When Dick Bell came to Arkansas to work for Riceland Foods in 1977, many thought he would stay three or four years and then return to USDA or to a major farm organization or corporation.
Few would have predicted Bell would remain in the post of president and CEO he assumed at Riceland in 1981 for 23 years or that he would become one of Arkansas agriculture's biggest boosters.
Bell, a native of Clinton, Ill., rose to the upper echelons of USDA, serving as assistant secretary of agriculture for international affairs and commodity programs in the Nixon and Ford administrations. But something about Arkansas clicked, and he decided to cast his lot with the state.
He retired as the top executive at Riceland last year, but returned to work with another agriculture department, the newly formed organization that was created to oversee the Arkansas agencies that deal with the different facets of agriculture.
Since Gov. Mike Huckabee announced his appointment, Bell has maintained a schedule that would leave many younger men gasping for breath, organizing the department and speaking to farm groups and anyone else who will listen about the importance of agriculture.
His speech to the Agricultural Council of Arkansas annual meeting on Dec. 1 followed by one day a presentation to the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation in Little Rock.
“I don't think many realize Arkansas is in the top 10 agricultural states in the country,” he said at the Ag Council meeting. “I told the Farm Bureau there's nothing wrong with being in the top five. I think we can take on Nebraska, which is No. 5, and win.”
Bell said Arkansas ranks high on the lists for a number of agriculture enterprises. “But the real secret of our success is that Arkansas is a great export state. In Nebraska, they don't do much exporting. But we have a river system that puts us in a great position for selling our commodities to the rest of the world.”
All of the heads of the agencies he oversees — the Plant Board, the Livestock and Poultry Commission, the Forestry Commission, the Weights and Measures Division — are doing a great job, he said. “So I'm going to focus on what I see as major gaps or areas where nobody is doing much on them.”
Among those, he said, are farmers' markets, biofuels, nutrition and small exporters. Referring to the issue of obesity in the Delta region, Bell said he believes the school lunch program can help. “I've looked at the menus for that program, and I've never seen rice on them once. I'll be working on that.”
He's also keeping an eye on Washington, judging from his assessment of Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln's legislation that would provide an additional direct payment to farmers in disaster areas. “It will be up to Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi to decide (the payment amount,)” says Bell. “Cochran is leaning toward 50 percent; I want 100 percent.”