Richard Bell, former long-time Riceland president and chief executive officer, will be the first to lead the new Arkansas Department of Agriculture.

On Aug. 15, at a Governor’s Mansion meeting in Little Rock to announce his endorsement of Bell and appointment of agriculture department board members, Gov. Mike Huckabee said Bell’s was the “one name that’s continued to come up on the radar screen… almost exclusively. I heard it from all walks of life. I know of no one who could bring the breadth of experience of Dick Bell. Among agricultural interests, he has no peer.”

Huckabee said rapid formation of the new department was necessary because “we aren’t in the position of having six months to a year to work our way through the process. I’m deeply respectful of the legislative intent, which was to get an Arkansas Department of Agriculture up and running as quickly as possible to make sure Arkansas products could be marketed as effectively, efficiently and aggressively as we possibly could.”

This was being done, Huckabee said, “recognizing there will be many changes, probably to the very structure of the agriculture department in future legislative sessions.

“No one, for a moment, suggests the process we have in place is a perfect one. Everyone recognizes this is the first step — not the final step — in the process of moving Arkansas agriculture, its products and its people forward.

“But one thing that consistently came through was, ‘Let’s hit the ground running.’ Let’s not waste any time because we had so much time in the discussion — you could say 30 or 40 years.”

Huckabee — and later, Bell — praised the 2005 legislative session work of state representative Wayne Nichols and state senator Steve Higginbotham, both farmers, in bringing about the new department.

Bell said he views his “assignment as getting the department up and running and then handing it off as quickly as I can. (I’ll hand it off) to someone who’ll be here, perhaps, for a longer time.”

The new department will “serve all people and I hope it’s very inclusive. I hope the people who opposed the bill and the department will get on board and we’ll all work together.”

Addressing the Arkansas Plant Board, Livestock and Poultry Commission, and Forestry Commission, Bell said, “As far as I know, they’re doing a good job in their regulatory functions and I see no need to mess with that.”

Instead, the new department will “go ahead and work on the promotion, marketing and representation that I think is important.”

Bell pointed to several things he wanted to take “the lead” in: nutrition in the Delta (“I think this is a big issue and I talk about it a lot.”) and biofuels (“With $60 per barrel oil it will be very important to us.”).

“One of the most important aspects of this position is to represent agriculture interests within the state government in terms of making points with the other departments,” said Bell. “I think that’s been sorely lacking.”

The 11 Arkansas Agriculture Board members appointed by Huckabee are: Jerry Masters — who will serve as the board’s acting chairman — of Dover, David Wildy of Manila, Jerry Lee Bogard of Stuttgart, Chris Acre of Greenbrier, Aubrey Blackmon of Houston, Bill Elliot Jr. of Lake Village, John Sims of Tillar, Josh Allen of Springdale, Ruben Garza of Lake Village, Kenneth Davis of Texarkana and Robert Martinez of DeQueen.

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com