Richard E. “Dick” Bell, who during his 23 years as president and chief executive officer helped guide Stuttgart, Ark.-based Riceland Foods to its position as the world’s leader in milling and marketing of rice, has died.
He had a total of 27 years of service with the cooperative, having joined the business in 1977 as executive vice president and chief operating officer.
No details were immediately available, but he had been reported in ill health for some time.
Bell, who held successively important positions in the U.S. Department of Agriculture prior to joining Riceland in 1977, retired from the cooperative in 2004, and in 2005 was appointed by then Gov. Mike Huckabee as Arkansas’ first Agriculture Secretary, a post he held until 2012.
“If you grow rice anywhere in the U.S., you have benefited from Dick Bell’s experience and understanding of how policy is developed in Washington,” Tommy Hoskyn, Stuttgart farmer and then chairman of the Riceland board of directors, said upon Bell’s retirement. “Dick Bell has guided Riceland through a period of tremendous growth. Since he joined us in 1977, the volume of rice we handle for our farmer members on an annual basis has doubled. His attention to business management and policy development has been a good combination, not only for Riceland, but the entire rice industry.”
Former Gov. Huckabee, in a statement following Bell’s death, said, “His vast knowledge of the entire agricultural landscape, and the respect he earned from everyone in the agri-world, made him the best choice to launch our state’s Agriculture Department when it was created. There was no one I could think of better suited for the job, and Dick proved that to be true. He was an even-tempered, hard-working, conscientious, and effective public servant.”
Dow Brantley, president of the USA Rice Federation, said, "Dick Bell is an icon in the rice industry, and a pioneer of modern agricultural government for Arkansas. His combination of business acumen and personable leadership made him the perfect choice to guide the early years of the Arkansas Agriculture Department. His work will inspire future leaders for many years to come."
Rich Hillman, vice president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation, said, "We owe Mr. Bell a debt of gratitude for all he has done for Arkansas farmers. After serving with USDA in D.C., he moved to Stuttgart, really on blind faith, to take the reins at Riceland Foods. He took the fairly simple, farmer owned cooperative that was Riceland and turned it into the largest rice miller in the world. Through his connections in Washington, he helped shape the federal farm bill and insured that rice growers got a fair shake."
Bell, a native of Illinois, earned graduate and undergraduate degrees from the University of Illinois-Urbana, and joined the USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service in 1959 as an agricultural economist. He then served as an assistant agricultural attaché at the American Embassy in Ottawa, Canada, and Brussels, Belgium, and Dublin Ireland.
During the Nixon administration, when relations were reopened with the Soviets, he worked in Russian affairs, and later was asked by then Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz to accept political appointment. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Agriculture and then as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for International Affairs and Commodity Programs from 1973-1977.
He was, during that period, principal negotiator for the U.S. in developing the precedent-setting long-term grain agreement with the former Soviet Union.
He also served as president of the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation and Chairman of the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation.
In recognition of his accomplishments in the international trade arena, Bell was awarded the USDA’s Distinguished Service Award in 1975.
He joined Riceland in 1977 as executive vice president and chief operating officer, and was elevated to president and chief executive officer in 1981. He represented Arkansas agricultural interests in numerous capacities, including the U.S. Rice Council, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, the Chicago Board of Trade, the National Grain and Feed Association, and the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, and was a director for GTE Southwest, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and First Commercial Corp.
He was a member of the Arkansas State University board of trustees, served on the Arkansas State Committee on Cooperatives, as a director of the Stuttgart Regional Medical Center, Stuttgart Agricultural Museum, the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce, Easter Seals-Arkansas, and the Grand Prairie Chief Development Center.