Arkansas is one of only two states without a department of agriculture. Several efforts — one in the 1970s and another in the 1980s — attempted to remedy that. Shot down in the state legislature (largely due to opposition from large agribusiness), the efforts went into hibernation.
Emerging from a long sleep in 1995, a group of interested farmers approached the Arkansas Public Policy Panel for help in organizing a grass-roots effort to bring an agricultural umbrella organization to the state.
One interested farmer was Jimmy Wallace of England, Ark.
"When I was contacted, I was immediately interested in getting an Arkansas Department of Agriculture. Without one, agriculture will remain fragmented within the state. There are several organizations that govern agriculture, but no overseeing agency pulling all the parts together.
"With the shape farmers are in, we need all these disparate groups to come together. There really is strength is numbers, and we need strong leadership," says Wallace.
What are some of the agriculture agencies in Arkansas?
"The Plant Board, the Arkansas Poultry Commission, the Extension Service, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (EDC) and on and on. There are little pieces all over the place. The EDC has a component that’s supposed to be promoting state agriculture. However, by some folks’ analysis, they haven’t done the best job because their main focus is major industrial development," says Bill Copsky, who heads up the Public Policy Panel in Little Rock.
"I served on the EDC for several years. In the meetings I attended, very little was said about agriculture. They have bigger concerns in mind. They aren’t bad people, it’s just that agriculture always gets the short end of the stick when we’re up against big industry," says Wallace.
What’s being suggested is the need to fold several of the aforementioned entities into a department of agriculture. But the group pushing for changes hasn’t come out with specifics. That’s purposeful.
"We’re trying to work through the legislators and other farmer advocates to come up with the best solution. But we certainly think some restructuring needs to take place. Nothing is concrete yet. But farmers definitely need more coordination and a single plan addressing economics and regulation to bring agriculture’s collective health back up," says Sonny Cantrell, a farmer from England, Ark., and farm organizer for the Public Policy Panel.
How did the Public Policy Panel get involved?
"In 1995, a group of farmers contacted us wanting help. Our purpose is to help folks organize grass-roots efforts on issues important to them. We work on many issues.
"Farmers contacted us saying they were losing their shirts. They wanted help. We talked to them, did some assessments on why they weren’t being served, then brought in some university folk for their guidance. By 1997 it became clear that the farmers wanted to pursue a department of agriculture."
With only one legislator behind it, the group’s idea was put forward during the 1999 state legislative session.
"What we’ve found since is farmers from around the state have been coming out of the woodwork to support the formation of such a department. Almost every farmer I’ve spoken with has been in favor of this. They all say we need it," Says Cantrell.
An example of why it’s needed happened recently.
"A big chunk of federal money was coming to the state and a routing number was needed because we have no department of agriculture. No one in Washington, D.C., knew where to send the money. Finally, the money was sent to Gov. Huckabee’s office for disbursement," says Cantrell.
While irritating details like that are commonplace, Wallace says the need for a central entity runs much deeper.
"Agriculture in the state is beginning to take a back seat while it should be at the forefront. Farmers are only a small percentage of the population within the state, but we still account for 80 to 85 percent of the jobs created in the state.
"Farmers are guiltier than anyone else in creating this atmosphere. Why? Because we let someone else take care of our business for us. That was a huge mistake. We’ve now got the lowest prices since the 1930s along with the greatest production. Meanwhile, we’ve got less representation than ever before," says Wallace.
Just as in prior efforts, opposition to a new state department isn’t only likely, but inevitable. Proponents know what’s likely to happen when the Arkansas legislature takes up the issue in hearings sometime this winter.
"There will be great opposition. We know that. There will be negatives cited, most prominently will be the fear of ‘another level of government and bureaucracy.’ But that isn’t our plan at all. We want to streamline government and make a strong focal point. I think it’s incredibly important that we do this right now because not only will we save taxpayers dollars, but we can also spearhead efforts in figuring out what ails agriculture in Arkansas and what it’ll take to fix it," says Wallace.
Who or what is likely to be the biggest detractor of the effort?
Without hesitation, every person interviewed for this story (both quoted and for background) says the Arkansas Farm Bureau will be the major roadblock. In fact, during the last state legislative session, the Farm Bureau put out a position paper stating unequivocally that an Arkansas department of agriculture is a bad idea.
"The Farm Bureau is strong within the state and does some good things. I like it and have tons of friends involved with it. But they tend to think of themselves as the de facto Arkansas department of agriculture. We need more than just a strong Farm Bureau.
"It’ll be a hard sell to those outside agriculture. Our governor will be loath to endorse a new department because Farm Bureau is in opposition to this. Farm Bureau boasts something like 250,000 members in the state, so you can see what the governor is thinking."
The power the Arkansas Farm Bureau wields is chiefly due to its large membership role, claim farmers Delta Farm Press has spoken to.
"Hey, this isn’t a poke in Farm Bureau’s eye, but who knows how many of their members are actually farmers? They meet and pass policy positions and do some good work. But the truth is, I don’t think a farmer who isn’t on a committee or working hand-in-hand with them can actually tell you what it is they’re doing for Arkansas agriculture," says Wallace.
It’s past time for farmers to get educated on the issues within the state and the best way of dealing with them, says Cantrell. "The same-old, same-old obviously isn’t working. We’re losing an average of 20 percent of the farmers per year. If these organizations are doing so great, why is that the case?"
"I’m not against Farm Bureau, but when they trumpet their 250,000 members as a reason to go with their policy views, it makes it sound as though every member is on board with them. But I’d be willing to bet you that if they ran an internal poll, a great number of their members aren’t opposed to a new department," says Wallace.
Ironically, almost every farmer working in the effort to bring a department of agriculture to Arkansas is also a Farm Bureau member.
Have proponents looked at modeling a department after a particular state?
"We’ve done a study looking at neighboring states and comparing them to what we have here. Farmers here are simply losing out," says Copsky.
For an example, Copsky says the Kentucky Department of Agriculture has four value-added marketing divisions — poultry, forage, livestock and timber. Each of those promotes sales, management, market research and product development. Each also maintains directories of secondary product producers. Arkansas has nothing like that.
"One of the key things is, for example, if you’re Bolivian and want information on agri-products in Arkansas, who would you see? Instead of a one-stop shop, you’d be left to run around to these different organizations."
Cantrell says another good example is Missouri’s Department of Agriculture Division of Marketing Development. That division has domestic and international marketing programs and a "whole host of other things. They do a wine and grape program that has been a resounding success. A few years ago, Missouri and Arkansas had the same number of wineries. Ten years later, Arkansas has the same number of wineries while Missouri has three or four times as many. The Missouri ag department got behind the industry and turned it into a economic development opportunity for the state."
If proponents plan on folding all the agriculture organizations into a central department, will people lose their jobs?
"Not at all. We think some of these people might be asked to do other things. I think some things need streamlining, but that doesn’t mean lost jobs. Absolutely not," says Cantrell.
"Lately, I attended a Mississippi Delta Council meeting. I left that meeting shaking my head in sorrow that Arkansas doesn’t have something similar. That organization does a fantastic job as does the Mississippi department of agriculture. We have no champion of agriculture in this state and need one desperately."
Harkening back to a children’s story, Wallace says that right now agriculture is like the Little Engine that could. "It keeps climbing the hill, all tired and worn out. It can’t do any better with the cargo it’s carrying. So far it’s somehow crept over the hill, but that’s ending. If farmers don’t insist on change, agriculture will be the little engine that couldn’t."
In July, farmers behind the push for a new department spun off their own organization — the Arkansas Farm Community Alliance. They’re now fronting the effort and the Public Policy Panel is playing a supporting role.
"Here’s the deal: regular farmers just aren’t being heard. Whether you’re talking on the national or state level, farmers aren’t being heard nearly as much as big-time agri-business. What makes this effort unique is the whole thing is being lead by farmers. It was farmer-initiated and is farmer-controlled, and the main voices calling for a new department are farmers," says Copsky.