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Arkansas' Richard Bell: Agriculture facing many hurdles

Nearly 25 percent of the nation's population is identified as rural.

“I'm aware that ‘rural’ can be defined many ways,” said Richard Bell, secretary of the Arkansas Agriculture Department, at the AgHeritage meeting in Little Rock. “The 25 percent of the population which is rural is mostly in the so-called red states. Our farm population is only about 1.5 percent. We need to focus also on the other 23.5 percent in the rural areas.”

Addressing the farm credit organization, Bell hit on a number of issues facing Arkansas and national agriculture. One enlightening statistic: 84 percent of the average household income of small farms is from off-farm sources, while the average household income of commercial farms from off-farm sources is 26 percent.

“We need to pay more attention to the small farm group. That's why I am pushing farmers' markets in eastern Arkansas. I see them as outlets for small farm produce.”

But 7 percent of farms account for over 76 percent of all agricultural sales. “So we have to watch and help the larger farms too.”

Presently, specialty crops account for 26 percent of the national crop value. That exceeds corn.

“One California county — Monterey County, south of San Francisco — has more crop value than we have in all of Arkansas. And, Arkansas is the top in rice and second in cotton. That shows the importance of specialty crops. I want Arkansas to have a role in that.”

Currently, specialty crops are only 1.5 percent of all Arkansas crop sales.

“I also know that the 26 percent will be a player in the next farm bill. That's why we need to pay close attention to them. I don't think they want a lot — mostly research and Extension help. I haven't heard their wanting to be in farm programs.”

One thing that keeps landing on Bell's desk is potential vegetable producers in eastern Arkansas wanting to maintain their cropland farm base.

“Josh Allen, who's on the Arkansas Agriculture Board, is from Allen Canning. He wants to contract for vegetables in northeast Arkansas. He gets to the last step and the farmer will say, ‘I don't think we're going to do that. We discovered we'll lose our base if we grow vegetables on our land. That means we can't go back to our rice or cotton base.’ So they pass. This issue may need to be addressed.”

The new energy paradigm is also a key concern of Bell's. And biofuel has a part to play.

“I'm one of those determined not to make the same mistakes made in the 1970s. We had the opportunity before and went the wrong way. The Brazilians went the right way — they chose sugarcane and ethanol and are not confronted with the need for large petroleum imports. We, on the other hand, went toward SUVs…and have gone backwards in fuel efficiency.”

Forty percent of the passenger cars in the European Union use diesel. That number jumps to 80 percent in Belgium and France.

“That's a big chunk. I tell people here that we must get away from talking about price per gallon. We need to talk about cost per mile. When you do that, a lot of good things begin to fall in place.”

Biofuel isn't new. “It's just a matter of the economics (of production becoming feasible). There are a lot of people who think they'll get rich (producing biofuel). I can tell you that mindset is all over the country. There are people calling every day wanting to get involved in (biofuel businesses) in Arkansas.”

Bell took such a call in late July. “The caller asked, ‘How much corn is in Arkansas?’ I told him. He said, ‘That's not enough.’ I said, ‘Yes, but it's all we have. There's not much I can do about it.’ This kind of thing happens almost everyday.

“I'm quite pleased about how far we've come in just a year. A year ago, Arkansas had no (biofuel) production. Now, we have two major plants and others are being considered. There soon will be an announcement about another blending terminal in North Little Rock for both ethanol and biodiesel.”

While hoping to extend the current farm bill for “a couple more years,” Bell was pleased the WTO negotiations collapsed.

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