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Cecil Williams: Agriculture's Preacher

Perhaps the most influential man in Arkansas agriculture works in a small, red brick office in West Memphis. He is fit, relaxed and very, very smart. He is quick with a laugh and, despite being a details man, has a great ability to break down huge, complex legislative issues into easily digestible pieces. He is tenacious in his defense of agriculture (particularly the Arkansas variety) and has been working the same job for nearly four decades.

These skills, tendencies and longevity have served him equally well at countless producer meetings held at the end of dusty roads and in wrangling with politicians in ornately furnished offices. He has seen passage of numerous farm bills and state agricultural laws and has been around long enough to see the consequences — both good and bad — wrought from each.

In working he has spoken with and before countless people. Everyone, it seems, knows Cecil Williams.

Agriculture's preacher

Before eventually settling in Arkansas as a child, Williams' grandfather came off Sand Mountain, Ala., to escape harsh treatment by a stepfather. Sand Mountain is infamous for snake-handling, strychnine-drinking, roll-on-the-floor church congregations. Cecil Williams doesn't know if his ancestors participated in such behavior, but he doesn't shy away from religious metaphors.

In fact, without prompting, such metaphors flow from close friends, acquaintances and the man himself. To his flock of Arkansas agriculture, Cecil Williams is the Right Reverend, a preacher for farmers' interest. Williams wants you off the back pew and down at the front interested, involved. He isn't trying to save your soul, but he is trying to save your job.

"This job is a whole lot like being a preacher. There are a lot of differences, of course. But some of the foundational components are the same. In running an association, money is always an issue. Preachers are almost always financially strapped, are always hard-pressed to keep the church involved with everything it needs to do, and everyone wants your attention. That's just part of it. You either accept it or get out," says Williams, who has been director of the Agricultural Council of Arkansas (ACA) since 1965.

There's no course one can take in college to prepare for his job, claims Williams. "I can't imagine finding another occupation that I'd like any more than this. I guess you have to be a jack-of-all-trades and have a divergent background, something I was blessed with. I grew up on a farm; I've chopped cotton and picked cotton. I've also got some farmland and, through the years, have been immersed in the legislative side of farming."

Williams still farms because it keeps him grounded, "involved in the same thing that those I'm representing are doing. I'm in there with every other producer."

Williams insists he enjoys his job immensely. The farmers he works for in Arkansas are the "absolute cream of the crop in the U.S. Now, there may be some individuals as good, but there aren't any better. I can assure you of that."

ACA: a short history

One of the strong attributes of ACA, say those spoken with for this story, is that it develops and fosters stellar leadership within the producer ranks. Williams, citing a long list of names in prominent agriculture organizations, says, "No one surpasses (Arkansas') representation. We have some incredible, quality leaders. The big difference between Arkansas' leaders and others is we don't have folks who want these powerful positions forever. They're content to do their work and move on. That exposes many more people to organizations and allows leadership skills to develop."

The ACA got its start in the late 1930s. At the time, there was a congressional movement afoot to limit ACP (Agriculture Conservation Payments) payments. Arkansas had — and has — some of the largest farming operations in the nation. These operations wanted nothing to do with limits and representatives from several got together and traveled to Washington, D.C., trying to beat the limits back. They lost.

But even though payment limits were put in place, the farmers figured standing together on such important issues was a worthy idea. At that time, Mississippi's Delta Council had been in operation for a few years and the Arkansans had seen it at work. In 1939, the ACA organized formally with help from the Delta Council.

Education and early work

Williams comes from poor stock. "I come from sharecroppers. We were hard-pressed, and there's no doubt I fight for farmers because of where I come from. I knew education was my ticket out."

After high school and a year at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Williams' money ran out. While working to replenish his funds, the Korean War began, and he signed up for the Air Force. When he got out four years later, his parents had moved to Louisiana.

He followed and graduated from Louisiana State University in 1960. As it was a new curriculum, Williams was one of the first five LSU graduates with a degree in agribusiness.

The Arkansas boy still catches mild abuse for his love of LSU. Williams' friend, fiber specialist Hal Lewis, says once during a lull in a meeting, "I asked Cecil why he ever went to LSU. He said his parents moved to Baton Rouge and he could go to college for something like $35 per semester. Some Arkie sitting there said, 'That's a crying-ass shame, Cecil. For just a little more money you could have stayed here and actually gotten an education.' At that, everybody was rolling."

Jokes aside, after graduation Williams went to work for the National Cotton Council. He labored for the next five years signing up gins and doing NCC fieldwork. Then, in 1965, the ACA contacted him about taking over leadership.

"I turned them down at first. But when the guy they hired resigned shortly after taking it, they approached me again. That time, I accepted."

Was Williams baptized by fire?

"Well, yeah. There was an ag crisis. Of course, there's always an ag crisis going on. But I came in with the 1965 farm bill — the one that brought the biggest changes we'd had until then.

"That year, I remember we had a carryover of 16.9 million bales of cotton. At that time, there wasn't nearly the market for cotton there is today. I remember standing up in front of folks giving speeches about how this carryover was depressing hell out of the market. Some folks said we had to change, and lots thought the best program would involve compensatory payments."

Williams says he and other leaders in the lower Mississippi Delta opposed compensatory payments for one reason: "We knew they'd eventually limit payments." Outside the South, no one paid much attention to the warnings.

"It was the worst beating Southern ag has taken in the legislative arena. They rammed that right down our throats. I used to travel to D.C. with several farmers, meeting with any legislator that would listen. We were battling with cotton farmers out West who were for the program."

Southern farmers elicited a promise from President Lyndon Johnson that there'd be no payment limitations as long as he was president. As Johnson was riding high at the time, some took comfort from the promise. But LBJ didn't ride high for much longer — soon he was an ex-president and Williams' warnings of payment limits proved prophetic.

"In 1970, we got the limitations. Limitations went from over $100,000 to $75,000 to around $50,000. We knew it would happen."

Despite dealing and squabbling with powerful figures across the nation, Williams has never forgotten for whom he works. "He has always been very careful to never veer off message. Whatever he espouses as Arkansas policy is exactly that. He doesn't go off on lone tangents. Policy is always well-established before he goes forth. That's admirable because he knows he doesn't make policy, he implements it. In many organizations, the hired hands are the policymakers. That isn't the case with the ACA," says Lewis.

Check-offs and dirty hands

Williams says besides trying to shape agricultural policy, the ACA has worked on a number of other important things. "We worked hard to start the check-off for Cotton Incorporated. We also worked with Farm Bureau to get the soybean, rice and corn check-offs started. We believe in check-off programs. As along as the money is spent wisely, I think check-offs are key to staying on top of research and the markets."

Williams is often mentioned with Mississippi's B.F. Smith and Texas' Don Johnson as a group that played a pivotal role in Southern agriculture. The three weren't afraid to get to the meat of an issue.

"You have to understand, in almost every company or organization, there are folks overseeing the process from on high, and there are folks actually getting it done on the ground. Very rarely are they the same. You've got the guys who are the corporate finaglers and the guys who get their hands dirty. Cecil, Smith and Johnson worked the handshake, but they also had dirt under their nails. I know Cecil goes out, holds meetings, explains things and gets the votes for whatever he's pushing.

"He also writes the ACA newsletter, and I'm convinced because of all that there isn't a group of farmers better educated on ag issues than those in Arkansas," says Lewis.

Workers' compensation

Williams claims there's nothing that's given a bigger return to agribusiness than the insurance program ACA helped bring in to Arkansas. Everyone except farmers are required by law to carry no-fault workers' insurance of some type to protect against injuries suffered on the job.

"If a worker gets hurt because of his stupidity, an employer can't just say, 'Well, you were just dumb,' and move on. Instead, if a worker is hurt, insurance should take care of the worker," says Williams.

Most farmers carry what's known as "workers liability" insurance. The problem is if it costs more than $5,000 to treat an injured employee, typically the only way for the employee to get more is to sue the employer and insurance company.

"That doesn't do a heck of a lot for relationships and doesn't really help the employee. So, I say the best protection a farmer can get is worker's compensation. Nothing protects better. A sharp fellow out of Louisiana, Terry Dukes, started the program. We brought it into Arkansas, and Mississippi will soon have the workers' comp option. I think it's just a great idea and it's saving big-time money for farmers."

Producers Steering Committee

Few people know that Williams was one of the organizers of the NCC's Producers Steering Committee. Williams, along with Johnson and Smith, "practically invented" the committee. That was a very significant milestone, says Lewis. Prior to the committee's formation, producers had very little to say about NCC policy — the only national cotton group able to deal with national policy.

"What most people don't know is if producers disagree with Cotton Council policy, we have the right, according to the founding rules, to go outside and represent ourselves. Cecil and these other gentlemen had the foresight to make sure producers wouldn't be railroaded on policy issues. The architects of that set-up need to be commended," says Lewis.

Bittersweet leaving

Staring retirement in the face, are there any agricultural issues that Williams is concerned about?

"There are lots of them. I've been in this position 37 years, and I've never seen the economic condition of agriculture as pitiful as it is now. And I don't see it getting a whole lot better. Truthfully, I don't know how ag will survive. It certainly won't survive in the manner we've known. There won't be as many small-farming entrepreneurs. Without government assistance no one will be able to make it," he says.

Foreign governments make it easier for farmers because they want their citizens to be employed. Williams points to China, which has over a billion citizens.

"That Communist government is in charge of people with a much lower standard of living than ours, and they're willing to keep them from being mechanized. They're willing to do whatever they need to do to keep their citizens employed. That same scenario is repeated across the world."

Conversely, here in the United States, it often seems farmers are discouraged from working. U.S. farmers have all kinds of impediments, says Williams: minimum wage issues, environmental programs, limitations in a plethora of areas.

"Without governmental assistance, how can U.S. farmers stay in business? We've got a situation in Arkansas where we're in better shape financially than other Delta states. The reason is we've got large landowners. These folks figured out a long time ago that they could do a lot better renting their land out than farming it themselves.

"Lately, I've spoken with several of these landowners and they tell me they aren't going to farm their land. It's pointless. What's happened is people who keep farming simply diminish their equity. Who wants to keep going with that losing proposition? I'm a born optimist — but the situation is simply grotesque."

Williams has 88 acres with a pretty good cotton base. This year he signed up for the program, and all he's definitely getting is a government direct payment.

"I knew I could make at least a little money doing that and letting the land lay out. If I farmed the land, I might have made a little more, but why risk it? In 1998, by farming I lost $8,510. I couldn't afford to keep that going. It was like the cat romanced by the skunk: "I've enjoyed about all this I can stand."

While Williams isn't playing the cat, he will retire in January.

e-mail: [email protected]

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