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The first Native American woman to serve as general counsel of the U.S. Department of Agriculture will leave her position at the end of next month, according to a report in our Tribal Business News affiliate

An announcement by the Native American Agriculture Fund (NAAF) reported that Janie Simms Hipp (Chickasaw) will depart from her position at USDA effective July 31 to head up a new financial services organization that will fund Native farmers and ranchers. 

Her planned exit, confirmed by a USDA spokesperson, was announced internally to agency staff earlier this week. The announcement comes just over two years after President Biden announced he would nominate Hipp, who was confirmed in July 2021. 

In her new post, Hipp will lead a new ag-financing initiative that she started working on about four years ago when she was NAAF’s top executive. She will become the inaugural president and CEO of Native Agricultural Financial Service, the first-ever Other Financing Institution within the Farm Credit System, according to the NAAF announcement. 

The new fund, which NAAF contributed $12 million to, intends to expand access to “hundreds of millions” in lending opportunities for Native American producers. It intends to begin by participating in loans with Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) as an intermediary, then expand into providing credit and financial services for Native agriculture producers and Tribal governments.

“Agriculture must have access to capital. That holds true no matter whether you are a large producer, a small producer, just starting out, or carrying on production that has been in your family for generations,” Hipp said in a statement to USDA staff provided to Tribal Business News. “While the organization I will lead into the future is focused primarily on Native farmers and ranchers, the work before us will be instructive of the ‘new types of capital’ needed by all agriculture. By that I mean, capital that is flexible, committed to the producer and their community for the long haul, and able to adjust to challenges and risks in new ways.”

The new fund will help fill a critical need in Indian Country, according to NAAF CEO Toni Stanger-McLaughlin. 

“Agriculture is a cornerstone of Tribal economies, and to ensure Native producers’ continued success and growth, meeting their needs to finance their operations is critical,” Stanger-McLaughlin said in a statement. She called Hipp “an excellent choice” to lead Native Agricultural Financial Services, citing her expertise and depth of experience working with Native producers.

Hipp, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, was the first Native woman to take up the mantle of general counsel for the USDA following a short nomination process from March 2021 to July 2021 under Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who she had previously worked with during the Obama administration. 

“I was so deeply honored to be asked to serve as one of Secretary Vilsack’s Senior Advisors in the Obama-Biden Administration – and when I left, I had no idea I would be coming back. When I received the call from Secretary Vilsack to return (to) the Biden-Harris Administration, I did not hesitate. He is an amazing leader. I have been so humbled to have served as General Counsel, which was something beyond my wildest dreams,” Hipp said. 

She joined the department amid a flurry of other Native finance and agriculture advocates moving into federal positions, including the appointment of former Intertribal Agriculture Council executive director Zach Ducheneaux as an administrator at the Farm Service Agency.

“Janie Hipp has served with distinction as General Counsel of USDA,” USDA Chief of Staff Katharine Ferguson said in an emailed statement to Tribal Business News. “For the past two years she has worked tirelessly to ensure USDA has had top-notch legal counsel and has been a fearless leader, an inspiration to many of us, and a stalwart champion for what’s right while always thinking about the staff within (the Office of the General Counsel).”

In the coming months, Hipp will be in a new, but familiar, role. As she has throughout her career, she’ll be marshaling resources to help Native farmers and ranchers face the ever-changing challenges their work requires.  

“Agriculture has many challenges before it - as it always does,” Hipp said in her statement. “The impacts of climate change, disruptions of and adjustments needed in the food supply chain, focusing on the needs of new and beginning farmers and ranchers, and ensuring that underserved producers have an opportunity to survive and thrive - these are issues as alive and real today as they were one hundred or two hundred years ago.”

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