Jimmy Wallace said farmers are almost always on the short end of the stick. His beliefs, somehow uttered rapid-fire while maintaining a strong country drawl, carry more than a hint of populism. His speech is peppered with country wit and loud laughter. Ask a question and stand back: Wallace is unafraid and throws rhetorical punches with relish.

“No one talks about price to the farmer!” he said as his pickup bounced down a turnrow at his farm. “You never hear anything broadscale about the price of production. Farming is the only business where you buy for retail and sell for wholesale. And that's the truth.

“The big buzz around southeast Arkansas this year is how much fertilizer and seed cost. Can you imagine paying nearly $20,000 for a ton of cotton seed and selling it, at harvest, for $85 or $90 per ton? Does that make sense? Can you imagine buying a gallon of diesel for your tractor at $1.82? And last year you paid between 62 and 72 cents? Can you imagine paying $300 per ton of fertilizer when last year you paid $130 to $140? And this year, it looks like you're going to get 48 to 50 cents for your cotton again. Right now, it also looks like you'll get less for your soybeans and rice.

“What I see is a runaway train going into a tunnel that hasn't got an opening on the other end. And let me tell you, it may only be an itch in the back of farmers' minds, but we all sense disaster coming.”

Anyone pumping sunshine to farmers nowadays, he said, should be looked at suspiciously.

“It's time we laid it on the line. Farmers are this nation's economic tripwire. When farmers start having money troubles, the rest of the nation had better pay attention. During the Great Depression, rural America was hit first. What Arkansas farmer — hell, what farmer nationally — truly believes things don't need fixing?”

The farm

And because things need fixing in the farming community, Wallace is willing to fight, often tenaciously. As explanation he points to his hardscrabble upbringing.

“My grandfather and daddy farmed their whole lives around here — my family has been here 100 years. I watched them work so hard and struggle. They just never seemed to get a fair shake on price and that's continuing. Most farmers have the same story to tell. I'm just the loud-mouth willing to say it.”

At one time, Wallace farmed over 6,000 acres. When his father grew ill a few years back, he cut acreage to around 2,000. As with most of his farming neighbors, Wallace will harvest rice, cotton and soybeans. But he's trying something new as well.

“I'm diversifying this year by growing 300 acres of green beans near Humnoke, Ark. That's on land Dad bought for $15,000 in the 1950s. There's quite a few green beans raised in this area. It's better than wheat and it's a contract crop.”

The new department

In his tangles — diplomatic or otherwise — Wallace's wide range of job experience and political connections has served him well. He knows the ins and outs of the Arkansas political machinery, especially as it applies to agriculture.

Over the years, in several public health inspection jobs, Wallace has worked as a dairy certification officer and with the poultry industry. At one time, in addition to the 6,000 row crop acres, he worked a beef cattle operation with his father. He has served as a WTO representative and worked with governors and U.S. senators on various ag-related business. In the 1990s, Wallace also served as director of administration for the Arkansas Health Department.

Now, besides working his farms in Lonoke County, Wallace is mayor of England, Ark., a position he's held for two years.

There's plenty of evidence for Wallace's ability to take something on and come out a winner. Exhibit A: in the face of massive opposition from the extremely powerful Arkansas Farm Bureau, Wallace was one of (if not the) first who doggedly pushed and lobbied for an Arkansas Department of Agriculture. Just a few weeks ago, the legislature voted the new department in.

“It wasn't just me carrying the torch, but after lobbying for it for 14 years, it felt so good,” said Wallace on hearing the vote had passed. “No champagne but I slept well that night.”

The next important step is for a secretary to be appointed to the new department. A committee — made up of agribusiness and farming interests — is expected to soon send a candidate's name to the Arkansas governor. At that point, the governor will sign off on the candidate or ask for other names.

“I know one thing: we need a secretary with farming experience — someone who's got soil on his hands right now. (An agribusiness leader) keeps getting mentioned as the new secretary, and I like him. But for once, the farmers have to be the focus here, not agribusiness. In this state, agribusiness has always taken the lead and the farmers haven't always been well-served by that.”

The thought that someone from the high ranks of agribusiness will lead the state's farmers irritates Wallace.

“After all this fighting, are we going to go with industry over the farmers again? The same bunch that we just beat to get the department in place is now going to try and take it over. I hope it works out but you can't tell what the monkey's chewing until he spits.”

What secretary will face

The first person to lead the Arkansas Department of Agriculture will face a daunting situation, he said. If the first secretary doesn't “roll over” for agribusiness, Wallace is sure he'll face “a holy hell war. You need someone who's willing to work through the BS. He's going to have to fight Farm Bureau, the Arkansas Plant Board, the fertilizer and seed dealers. For farmers' sake, that first guy had better be willing to wage the war — it's going to take two to four years to get it on its feet.”

The new department offers farmers a chance to change the focus and reverse a complacent mindset, said Wallace. “We've got to quit thinking like losers right out of the gate. It's ridiculous when the banker tells us how much money they'll loan us on a crop, the merchant tells us how much we'll pay for fertilizer, seed, fuel and everything else. Then, at the end of the year, we ask, ‘How much will you give me for my crop?’”

When battling in the state legislature over the department of agriculture, Wallace was often confronted with claims that only “niche” farmers wanted it. Visiting niche operations and studying their work opened his eyes, he said.

“Let me tell you, some of these little ‘niche’ farmers would beat the socks off some of us big, old rice farmers in management and bottom-line profits. They have a mechanism we don't have. They can raise prices on their niche if they need to. Row-crop farming doesn't have that. Farmers never say, ‘Hey, it's going to take $5 per bushel to buy my rice this year.’ No, we all say, ‘Hope we get the government loan again.’”

Most politicians, he said, consider the health of agribusiness paramount while farmers are taken for granted. Farming, he said, is treated “as the lowest corn on the toe of the totem pole. There are very few who are really concerned about farming. They may claim to be, but they don't understand what makes farming tick and how marginal the profit is.

“I'm not trying to be an alarmist, but basically, we're still getting the same price for row-crops as we got in 1950s. That's amazing — who else would stand for that?

“Folks will say, ‘That's the nature of the beast. You've got to manage better.’ Well, Dad used to say, ‘Naught from naught is still naught.’ Before you can manage better, you've got to have something to manage with.”

If the wrong man is chosen as the first secretary, “agriculture in Arkansas will be lost to farmers forever,” insisted Wallace. “Farmers — the row-crop farmer, the dairy farmer, the berry farmer, the poultry farmer, the niche farmer, whatever — must get the right person in place right off the bat. This is our one and only shot at this and we'd better realize that.”

Shorts

Being mayor has its perks. A movie is currently being shot south of England. Yesterday, Ashley Judd wandered into Wallace's office bearing a pretty smile and a request.

“She wanted to borrow a police car and officer for an hour for some scene they were shooting.”

Did Wallace approve it?

“Yeah, I did” laughs Wallace. “Let's just say I imagine directors send Ms. Judd to ask for things all the time. She was as nice as can be and was wearing shorts. How can you turn her down?”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com