When tasked to author a blog post for the IMG website I searched high and low for a topic that would be interesting to readers and that I could possibly shine some new light on. Finally I decided to choose a topic that would interest me. Coming from an agricultural background and attending Oklahoma State University to get my degree in Agricultural Economics, agricultural policy has always been a fascinating subject in my mind and one that affects literally everyone. That put the new Secretary of Agriculture, Wes Ward, at the top of my list of people to interview on this matter.
It is not hard to be impressed by the new Secretary before you even have the chance to meet him. He is a graduate of Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas Law School and its LLM program in Agriculture and Food Law. He is a Captain in the U.S. Marine Corps and has been in the Marines for 15 years, including deployments to Afghanistan and Jordan.
Right away you can see the Secretary is extremely busy and working to get his hands deep into the business of the department. We met at 10 a.m. and he had already participated in numerous meetings that morning and had meetings following our interview, along with a hearing at the Capital later that afternoon. As I waited to go in for the interview the people rushing in and out of his office made me think this interview may be short on time and small on substantial information. I was wrong of course. Secretary Ward greeted me in the lobby that sits between the Deputy Secretary’s office and his personal Secretary’s desk and invited me into his large space for a one on one. His office includes a conference table where I can picture all heads of the five agencies sit and discuss issues related to Arkansas’ largest industry that contributes over $16 billion yearly to the state’s economy.
As we sat across from each other he was very nice to ignore the continuous beeps and buzzes coming from his cell phone for the entire 45 minutes of our discussion. These questions are broad, but there are a couple areas I tried to hone in on. I hope from this interview you can get a feel for the thinking of our new Secretary because chances are you are tied to Arkansas Agriculture in one way or another, with one in six jobs being related to the industry. Not to mention the fact that if you eat you are involved with agriculture.
Starting off, what was the process of getting chosen for this position and what experience do you bring with you?
Sure, I’ll start off with my background in agriculture. I grew up in Northeast Arkansas in Lake City, so a pretty small town up there. In that area there is mostly row crop production agriculture, a lot of cotton. I studied Ag Business at Arkansas State University with an emphasis in Ag Finance. During my time at Arkansas State you could probably say I was a very small scale farmer. I had a few horses, goats, chickens, rabbits, and a big garden so you name it and I was doing it during my college years. I was also on the rodeo team at Arkansas State, I wasn’t any good but had a lot of fun. After I graduated I went to Law School at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and subsequently did an LLM program as well in Agriculture and Food Law. I’ve also been in the Marine Corps for 15 years now. I’ve been able to travel all over the nation and I have also been deployed in Afghanistan and Jordan. I left active duty a couple years ago and I am in the Marine Corps Reserves now. I’ve also worked for Congressman Rick Crawford and did agriculture outreach for him as a field coordinator. I also taught some classes at the law school in Fayetteville. There is a lot that I am not sure about in relation to how I was chosen, but after the election I had the chance to see the Governor-elect and got to know him. I had expressed an interest in working for his administration and told him I would be willing to help if his administration had a spot for me. Becoming Secretary of Agriculture was very humbling, because it truly is an honor to represent Arkansas Agriculture.
What are a few ways Arkansas Agriculture benefited from the 2015 legislative session? Is there anything you wish would have happened, and what would you like to see accomplished in the next session?
Well I came into this position right at the very end of this session so I only caught the tail end of it. What has gotten probably the most attention is the Arkansas Grain Dealers Act. That followed from Turner Grain and the impact that they had, which is still partly tied up in bankruptcy. The basic rundown is farmers were selling their grain but ended up not getting paid and Turner Grain, the company that took possession of the grain, ended up going bankrupt so farmers were out their money. The legal process is still running its course but it had a tremendous effect on Arkansas Producers in the Brinkley area, some estimates have its impact at around $50 million. So that spurred the Arkansas Grain Dealers Act which tries to make sure that dealers, grain brokers, and people taking possession of grain are licensed and regulated so farmers do not have a similar situation and lose out on their crops and lose out on their money. Another one is the income tax exemption for disaster payments.
There were also some issues that got worked out outside of the session such as scrap metal theft, where a deal was worked out with the Attorney General’s office who is going to devote time to looking into that problem specifically. The feral hog problem was another one that got worked out. Everyone I’ve talked to was generally happy with the session’s outcome.
There are not many specific issues that we have our eye on for the next session, but to just continue to modify and make positive changes to the Grain Dealers Act as we see things that could be improved.
Are there any plans to further modernize the Department of Agriculture?
Social media is obviously an important way people are telling stories and marketing throughout the country and has become a global way of doing things, so we are looking at ways we can step our social media platform up and help tell the Arkansas story and promote Arkansas Agriculture.
What is your strategy to market Arkansas agriculture around the country?
Agriculture is the number one industry in the state and has a tremendous effect on our economy, it’s one out of every six jobs. Part of promoting Arkansas Agriculture is really stressing how important Agriculture is to Arkansas. The University of Arkansas has an economic contribution study that has Arkansas in the top 25 states in the country in about 23 different commodities, it’s not just one or two commodities as you see in other states. We are very broad and very diverse, so it is promoting all of those interests and showing the diversity of Arkansas Agriculture and getting the word out about some commodities that people might not know we have here.
So its promotion, its telling the Arkansas story, its education, its letting people know about our broad interests. We have a few programs that are already in place such as the Arkansas Grown and Arkansas Made labels.
What are other states doing that you are interested in trying?
I’m looking forward to some conferences with other Ag Secretaries coming up. There is a SASDA (Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture) conference in June down in Atlanta where I will have the chance to exchange some ideas with other Departments.
Specifically though, there is one thing that I have had an interest in for a long time, which is a farmer-veteran initiative. Having been in the Marine Corps for 15 years now it is something that is very important to me. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture started a very similar program to what I would like to do here called Homegrown by Heroes. The program would essentially combine Homegrown by Heroes and Arkansas Grown to show that the product was grown by an Arkansas veteran. We would also like to expand the program in the future beyond just labels to try and help integrate veterans into all sectors of agriculture, not just production. Agriculture is so broad we could help veterans integrate into the finance, legal, nutrition, and scientific side of agriculture. This could be a great way to attract veterans to Arkansas who are not originally from here, but are looking to find somewhere to go when they leave the military.
Are there any major concerns facing Arkansas agriculture today?
There are several. Agriculture is an industry that changes frequently be it the weather, the economy, or regulatory changes. One that has been in the news recently is the avian influenza. Arkansas has had one incident of that recently and we handled it very well. The livestock and poultry commission handled it extremely well. In Arkansas it is contained, but the disease follows the migratory flight path and so we have seen outbreaks in the Northern states of Iowa and Minnesota. In an increasingly global economy what happens other places can affect Arkansas Agriculture, but in Arkansas it is contained. There is concern that the threat could come again this fall so the University Of Arkansas Division Of Agriculture is putting in place a lot of biosecurity measures and making people aware of the biosecurity measures that we already had in place. This is going to help prevent outbreaks and if there is an occurrence we can control it very quickly.
With the last avian flu outbreak we got a big thumbs up from the USDA that we handled it properly and as good as could be expected, and certainly better than some other states. We are very proud of that. On the economic side if something like that happens we have to look at how it will impact our poultry industry and other animal production industries and our exports.
We have the Arkansas Water Plan that is still in the works, but we certainly don’t want to end up like California where we can’t produce certain goods because of water issues. So water is obviously a concern and it’s something very important that we watch carefully.
Our department is also keeping up with the trade talks currently taking place. We are keeping up with the trade negotiations with Cuba because that could turn into an important market for Arkansas Agriculture. The trade negotiations with Europe and the Pacific countries could also bring positive benefits to Arkansas so we are watching those as well.
What role is organic food and organic farming practices playing in Arkansas? Do you think it has a positive impact on the agriculture industry?
It does have a positive impact. We’ve seen the national trend that more and more people are concerned about food safety and where their food comes from, they want to know who is producing their foods. You see an increase in farmers markets around Arkansas and organic production is increasing in Arkansas, but I think the demand is currently higher than the supply so you will continue to see that growth. I don’t think that organic farming and commercial farming are mutual exclusive, meaning I think you can have a successful agriculture industry with both. You are seeing some large scale commercial farmers start small scale organic farming operations on the side to make up for the smaller margins they are getting due to high commodity prices. If they can farm 20-30 acres organically and get premium prices it will help cover the smaller profits being made on the commercial farm side.
How have you organized your priorities for the department?
These are all equal, but my priorities are promotion, education and being involved in the state and federal government to make sure Arkansas farmers are being treated fairly. This is true for every sector of Arkansas Agriculture from timber to aquaculture. We want them to be successful and open up new markets to continue success into the future. Telling the Arkansas story by letting everyone know what’s going on in Arkansas Agriculture and its impact the economy and jobs is very crucial to the promotion and education of the industry. Being involved in the state and federal government is also important whether it is the Arkansas legislature, the EPA, the USDA, the US Congress, or trade agreements.
The Dept. of Agriculture has over 530 employees, what leadership skills do you find most important for managing that many employees?
Well first off here is a little background on the Arkansas Agriculture Department. We have five agencies and divisions and a lot of people don’t realize what falls into those categories. There is the Arkansas Forestry Commission, Livestock and Poultry, State Plant Board, Aquaculture Division, and the State Land Surveyor. So these are five different agencies and divisions and each one is pretty big and can be very technical at times. The directors of the agencies and divisions are appointed by the Governor like I am and they have the full confidence and trust of the Governor to be in charge of their areas, and they obviously have my full trust as well. I think an important management practice is not micro managing. For example, State Forester Joe Fox knows Forestry better than I ever will so it isn’t me coming in and telling him we need to do this or that, but me saying you are the expert and what can I do to help you with what you need to do your job. It’s certainly a team approach and all of us are working together for the betterment of Arkansas and Arkansas Agriculture.
Thank you to Secretary Ward’s office for helping me schedule this interview, and a special thank you to Secretary Ward for taking the time to answer my questions. Impact Management Group