The Agricultural Council of Arkansas’ Twitter post last Friday evening characterized Dick Bell quite elegantly: “Great man, great intellect, great leader.”
Dick’s death last week brought to a close a life of much accomplishment, not just for the rice industry — where for almost three decades he led Riceland Foods as the world’s largest rice miller and one of the region’s largest processors of soybeans — but in the broader arena of national and international agricultural policy.
Although he worked for years in bureaucratic circles — as an agricultural economist with the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, as an assistant agricultural attaché in Ottawa and Brussels, as ag attaché for the American Embassy in Dublin, and as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for International Affairs and Commodity Programs — he was as un-bureaucratic as you could ask for.
He had a knowledge of agricultural policy and economics that bordered on encyclopedic, and could more than hold his own with members of Congress or Capitol Hill leaders, but he had a marvelous (and enviable) knack for distilling the brain-numbing minutiae of government programs and policy into language the average man could comprehend.
Although Dick was a “Yankee” by birth (Illinois), and he never really lost his accent during his decades in Arkansas, he was the consummate southern gentleman: gracious, soft-spoken, always showing a keen interest in those with whom he interacted.
I crossed paths with him often over the years, at one meeting or another, and he invariably would make it a point to come and chat with me and other members of the media, and no matter which of our Farm Press editors was covering his comments, he would, a twinkle in his eyes, manage to work in a reference during his talk to something we’d written, as if he followed our scribblings religiously. He further endeared himself to those of the media by always making himself available when we needed information or cogent comments about ag policy or markets.
Much has been written about Dick’s careers with USDA/FAS, with Riceland Foods, and later, after his retirement, as Arkansas’ first Agriculture Secretary. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee, who appointed him to that post, said following his death, “With his vast knowledge of the entire agricultural landscape, and the respect he earned from everyone in the agri-world, there was no one I could think of who was better suited for the job. He was a hard-working, conscientious, and effective public servant.”
In an era when government and government service are often reviled, Dick would, I think, have liked that label: effective public servant.
U.S. rice and U.S. agriculture are the better for his lifetime of service, and on his passing can remember with gratitude his many contributions.