The Arkansas Senate, on a 19-9 vote, has passed legislation to form a state department of agriculture. The Arkansas House was expected to take up the topic in late March.

Currently, Arkansas farmers and ag-related businesses — worth $13 billion collectively — have several major state agencies working as overseers. Arkansas is one of only several states in the country without a department of agriculture.

Under the legislation, the Arkansas Plant Board, the Livestock and Poultry Commission, the Arkansas Forestry Commission, the Department of Rural Services, the Rural Development Commission, and the Pesticide Advisory Board would be folded into the new department. Those pushing for the change say the agencies would maintain the same authority and workload, just under a single leader.

Many proponents, including Sen. Blanche Lincoln, have said the state should have a sole representative for agricultural interests. Proponents claim a department of agriculture would be particularly helpful in dealing with marketing, foreign agriculture business opportunities and the federal government.

Strong opposition remains, however, from several powerful players in Arkansas agriculture and politics.

“We've opposed such a change for a number of reasons,” said Rodney Baker, Arkansas Farm Bureau legislative affairs director. “We think it will cause additional bureaucracy and will, ultimately, cost the state more money. We don't think it's necessary to pull regulatory agencies with good performance records under one person.

“Proponents have talked about the need for a marketing function in the state. We agree, but don't think that requires a whole new department.”

How will Farm Bureau push its viewpoint? “Very honestly, we're looking at all our options,” said Baker. “We'll certainly be visiting legislators on this. Groups other than us are opposed to this and are doing the same thing.”

The Arkansas legislature has also addressed the growing of plant-made pharmaceuticals (PMPs) in the state. Prodded by the controversy surrounding Ventria Bioscience's move to grow rice containing human genes in Missouri's Bootheel, competing bills were introduced to regulate such crops.

The first, Senate Bill 318 (SB318), called for a ban, with rare exceptions, on growing PMPs in the state. It didn't make it out of committee.

The second, House Bill 2574 (HB2574), is more lenient towards such crops. After several weeks of debate, it passed the legislature and awaits the signature of Gov. Mike Huckabee.

“We feel (HB2574) was well thought out and has input from various parts of our industry,” said Keith Glover of Producers Rice Mill in Stuttgart, Ark. “That's the route we need to go.”

Producers' neighbor in Stuttgart, Riceland, was also behind HB2574. “The industry — Farm Bureau, Arkansas Rice Producers, the Southern Crop Production Association, the university research divisions, the Arkansas Plant Board and others — put together a bill we believe provides a balanced approach to this situation,” said Bill Reed, Riceland vice president. “We want to do nothing to discourage ag research for input or output traits. But we must have a safeguard for the economic viability of the rice crop.”

Once signed into law, HB2574 tasks the Plant Board with regulating rice varieties that have characteristics of commercial impact.

“Any characteristic that could affect the marketability of crops is covered,” said Reed. “It is permissive and we think the Plant Board — comprised of ag scientists and farmers — is the appropriate entity to handle the job of regulation.”

Greg Yielding of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association (one of those behind SB318), said HB7547 lacks teeth. “As this bill is written, in order for some action to be taken, the Plant Board has to be notified,” he said. “But that means the one complaining has to have already found a problem. By that time, though, the cat's out of the bag running down the street. The harm will already have been done — the crop will already be contaminated, the markets will be ruined and farmers left in financial distress.