Jennifer Tirey

Jennifer Tirey grew up in southern Illinois, inspired by strong women, family commitment to farming and agri-business and close relatives active in community service and politics.

Before becoming the executive director of the Illinois Pork Producers Association, she held leading positions in several Illinois organizations including the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the Department of Agriculture, and the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices (CBMP) an organization aimed at protecting and enhancing the sustainability of agriculture in Illinois where she was the first executive director.

She finds fulfilment in her career and joy in raising her teenage daughter and son with her husband, Kevin.

IFT: Please tell us a little bit about your growing up years? Was there any impactful experience that led you to choose an agriculture-related profession?

TIREY: I grew up in the country in Du Quoin, home of the “other” state fair. My Grandma Oxford owned the farm at that time in Gallatin and Hardin counties and my sister, Jaime, and I would spend time with her in the summer months. My dad, Jim, worked at a grain elevator and for a seed corn company when I was growing up. So, it wasn’t uncommon for Jaime and me to spend time at the elevator with Dad or helping set up a field day for test plots.

My junior year in college I was selected for the AmeriCorps program and did a summer internship at the USDA FSA office in Gallatin County. I truly loved this experience and considered at that time changing my major and going into an agriculture focused career, but I was so close to graduating I decided to keep moving ahead with my political science degree.

IFT: With your governmental experience and political science education, would you consider running for office? Why?

TIREY: As I mentioned earlier, I had aspired to be the first female governor of Illinois when I graduated from college. I even sent thank you notes alluding to that fact to family and friends. Now, after working behind the scenes for candidates and elected officials, I realize that running for office is not for me. I respect those that put themselves out there, but I realized that running for office requires a person to be “on” all the time. When I was 26 years old, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. After I beat cancer, I wanted a family and I always wanted them to come first. I knew that running for office was not something that interested me anymore. My husband and I had been married less than a year when I was diagnosed so it really made us appreciate every day. After I was cleared from cancer, we had our son, Flynn and then less than two years later our daughter, Katharine. Those are two of my greatest achievements.

IFT: What is the best advice you have ever been given?

TIREY: Be yourself, observe a situation and don’t be afraid to voice your opinion. Throughout my career, I have come across people that I have had to really work hard to build a relationship with. I always try to listen and observe when I come into a new situation and don’t try to assume that I know what is best. What I have learned is that holding my tongue and valuing a colleague’s opinion goes a lot farther. Then, once I have gained their respect it is much easier to voice my opinion and have a thoughtful conversation. I have always tried to treat people with the respect I expect in return.

IFT: What have you found to be keys to communicating with consumers?

TIREY: Honesty and compassion are the keys to communication. Looking someone in the eye and being willing to have a tough conversation takes a lot of guts, but I have found that consumers are more willing to listen and ask questions if I approach topics in this manner.

IFT: Tell us a little about your role in the family farm with your aunt and sister?

TIREY: I never expected to own a farm with my aunt and sister. My dad passed away seven years ago this month and left an unexpected hole in the operational structure. A day doesn’t go by that I wouldn’t rather have my dad here calling me with updates on the farm instead of the three of us making those decisions. The farm was his legacy.

IFT: How have Illinois pork producers managed to cope with the coronavirus pandemic?

TIREY: These men and women are so resilient. I have had the privilege to work with them for over five years and I continue to learn from them every day. Even as they financially struggle on their farms they give back to their local churches, food banks and community members. When packing plants started slowing down, they adapted on the fly to unprecedented situations changing feed rations, shipping loads of pigs across the country and doing whatever they could to avoid wasting the protein they had raised.

IFT: Are there any examples of moments of success or generosity you have experienced during your role with pork producers?

TIREY: The conversations I have had with many of our members over the years have been so uplifting and rewarding. Working for the Illinois Pork Producers Association is so much more than a job. It has become a place that I have built lifelong friendships. I have laughed, cried and yes said a few swear words with many of these men and women that I respect so much. They express a genuine interest in me not just as the executive director but as a person and that makes me want to work harder for them every day.

IFT: Any lessons learned from the pandemic that will help going forward?

TIREY: The silver lining on this pandemic is that we are farther along in preparing for a foreign animal disease (FAD). The entire pork industry has pulled together to develop plans that could be used in the unfortunate event of a FAD in the United States. This situation has also given us an opportunity to educate non-ag stakeholders in our state that needed to gain a better understanding of our industry.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.