Since taking over the fledgling Arkansas Department of Agriculture on Aug. 15, Richard Bell has been a busy man. While getting the new department organized between constituent meetings, Bell – the former long-time head of Riceland Foods Inc. – has split time between offices in Little Rock and Stuttgart. He recently spoke with Delta Farm Press about his progress and ambitions for Arkansas’ producers and cattlemen.

On recent activities…

“I spent a good part of my first two months in this position meeting with various people. I’ve also been to a lot of meetings with the agricultural constituents explaining the background of the department and what I hope it will do and how my role fits that.

“At the present time, the department is made up of three agencies: the Livestock and Poultry Commission, the Arkansas Plant Board and the Arkansas Forestry Commission.

“The Plant Board is basically concerned with regulatory matters related to crops. But it also has a broader reach into things like honeybees and weights and measures. The other day, I discovered they actually go out to gasoline stations and measure the octane levels.

“Lately, the Livestock and Poultry Commission’s major activity has been disease prevention and control. Of course, they’ve got many important issues on their plate with both BSE (mad cow disease) and avian influenza (AI). They’re dealing with the ‘animal ID’ program that the federal government is operating through the states. Currently, the commission is cataloguing the various livestock premises within Arkansas.

“With the large poultry flocks we have, AI is also at the forefront. I feel the commission is doing a very good job in working with the industry to stay on top of testing and prevention.

I’m keeping close attention to AI and BSE. Those are potential hot-spots.

“The Forestry Commission primarily provides services to the private forests in the state. Until I got into this position, I didn’t realize that 55 percent of the acreage in the state is in forests. About 80 percent of those acres are owned privately. Some 20 percent is owned by the forest industry – Potlatch, International Paper and others. The balance is owned by smaller landowners.

“Fire prevention and containment is a big part of the (forestry) commission’s work. They had a very busy summer because of the drought in south Arkansas. Nearly every day, there were fires to deal with…

“My impression, after averaging three agriculture-related events per week lately, is there’s an intense interest about the new department. I’ve been incredibly well-received.

“I don’t want to oversell this, but I’m convinced there are some things we can do to help our state’s ag sectors. Frankly, the issue that’s most appealing is bio-fuels. Everyone at these meetings is worked up about that.”

On agency assignments…

“The three agencies have their assignments laid out in statutes. The cultures and leadership in each are different. Each approaches their jobs in a different style but all are doing a good job.

“I’ve told them I want to let them continue to run their agencies. I do want to keep abreast of what’s going on. I’ll help any time they think I can.

“I’ve been surprised that most of the activities of these agencies are paid for with fees. Their allotment of general revenue money isn’t a very large amount. Each is getting grants and fees they’re collecting for services.

“I have some questions about charging fees for some of the activities that are, what I consider, in the public good. I’m not sure that’s optimal but that’s how it was set up and it’s working.”

Four areas of focus…

“I do see some major gaps that need to be filled. That comes back to what we envision for the new department of agriculture. I’ve picked out four things I want to emphasize.”

• Farmers markets

“Around the state, there are some well-developed farmers markets. That’s particularly true in Fayetteville, Springdale, the River Market in Little Rock, Texarkana and Hot Springs. I’d like to grow those and improve them throughout the state.

“I see them as an outlet for produce sales for small farmers. We have cotton, rice and soybean programs. But for small truck farmers there isn’t much of a program at either the state or federal levels.

“I want to see the expansion of the USDA’s Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program. WIC coupons can only be used at farmers markets but it isn’t budgeted very heavily.

“We also have the makings of a farmers’ market association. I’ve met with representatives of that and will again shortly. We need to promote policies to encourage them.”

• Bio-fuels

“This state hasn’t really become active yet in ethanol or soy-diesel. We’re already having some in-roads on that. Eastman Chemical in Batesville is on-line with the production of soy-diesel. Another, Patriot Bio-Fuels, is being constructed in Stuttgart. There are a several more in the works.

“Arkansas has been slow to come to alternative fuel. There’s a reason for it, though: We’re a great export state. We have the Mississippi River, the White River and Arkansas River. That’s a bunch of transportation avenues that aren’t seen in the landlocked Mid-West.

“Actually, that’s why Arkansas soybean prices are above the board at the CBOT while, in Omaha, it’s below the board. Export prices are made at the Gulf of Mexico and backed off for freight.

“However, when oil hits $55 or $60 per barrel, it changes the arithmetic. At that point, it’s time for Arkansas to become actively engaged in soy-diesel production.

“There is an ‘Alternative Fuels Commission’ in the state legislature. It’s met several times and has a regular schedule.”

• Nutrition problems in the Delta

“If you go out in the Delta, I’m struck by the obesity issue among young people – particularly young women. That, I believe, is attributable to a lack of nutritional knowledge.

“When I was growing up in Illinois, around the sixth grade we were required to take a year-long course called ‘health and nutrition.’ I didn’t like the class but still remember the facts they drilled into me.

“The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture has organized a group of people to come up with a program to highlight this issue.

“I also want to improve the availability and variety of foods in school lunch programs. Every morning, when watching the Little Rock news, the noon lunch menu is put on the screen. I’ve been watching that for years and haven’t seen rice on the menu yet.”

• Small exporters

“We need more small exporters in the state. We’re a great exporting state but several huge companies do most of it. If you look further north, there are quite a few small companies involved in exports.

“The programs that helped these small businesses get into exports were mostly through the state departments of agriculture. The USDA promotes U.S. products overseas at food fairs using booths sponsored by state departments of agriculture. Since Arkansas hasn’t had a department of agriculture until recently, we haven’t participated in that.

“This could be the hardest thing to tackle, actually. I’m having a hard time finding very many small firms in the state that fit the bill. But I want to try.”

On a “strategic plan”…

“As far as getting the departments organized, I’m looking at the first few months of 2006 as a focus. By next summer, we hope to have a ‘strategic plan’ put together.

“I want to put together a unified budget. Within the three agencies, we have about 590 employees with a budget of about $45 million. Some half of that is for the employees and work of the Forestry Commission.

“Part of my charge is to have a budget ready to present to the next meeting of the Arkansas legislature in 2007. Also, I hope at that time I can have some new programs for them to consider at a state level.

“When taking this job, I told everyone I’d organize the department, get it running and hand it off. I thought the end of that would be when Gov. Huckabee (is term limited from) office in January of 2007. I want everything to be in place by then – and if I get it done quicker, I can quit quicker.”

On plans for a central office or headquarters for the new department…

“Presently, I’m still spending quite a bit of time in my own office in Stuttgart. But the department does have an office and address at the Plant Board building in west Little Rock.

“The Plant Board and Livestock and Poultry Commission are in the same building. Both directors and I have spoken about this and all feel there’s enough space in the building to convert some space into the department of agriculture. We intend to draw up plans to do that.”

Does Bell see any role for government – whether federal or state – in helping producers deal with higher input costs?

“The national level is where this needs to be. I’ve been working closely with the staff of Sen. (Blanche) Lincoln, (D-Ark), on this, primarily. She, along with Missouri (Republican) Sen. (Jim) Talent, has introduced a bill that would be for disaster relief. I strongly concur with it.

“It’s a program designed to make a second direct income payment to those crop farmers in counties declared a disaster area. I expect that bill to get serious consideration between the Thanksgiving and Christmas recess. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, (R-Ga), the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has said he’ll bring it up.

“Within that disaster legislation there must be a program for the livestock producers. There is livestock language in the current bill, although I don’t think it’s as effective as that for crops.

“Livestock has always had trouble in the disaster bills in finding a good delivery system. In the crops, we have a decent delivery system – direct income payments, county offices and whatnot. But it’s much more cumbersome in the livestock sector.

“And Arkansas cattlemen need help with livestock. The USDA crop report shows the state has had a horrible hay crop – 60 percent of the year before.”

Five years ago, Bell was instrumental in cracking the door open for exports to Cuba. Does he still have contacts there and, if so, what was their take on the new export rules regarding the USDA Office of Foreign Assets Control?

“I am in contact with the folks in Cuba. After taking this job, one of the first letters I received was from Pedro Alvarez, a friend who basically runs food imports in Cuba. He wanted to know when I would bring another Arkansas mission down.

“Again, I’m hoping to find some new, smaller exporters who are interested in gaining a market foothold in Cuba. There will be some Havana food fairs in 2006 we’re considering participating in.

“As far as the OFAC situation, I know it really irritates the Cubans. It’s another cost they must pay. For a large firm experienced in international trade, it’s a bother. But most use third-country banks to keep going.

“But these new rules are particularly onerous for smaller exporters. They don’t typically have the expertise to know how to deal with letters of credit through a bank in Paris. What it does, actually, is drive business from smaller to larger firms. I don’t think that should be our policy at the national or state levels.

“The Tyson people, as I understand it, have essentially out-placed their business with a brokerage firm so they don’t have to put up with the OFAC fall-out. Riceland has decided to deal with the hurdles themselves.

“The truth is, (current U.S. trade policy) isn’t improving or changing anything in Cuban policy. This so-called embargo has been going on for 40 or 50 years and nothing much has changed. Why do we keep trying these things? But we do so we’ll just deal with it.

“I do know we’ve lost some market share in Cuba in 2005, particularly on rice. Part of that was due to our prices being out of line on a world basis. Hoping those prices would come back in line, the Cubans put off buying from us but, eventually, probably had to go ahead and buy. The problem is once they buy from Asian countries, the shipping time is so long it’s hard for them to change plans quickly.

“Lately, our rice prices are more competitive and I think we’ll be back in Cuba in a bigger way. At a food fair in November, Pedro said he expects the United States to be the biggest supplier of food to Cuba (in 2006).”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com