As the Arkansas legislature is again in session, it's time for the biannual push for a state department of agriculture. This time, though — after more than a decade of trying — proponents of a new agriculture department may get their wish.

“This is getting play like it does pretty much every legislative session — it's just the latest trip on the merry-go-round,” said Jimmy Wallace, who farms near and serves as mayor of England, Ark. “I've been advocating this for 14 years. A few days ago, I told the Senate ag committee I was very hopeful we could get the bill out of committee and to the floor. But if we don't get it done this time, I'll be right back in two years doing the same.

“Right now, Arkansas is one of only two or three states without a department of agriculture — and up to a quarter of the state's economy is tied up in agriculture to some degree.”

Influenced by Wallace or not, on March 3, the Senate Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development Committee, on a 4-2 vote, recommended SB448 to the full Senate.

Currently, Arkansas farmers and ag-related businesses have three major overseers. If SB448 passes, the Arkansas Plant Board, the Livestock and Poultry Commission, and the Arkansas Forestry Commission (along with the Department of Rural Services, the Rural Development Commission, and the Pesticide Advisory Board) will be overtaken by a new state Department of Agriculture.

Sen. Steve Higginbothom, a Democrat from Marianna, Ark., not only introduced SB448 but also chairs the Senate ag committee. In closing arguments for his bill, he said the state should have a sole representative for farming and ag-related businesses. Such an entity would be helpful, he said — particularly in dealing with foreign agriculture business opportunities and the federal government.

But there are powerful organizations lined up against such a move.

“Maybe I can't see the forest for the trees,” said George Tidwell, “but I would like for someone to explain to me how SB448 will benefit the row crop farmers of Arkansas. I don't see anything in SB448 that would guarantee them one additional penny for their crops.”

Tidwell heads the Arkansas Plant Board and also runs an aerial applicator service in Lonoke, Ark. In recent testimony before the Senate ag committee, he made the following arguments against SB448:

  • “Creating a department of agriculture would add another layer of bureaucracy.

  • “Through the Plant Board and other state entities, Arkansas already provides all the basic agriculture programs and services a state Department of Agriculture would offer. Arkansas is not devoid of any essential service to agriculture due to this structure

  • “Arkansas' structure of governmental program/service delivery on agricultural matters is cost-effective and offers direct administration of regulatory matters.

  • “Based on other states' agriculture department budgets, as much as 20 percent of available funds would be needed for administration and program support. Such funds in Arkansas are now used for programs that directly support farmers and ranchers.

  • “The current structure of several independent ag-related agencies benefits the state by: allowing closer monitoring and enforcement of regulatory matter; allowing direct input from the public and affected sectors of agriculture on matters involving farm and rural issues; and providing closer supervision by the legislature of agricultural programs and services.

  • “Arkansas is not disadvantaged by the current structure of delivering programs/services to agriculture. To the contrary, Arkansas' farm economy has grown in line with the nation and, in some cases, fared better than other states.”

Tidwell ended his testimony by asking the committee not to attempt to “fix something that isn't broken. The Arkansas State Plant Board is doing an outstanding job for the farmers and related industries of Arkansas.”

A related bill, SB437, calls not for a new department but for a marketing and promotion division to be set up within the Arkansas Plant Board. Passing SB437 would alleviate a major and legitimate concern of Arkansas Department of Agriculture proponents, said Tidwell. “On this issue, they're right… I agree: we do need a centralized marketing division in Arkansas.”

Not surprisingly, Wallace said SB437 merely pecks at the edges of a larger need. “Yeah, there's no guarantee that a new department will mean higher prices for crops. No one should believe that. However, whether it's an issue in Brussels, Washington, D.C., or Little Rock, the state needs a single, firm representative.

“To explain why they're opposed, everyone speaking against a new department hangs their hat on ‘more bureaucracy.’ But by streamlining things like accounting and duplication of services, we would save $700,000 annually. That's $700,000 that could be spent on marketing, value-added diversification and other services for Arkansas farmers. You have to look at the big ag picture, at all the facets.”

Wallace is buoyed by simply getting SB448 to the full Senate.

“This is a big step because the Arkansas Farm Bureau has been against it. No one wants to grind an axe with Farm Bureau. This isn't about personal gain or power — it should be about what's really good for Arkansas agriculture. Anyone claiming Arkansas agriculture is doing so well isn't paying enough attention to what's really happening. We need to look ahead, to grow. If we don't look to new horizons, Arkansas will lose out. It's time for a new day. It's time for special interests to line up behind farmers for once.

“I'm very optimistic this time. We have support from many quarters: the Arkansas Rice Growers Association, The Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation, Dick Bell (former CEO of Riceland Foods) has endorsed it, the Arkansas League of Women Voters is for it, the Arkansas Cattlemen's Association, the Arkansas Dairy Association and many others. We need to get this done.”

Tidwell counters that scrapping the state system that has served farmers so well makes no sense. “We can always improve, but do we really want to travel down this road? There are many smart people who say the language in SB448 has major flaws. If we're not careful, we may end up with a system where farmers actually have less influence, not more. That's the truth.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com