MARIANNA, Ark. — For a long while, Steve Higginbothom had only a vague interest in politics. Then his land outside Marianna, Ark., flooded and with the water came a realization: either become involved in the political process or lay back and accept others’ decisions.

“I farm alongside the W.G. Huxtable pumping station — the largest fresh-water pumping station in the world,” said the current chairman of the Arkansas Senate Agriculture Committee. “The Corps of Engineers built it in the 1970s, and it’s a wonderful asset to my farm and others in the area.”

To build the needed levees and station, the Corps purchased 400 acres from Higginbothom’s family. The station, a massive concrete edifice through which water rushes and boils, overlooks the family farm — half protected by a network of levees and half unprotected.

The flood

“In late May 1983, we had major rain. The pumping plant couldn’t handle the water and didn’t protect the land.”

There were several reasons. First, the rainfall was “incredible,” something the Corps had no control over. The second reason, however, was no act of God.

“They’d changed the rule curve on when pumping would begin. None of the farmers in the area had been warned. So they delayed starting the pumps. Adding to the problem was they’d made adjustments to the pumps. They removed some backstops.”

Without backstop protection, pump propellers can be forced into reverse, resulting in an engine meltdown. Within two days, two engines were destroyed by reverse action. When that happened, the station was shut down and an investigation was ordered.

“We were in the middle of major rain, they started pumping late, two engines were lost and they shut the plant down. We lost 950 acres of crops to the pumping station malfunction. Some of the flooding was the Corps’ fault. It was doubly disturbing that the station was new and having those problems.”

When Higginbothom, increasingly concerned with his flooded cropland, began asking pointed questions of the station, he was tabbed “anti-Corps. That wasn’t true at all. I just wanted answers. The biggest concern wasn’t the 950 acres I lost, but that my livelihood depended on that station functioning properly. I wanted to make sure that the mistakes were fixed. We needed to open an avenue of communication between farmers and the Memphis-based Corps office.”

Good pols, bad pols

A young farmer, Higginbothom had his livelihood at stake and underwater. He wasn’t the only one.

Higginbothom — “I was leading the charge, but there were others” — organized meetings and called local politicians. Now-retired Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers sent a representative to a meeting in Marianna and began following the situation closely.

“Bumpers began making calls and held a hearing in his Washington, D.C., office. He demanded a response to our questions from the Corps. Initially, the Corps refused.” After further conversations, the Corps admitted to the errors already outlined.

“Well, there’s no way to sue the federal government. So Sen. Bumpers proposed legislation that gave 38 farmers in this area $2 million worth of compensation. That didn’t cover all our losses, but it did help.”

At that point, Higginbothom began mulling a run for office. He realized the value of a good politician responding to constituents. Conversely, he was “disturbed by several politicians who chose to ignore us and wouldn’t help.”

The farm

Higginbothom grew up just south of Marianna, in Helena, Ark. The frequent trips to visit his grandfather, a life-long farmer, are fondly recalled.

“He was my mentor in life. We were close. He taught me to hunt and fish, and I spent my summers on the farm.”

After attending the University of Arkansas, Higginbothom moved back to Helena and worked three years on a large farm owned by Hiram Alexander. In 1978, he moved to Marianna and began renting the family farm. Since then, he’s increased his acreage by leasing neighboring farmland.

“I had been farming about 4,200 acres. I gave up 550 acres recently, though, so I’m at 3,700 acres. This year, we’ll have about 750 acres of cotton, 2,400 acres of soybeans, 200 acres of wheat — normally we plant 400 or 500 acres but couldn’t get much in last fall — and 200 acres of milo.

Higginbothom didn’t farm corn this year because of high fertilizer prices. “We didn’t have a good window to plant corn in anyway. So we left corn out… I had grown corn for seven or eight years. Last year, I had about 400 acres. But the high input costs wouldn’t work.”

In the St. Francis River bottoms, the family farm has an undulating roll. It isn’t flat enough for rice. “And rice grown in close proximity to cotton doesn’t always work well.”

Higginbothom tries to maximize his equipment. “I have only one four-row picker. We’ve farmed 1,000 acres of cotton with just that picker. This year, with only 750 acres, it should be more manageable. I’ll cut 3,000 acres with my one combine.”

Getting into the game

Fearing too much lost family time, Higginbothom waited until his sons were in college before running for political office. “Most folks have no idea how much time a state politician is away from home. I’m not complaining — that’s just the way it is. Constituents want you at meetings and available to them. You have to make every effort to be there.”

Higginbothom lost his first race for state senator. However, two years later, in 2002, he beat the incumbent.

He wasn’t on the Senate Agriculture Committee his first legislative session. During his second session, recently completed, he chaired the committee.

“With my farming background, I can play an important role in enhancing the presence of ag in the legislature.”

Higginbothom is one of only a handful of Arkansas legislators who also farm. “It’s a shame there aren’t more farmers in the legislature while agriculture is such a huge part of the state. Farming is very important in almost most every legislative district. Most legislators are interested in agriculture, but they need farming colleagues to explain key issues.”

The new department

The key issue in the last session was a new Arkansas Department of Agriculture. Higginbothom shepherded the legislation through with Wayne Nichols, the House sponsor for a new department.

“(Wayne) and I agreed it was imperative Arkansas have (the new department). I knew rank-and-file farmers and agribusiness folks wanted it. There was a small group of loud opponents. Proponents were quieter. This legislation shouldn’t have been controversial. In all sincerity, it’s a no-brainer. Arkansas is an agriculture-based state, and we need a Department of Agriculture. One should have been created years ago.”

But with powerful, vocal foes, many legislators “were concerned they’d pay a price for voting the department in. They knew it was the right thing to do, so they voted for it even though they were concerned about political fallout. When they got back to their districts, they were overwhelmed. All but one told me it was one of the most popular things they’ve done. Those who voted for this have been relieved of a lot of anxiety.”

A new department had been broached in previous legislative sessions. Why did it go through this time?

“There are a couple of reasons. First, the bill hadn’t been heard in the Senate. Last session, it flew out of the House but the Senate ag committee chairman didn’t allow it to be heard. The bill was stalled in committee, and no hearing was scheduled.

“The second thing is we had farmers behind the bill. We were able to lend credibility to it.”

The road ahead

Higginbothom isn’t concerned with how the bill passed and the players on each side. He’s more interested in the organization of the department and bringing everyone into the process.

“That’s what I want. And from what I’ve seen, the opponents of the department — even the organizations staunchly against it previously — have now come around. Everyone acknowledges we need to work together on this.”

Gov. Mike Huckabee appointed Sara Agee, a former state representative, to facilitate the new department’s setup. She’s working with a small committee (Higginbothom is a member) to produce a mission statement, job descriptions and general guidelines for the new department. Higginbothom expects the committee to finalize those initial steps by the end of June.

After that, a board of 20 representatives — 11 members to be appointed by the governor and nine coming from existing state agencies — will decide on a candidate to run the department. The governor will accept the candidate or ask the committee to suggest another.

“I look for Gov. Huckabee to make (the board) appointments sometime in July or August. Once the board is assembled, it will come up with a candidate to direct the department. I suspect a name will be put forward next fall.”

Is Higginbothom open to the job?

“I’m not interested in the job, period. I sponsored the department legislation, and there’s no way I’d be employed in the department or even serve on the board. It could come across as self-promotional, so I’m staying away from that. I’ll support it every way I can otherwise.”

No big power shift

The power of the coming Department of Agriculture has been blown out of proportion, said Higginbothom. When formed, he insists, it won’t affect the regulatory authority of the agencies under its umbrella.

“The agencies retain all their regulatory powers. Even though that’s spelled out in the legislation, I think there’s been some suspicion they’d lose those powers. It’s just not so.

“Once they come to the table, they’ll see their boards and commissions will function in the same proper manner. The main function of the department is to promote Arkansas agriculture, be a hub of information and be an international representative, an ambassador, for agriculture in the state. Previously, there was a huge void. We needed an entity to speak with authority for the whole state.”

While agriculture is important, Higginbothom emphasized equally pressing concerns in the Delta. “We’ve had a massive exodus of young folks. Along with agriculture, we’ve got to focus on education and health issues. Anyone living in the Delta knows it’s true. So many communities are in a bad way.

“It’s particularly heartbreaking when I travel back to Helena. My father was with Riceland Foods when the soybean processing plant was built near the Helena bridge in the early 1960s. He worked there as general manager. I saw Helena when it was prosperous. Now, when I travel back to Cherry Street, it just kills me. It’s so sad. We’ve got to fix things.”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com