Life has a way of catching you off guard. I sat next to Cecil Williams during lunch at the Memphis, Tenn., Agricultural Club meeting April 9. A few days later, I was shocked and saddened to learn he had died.
Cecil Williams’ last Ag Club meeting was typical of many the former Agricultural Council of Arkansas executive attended in his 42-year career. (He served as president of the club and was its Agribusiness Professional of the Year.)
He enjoyed a good laugh, often at his own expense, and lunch was filled with the usual banter between Cecil and friends in the club. The latter included a couple of the stories, most of which cannot be printed here, that Cecil seemed to summon from memory at will.
But the serious side also came through. During lunch, Cecil worried cotton farmers would be caught off guard by changes in USDA regulations on who pays for storage when a farmer forfeits cotton in the CCC loan.
Under the new rules, farmers can be billed for warehouse compression fees and storage charges above $2.60 per bale per month. Growers could owe 4 cents to 4.5 cents per pound or, worse, have to pay merchants to redeem the cotton to avoid the charges.
Though he didn’t say, Cecil clearly thought someone should be writing about the potential train wreck that may be coming for cotton producers this summer.
One of the organizers of the Producer Steering Committee (now known as the American Cotton Producers), Cecil often went toe-to-toe with merchants, legislators and government bureaucrats when he felt farmers’ oxen were being gored.
As Allen Helms, Clarkedale, Ark., producer and former National Cotton Council chairman, said: “In some of our industry segments, he was considered Mother Theresa; in others, he was considered Saddam Hussein.”
(There was another side of Cecil that only ag journalists saw. Most of the Southern members of the profession have at least one note from Cecil citing how we had once again butchered the King’s English.)
Two weeks before the Ag Club meeting, Cecil stood up in a meeting at the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock and told Sens. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and others farmers needed help to overcome low cotton and rice prices and high energy and seed costs.
I’m told it was vintage Cecil, direct with no mincing of words to leave listeners with any doubt about the rightness of his position or the needs of farmers. Southern agriculture will miss that voice, particularly in the 2007 farm bill debate.
When Cecil retired from being executive vice president of the Agricultural Council of Council after more than 37 years, he told his members, “It was a little scary. I was afraid the sun wouldn’t come up the next day.”
Cecil finally encountered one of those days when the sun didn’t come up, but his legacy will live on.