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Butler’s belief in the importance of agriculture and food sector fuels passion for empowering, educating others

Kim Chaudoin  | 

John Butler standing in a field

Agriculture is as much an essential part of John R. Butler’s life as breathing. 

He believes strongly that the agriculture industry is the most important segment in our nation’s economy while acknowledging that the industry has the opportunity for transformational change associated with advancements in technology and science. 

A fifth generation farmer from West Tennessee, Butler is passionate about the importance of U.S. agriculture and its role in providing the world with nutritious and economical products. He has spent countless hours traveling across the country and around the world telling the story of U.S. agriculture. 

Now, he is telling this story to a new audience — his classmates in Lipscomb University’s Master of Arts in leadership and public service program through the College of Leadership & Public Service's Regional Scholars Program.

John Butler

“Agriculture has such a tremendous impact on our lives through the food we consume,” says Butler. “The ag and food sector engages all of us either as producers or consumers.” 

From his earliest memories, farming and ranching was a focal point of Butler’s life. As a young boy, he enjoyed the benefits of growing up on a farm and all the life lessons he was able to see and experience as he was able to participate in different activities. He grew up with a love for the lifestyle and appreciation for the hard work that is a part of the farming community. After high school he was able to attend Mississippi State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science. Upon graduation, he worked for Cargill, Inc. for a number of years dealing with grain origination, processing, transportation, distribution and customer service in operations across the country.

In July 2016, he was named president and CEO of Memphis-based Agricenter International, the education, agribusiness, research and agricultural hub of the Mid-South. The Agricenter has a $524 million annual economic impact on the region, hosts over 1.3 million visitors annually, and educates over 10,000 students annually. Butler spends his days helping consumers better understand agriculture as well as growing and advancing the industry regionally, nationally and internationally.

“Agricenter International is really an incredible place to work. The non-profit has a 42 year history of providing agriculture education and outreach to the community that covers so many different levels of needs, whether it's food nutrition, food access or ag literacy,” says Butler. “I've never really been around an organization before that is so focused on its mission, and so strategically aligned with the needs of the community, State of Tennessee and the Mid-South region. It is an honor to have the chance to serve in this role.”

I believe working in agriculture is more than a job — it is a calling, and it certainly is an opportunity to serve in a lot of different ways. Providing food and fiber to the American consumer and consumers around the world is an honor. — John Butler

In addition, Butler has served on several commodity associations and has been very active in numerous professional organizations such as the American and Tennessee Farm Bureaus, the United Soybean Board, the Tennessee Beef Industry Council, the Tennessee Soybean Association, and the Center for Food Integrity, to name a few.

Prior to his work with Agricenter International, for 25 years Butler owned and operated Jones Creek Farms, a diversified row crop and cattle operation in Dyer County that consisted of cotton, soybeans, feed grains, and a commercial cow/calf herd. During that time he worked with his parents on the farm and today one of his sons carries on the work.

“I have great respect for my parents and the opportunities they provided me. In our industry you have to be resilient and quite frankly, very stubborn.  In this industry you have to have strong roots and the ability to stand against tremendous challenges,” reflects Butler. “I learned from them how to weather the storms that are associated with farm and ranch life.”

“One of my proudest accomplishments is raising my three children on our family’s farm and passing down to them a love for the land and the animals in our care,” he continues.

Butler describes the agriculture industry as a tight-knit community that is sometimes not fully understood by those not directly involved in it. The community is dedicated to providing wholesome and healthy products at an affordable price. It is an industry that, to Butler, has a higher purpose.

Corn field

“I believe working in agriculture is more than a job — it is a calling, and it certainly is an opportunity to serve in a lot of different ways. Providing food and fiber to the American consumer and consumers around the world is an honor,” says Butler. “We take that responsibility very seriously.

“As a man of faith, I realize I'm not in control of a lot of the factors that impact the success of our crops and livestock operations. Weather events like droughts and floods are part of the life I have chosen and you have to be prepared to manage through those obstacles. Most of the natural resources that we manage like the land or water will be here long after we are gone. So you have to manage those resources with the next generation in mind. It's an honor to have the opportunity to serve in that stewardship role.”

Lipscomb’s Regional Scholars Program is an initiative designed to develop leaders across Tennessee with a particular focus on those from the state’s 70 rural counties as investment in leadership development and education in the state. The Master of Arts degree in leadership and public service was created and designed to train leaders who can serve strong communities by implementing tangible solutions.

When Butler learned about Lipscomb’s regional scholars program, he decided it was a program that would not only benefit him personally but would also provide a new platform for him to create awareness of the importance of the industry that he loves so dearly.

“I’ve always been motivated to be the best I can be. Part of that motivation is to constantly challenge myself,” admits Butler. “My wife and I prayed about it because pursuing a graduate degree would definitely be challenging with the hectic pace of leading an organization during a global pandemic. Being a part of this program has allowed me the opportunity to develop great relationships with peers from across Tennessee and to share with them — particularly those from urban areas — the impact of the agriculture industry. Our cohort is an incredible group of men and women from around the state and it was an honor to spend the past year with them. I learned a lot more from them than they learned from me and we have made some lifelong relationships."

As a man of faith, I realize I'm not in control of a lot of the factors that impact the success of our crops and livestock operations. ...Most of the natural resources that we manage like the land or water will be here long after we are gone. So you have to manage those resources with the next generation in mind. — John Butler

Butler says he is especially honored to receive tuition assistance for the program as a FarmCredit Mid-America Scholar. Farm Credit Mid-America, a financial services cooperative that has served the credit needs of farmers and rural residents across Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee for more than 100 years, is one of three major sponsors who have invested in Lipscomb’s program to help it grow in its first year. 

“Having partners willing to come alongside you and invest in you to provide access to such an incredible program is a tremendous honor,” says Butler. “I’ve had the privilege of working with Farm Credit folks across Tennessee, and it’s humbling for them to invest in me.”

Tim Williams, senior vice president Farm Credit Mid-America, believes strongly in the value of training leaders to make an impact in urban and rural communities.

“As an agricultural lending cooperative, rural communities are a big part of our heritage. That’s why we’re pleased to partner with the Regional Scholars Program and back the work the scholars are doing to bring strong leadership to rural communities across the state,” says Williams. “Scholars like John are not only seeking to understand the challenges that rural communities face, but are looking to turn those challenges into opportunities and innovative solutions that will help rural communities thrive.”

The program, which may be completed in one year, facilitates the building of critical skills in leadership, communication and conflict resolution. Courses focus on innovative leadership in rural and statewide settings, data analysis, connecting the community to resources, negotiation and conflict management, working productively in cross-sector settings, communicating to diverse interest groups and budget management among other topics. Students study with and are mentored by top leaders from across Tennessee and through the program develop a statewide support system and network of resources. Part of the course of study also includes developing an initiative that is built around the needs of a particular community and then implementing it. After students complete their studies, Lipscomb will continue to support graduates of the program with professional development opportunities and a statewide network of resources.

Butler, who will graduate in December, completed his capstone project on the impacts of food insecurity on communities in the state of Tennessee with a focus on Shelby County. He says Memphis and Shelby County is a great place to live but like all communities we can certainly work to improve on some of those areas where we are falling behind.” We have too many food deserts in surrounding communities  – as a matter of fact, even one is too many. He hopes his project will result in plans and policies that will improve the quality of life for families in those areas and ensure that every Tennessean has ample access to nutritious food and fiber.  

Learn more about the Lipscomb University College of Leadership & Public Service’s Regional Scholars Program.