series

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