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A Family Affair: The Hileman’s Story

By Blair McCowen

Just under two hours from the northern Texas border lies Carnegie, Oklahoma. The small town resides on the Kiowa Reservation surrounded by fields of rich soil and history. Pursuing agriculture on this land has proven successful for those who dare, including the Hileman family.

Jeannie Hileman, manager of Farmers Co-op Gin at Carnegie, has always been involved in agriculture. Born and raised on a farm, she married husband Randall at age 17. The couple has two children, Aaron and Sadie. This year marks Jeannie’s 28th season at the gin and 20th season as manager.

“You know it was really crazy because I was a farm wife only,” she said. “I had a couple of board members show up at my house and say, ‘You know, we have hired a new manager, could you help her through a season?’ Then one thing lead to another, and I really liked it. It seemed like a really good fit. I worked under two different managers, then when we got to the point that we were ginning less than a thousand bales of cotton and it seemed necessary for us to cut staff back and I became the manager.”

An Early Start

Jeannie brought both of her children into the industry at an early age and provided them the opportunity to work with her at the gin, an action that led to both furthering their careers in the industry. Today, Sadie and Aaron are carrying on the family affair of direct involvement in production agriculture.

“Being able to have the kids work with me has been very rewarding,” she said. “Of course, you know there are times that mom being the boss is not always fun. Sometimes they need to spread their wings and become their own person.”

Jeannie’s daughter, Sadie, began working at the gin when she was just 15 years old. Even after 12 years, the youngest Hileman says she cannot imagine going a day without seeing her mom at work.

“It is the only job I have ever had,” Sadie said. “I was 15 and mom said, ‘Do you want to go to work?’ so I have worked at the gin my entire life. This is my 12th year working here. I don’t know what I would do if I went more than a day without seeing her. We work really well together. I have strengths and she has weaknesses but then she’s got the strengths and I’ve got the weaknesses. I think we can probably conquer the world if we tried. I really do love working with my mom.”

Like Sadie, Jeannie’s son Aaron began his career the same way. Today, he is the manager of Farmers Co-op Association at Mountain View, Oklahoma, which serves grain producers.

“I was 15 and dragging cotton trailers,” he said. “I turned 16 during cotton harvest so that was probably in 1988. Then, I went o to college and got married and came back about 10 years ago. I kind of worked my way up to the ginner’s slot after that. With mom, it better be done right and if it isn’t she knows you knew better. She runs a pretty tight ship.”

Jeannie says she hopes she has passed a few good traits and lessons down to her children over the years.

“I would hope that my work ethic is what I would pass down to them,” she said. “You know you can get a job off of someone’s reputation, but you will keep it off of your own merits. To not be afraid of a challenge. We step to the plate, and if we tell someone that we are going to do something, we do it or we do the best we can. We can’t always achieve every goal, but it isn’t because we haven’t tried and done our best.”

Fighting On

Even though cotton is currently king in Oklahoma, it has not always been. At one time, Jeannie found her gin and the cotton industry working hard to survive in the land where almost anything can grow.

“This is an area, you can see it is a rich soil, an irrigated soil, and my producers out here can plant and grow anything,” she said. “I mean anything, and they can have bumper crops, so we have to promote it [cotton]. In the late 90s and early 2000s, corn was a better crop, and I was competing hard. Even back when we weren’t ginning that much cotton I had the support of the industry; they would help me have a meeting and promote cotton, but then they might go to the coffee shop the next day and feel sorry for me. I had one that said, ‘That poor woman, she thinks cotton is coming back someday,’ but we never gave up.”

Life presents its own challenges just as the cotton industry does. Roughly nine years ago, Jeannie’s husband Randall was in need of a lung transplant. Today, he is celebrating his eighth-year anniversary of the procedure and is doing well. At one time, however, Jeannie said the situation was not so positive.

“They told us at the time he probably had six months to live,” she said. “I had to stay home and keep my job so we could keep the insurance, and he had to have a caretaker move to St. Louis with him. As soon as Sadie graduated from high school she moved up there with him.”

While the struggle continued for the Hileman family, their co-op community came together to provide a much-needed source of strength and support.

“My producers had fundraisers, they would have been there for me no matter what but probably one of the hardest things I ever did was accept one. The support I had from the industry, from my producers, is really what got us through those rough times eight years ago.”

Time for a Change

Throughout the years and challenges of managing a gin and educating kids, Jeannie has seen many changes within the cotton industry; some within her own operation, others on a much larger scale.

“I have been through a lot,” she said. “I have been through the era where the boll weevil was eating us up, and we couldn’t control the weeds. My gin that should have been ginning seven or eight thousand bales was ginning 200 and 400 bales. Then we had the growing pains – last year we ginned 61,000 bales on the same gin.”

Those growing pains, though challenging, have brought about good changes for the co-op. As higher crop yields have demanded more ginning power, Jeannie and her board of directors decided to build a new cotton gin in a short amount of time. In an airport in North Carolina in February, the process was set in motion.

“We had actually flown out there to look at some used equipment,” Jeannie said, “and there was a plant that was for sale. It was a closed co-op. It was a pristine gin. We knew this year was going to be large and we wanted to increase our capacity at home, so we get out there and look at the plant and it is immaculate. They had blue prints, they had everything.”

Time was a determining factor in the co-op’s decision to improve its operations.

“We went back and had a two-hour layover and I had several board members, my ginner, my upper management, and we all sat down and I kept saying, ‘No one has built a gin this fast. This can’t be done. It is a two-year process and we want it done in eight months, I just don’t know.’”

Nevertheless, Farmers Co-op Gin at Carnegie is on track to reach its goal of being operational by the first of the year. After the new plant becomes fully operational, Jeannie estimates it will gin 55 to 60 bales an hour.

The Co-op Way

Through good times and bad, the Hilemans have been there for the co-op just as it has been there for them. Despite all each has endured, Jeannie and her family have never stopped telling the story of agriculture, whether or not cotton was prominent in Oklahoma.

“I think that in the co-op world that is kind of our job,” Jeannie said. “It [agriculture] is the blood to Oklahoma and the southwest area. I feel like we are getting few, we are not the majority any longer, and it really puts a bigger load on each of us to go ahead and carry the story through.”

“The others, they come and go,” Aaron said. “The co-ops are here to stay. Someone is hitting a home run with the co-op every year, and it gives you the stability of knowing that whatever type of crop you are wanting to grow here, we are going to be able to take care of it.”