Kim Cooper at the Economic Development Business Centre in Chatham on July 9, 2019 (Photo by Allanah Wills)

Local agriculture expert retiring after four decades in the industry

Besides visiting his grandparents’ farm as a child, agriculture wasn’t on Kim Cooper’s radar.

Fast forward to 45 years later, Cooper is getting ready to formally retire from his role as one of Chatham-Kent’s most influential experts in the agricultural industry.

Cooper grew up in Chatham and first got into the workforce right after high school when he landed a job as a land surveyor for the construction of the E.C. Row Expressway in Windsor. After getting laid off in the early 70s, Cooper came back to Chatham to figure out what he was going to do the next. He got offered a job that would give him his first taste of agriculture- stocking shelves at  M.J. Smith Grain Company.

“Back then you just took a job, you didn’t sit around home, you weren’t allowed,” he said. “I got to meet farmers, found out more about seeds, fertilizer and chemicals, the whole agriculture thing. I loved it. I just found it intriguing. The salespeople I met, the farmers I met. It just kind of opened up, I think it opened up my eyes to what agriculture is and I felt that I really needed to learn more.”

As he continued to work at M.J.’s, his love and fascination for the industry grew and Cooper went to Ridgetown College for the agricultural production and management program, which he graduated from with honours. Although he felt at a disadvantage because he was fairly new to the farming world, Cooper never let that hold him back.

“All the students laughed at me because just farmers go to this program but here’s a city kid trying to learn all about agriculture. So they made fun of me but I loved it, I ate all that up,” he said.

Cooper then spent two years at the University of Guelph but did not end up finishing his degree because of health problems. M.J.’s welcomed him back to work at the company with open arms, and he stayed for a number of years. His industry knowledge began to grow and Cooper took a job with King Grain in Pain Court where he stayed for a decade. Afterwards, he spent another 10 years employed with the Ontario Soybean Growers’ Association.

Cooper said it’s mind-boggling to think of all the changes that have occurred in the industry since he first got started in it. One of the biggest differences, he said, is how much attitudes have changed when it comes to waste.

“The use of fertilization, chemicals. Farmers have never been wasteful, but we’re finding ways to reduce [waste]. We have to reuse fertilization because of the algae blooms and things like that. Farmers have always been great stewards of the land and now we’re realizing that we have to step it up and they’re doing even a better job at that,” he said.

In 2008, Cooper accepted his current job with the Municipality of Chatham-Kent as the lead agriculture specialist in the economic development department. His role was heavily focused on helping local agriculturally-based businesses grow.

“Back at that time, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, it was not common for a city or municipality to have an agriculture specialist,” he said. “That was very uncommon. I think we were one of, if not the first, to have such a person.”

Cooper’s job and expertise have taken him across the globe, everywhere from the Great Wall of China to Scandinavia. He has visited around 30 countries while promoting Canadian agriculture and meeting with government officials.

“Japan, for instance, is our biggest customer of food-grade soybeans…I would take teams over to these countries and I would bring some of our researchers over and sit down with them. We would spend a week going through their factories and learning what made in their eyes, a good soybean,” he explained.

Cooper remains humble about his accomplishments over the last four decades. When asked what he thought his biggest achievement in his career was, Cooper chuckled and said he hopes he was just able to help out as many people as he could.

“We’re all different and we’re all unique and we bring to the table things that will help other people or help other companies,” he said. “So I hope that in all my jobs, I brought what God has gifted me with, whatever that is. An understanding to be able to listen to people, talk to people, help them.”

Now, Cooper is reflecting on the past 40 years as he prepares for his retirement on August 2. Cooper said choosing to retire was an extremely difficult decision to make, but knew it was just time to start the next stage of his life.

“It’s been fascinating, it’s been humbling for me and its really an honour to have worked with all these great groups and all these great people involved in them,” he said. “I love what I’m doing, I’ve loved working agriculture for most of my life now, which is hard to believe.”

Once he hangs up his hat, Cooper plans to spend more time with his wife, children, and grandkids. He is also is hoping to take a trip to Scotland, one of the few places he has never visited. Although he won’t formally be working in the agriculture industry anymore, he said it will be a chapter in his life that he will never truly close.

“My wife says ‘it will be nice once you retire so I don’t have to listen to you talk about all the fields we drive by’ and I said ‘well, I’ll still probably be doing that.’ Agriculture I think is always going to be part of my life in some aspect,” he said. “How that looks down the road, we’ll see, but you just don’t turn it off after 40 plus years.”