A bill to form an Arkansas Department of Agriculture (DOA) has passed the state's legislature. The bill now awaits the signature Gov. Mike Huckabee.

“I'm smiling now, but getting this done has been a hard row to hoe,” said Jimmy Wallace, a long-time state department of agriculture proponent who farms near England, Ark. “This will make Arkansas a better place for agriculture, but we must have the right person in charge. Who that should be, I have no idea.”

The bill has been debated for most of the legislative session, and its passage surprised many legislative handicappers. This is because an Arkansas department of agriculture was opposed by several powerful groups, including the state Farm Bureau.

Speaking on the final hours of House debate (where the bill passed with 51 votes — the minimum needed), Rodney Baker, Arkansas Farm Bureau legislative affairs director, said, “There were votes changing back and forth through the day. Some new players came in late in the day and caused a couple of votes to switch over at the last minute.”

Asked if many chits were cashed in to sway legislators, Baker said, “There were. There are some bills in the Senate that people were heavily invested in and want to get passed. Those played into the final vote count on the department of agriculture. There were other issues around the legislature used to trade some votes. That's not unusual.”

Wallace, who followed the proceedings closely, said freshmen representatives “had more pressure on them than with any other piece of legislation I've ever seen. Opponents brought the hard sell.

“At one point, we thought it was a done deal when we had a comfortable vote margin. But then votes started slipping away. Lobbyists were putting incredible pressure on these representatives. Several freshmen told me they had call after call after call from various ag-business folks against a department of agriculture. But let me tell you: the right held out and won out on this. That's how I feel about it.”

Wallace said his celebration is muted because the bill that eventually passed had several significant changes. “But I know you have to lay the egg before you can hatch the chicken.”

Originally, the new department of agriculture would have overseen the state Plant Board, the Livestock and Poultry Commission, the Abandoned Pesticide Advisory Board, the Arkansas Forestry Commission, the Rural Development Commission, the state Department of Rural Services, and the Division of Agricultural Development within the Arkansas Development Finance Authority. By combining the entities, proponents said over $700,000 could be saved.

Now, those savings will be markedly reduced because the legislature removed the Department of Rural Services and the Division of Agricultural Development (because it receives federal funds) from the department of agriculture's oversight.

“One of the main reasons for having an Arkansas secretary of agriculture is so he can oversee the whole ag-related enterprise. He needs the power to combine services here and there to make it a more efficient process. I'm concerned he won't have the power to do that.

“This is about doing what's best for agriculture as a whole — from the huge row-cropper all the way down to the tiny niche farmer. The guy who farms 10 acres should be just as important to the state as the guy who farms 10,000 acres.

“It's just like a church. You may have a guy who tithes $200,000 a year and another guy who can hardly afford to tithe $200. As long as they're giving their 10 percent, though, they're on equal footing.”

With the 2005 legislative session winding down, Baker and colleagues are working on a “right to farm” bill (HB2918). While the state has had a “right to farm” law since the early 1980s, Baker said it needs to be strengthened. “Basically, the bill prevents cities and counties from declaring an agricultural operation a nuisance. For example, if your ag operation has been working for a year or more, an unfriendly neighbor can't have your chicken house declared a nuisance.” Several states have made enhancements to similar laws lately. With urban growth into rural areas, there will be conflicts, said Baker.


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com