• By Fred Miller •
Coming to Arkansas as the new director of the Rice Research and Extension Center, Alton B. Johnson said, is like coming home.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in general agriculture from the University of Liberia in his native country, Johnson came to the United States in his mid-20s to earn a master’s degree in agronomy from Mississippi State University. But he counts his career as beginning with a doctorate in agronomy from the University of Arkansas, where he spent a lot of time working with University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture scientists.
“I was introduced to Arkansas research at the Rice Research and Extension Center and did a lot of my doctoral research at the cotton station (now the Lon Mann Cotton Research Station) at Marianna,” Johnson said.
“It’s like a calling for me, and I’m very, very excited.”
“We are pleased to have Dr. Alton Johnson on board to lead our efforts at the Rice Research and Extension Center. He comes to us with broad experience in administration, research and extension through two 1890 land grant universities as well as his international academic background,” said Mark Cochran, vice president-agriculture for the University of Arkansas System.
“He understands the challenges and complexities of agriculture and the critical mission we serve for our stakeholders. All of those qualities are essential to lead a station whose work is important to our state, which is the nation’s top rice producer.”
“We expect that Dr. Johnson will work closely with Dr. Tim Burcham, the director of the Northeast Rice Research and Extension Center, and these two will provide exemplary leadership from the centers so that the Division can conduct the research and extension programs so critical for the rice and soybean industries.”
Jean-François Meullenet, senior associate vice president and director of the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, the research arm of the Division of Agriculture, said, “Dr. Johnson’s commitment to research that benefits the people of our state is a perfect fit for the mission of the Rice Research and Extension Center.
“Alton’s career began here with his doctoral research, and his wife, Stephanie, is a native of Ashley County, so this is like coming home for him. And we are pleased to have him back.”
Bob Scott, who previously held the post at the RREC before being named director of the Cooperative Extension Service last year, said, “Dr. Johnson earned his Ph.D. in agronomy at Fayetteville, so he knows Arkansas agriculture. He will bring a very broad mix of experience in agricultural research and administration to the center, and we are pleased he has accepted this leadership role.”
“Arkansas is the top rice producer in the United States, and the research at the Stuttgart center is crucial to providing Arkansas growers with the most up-to-date research-based information.”
Johnson said he wants to support the division’s rice breeders and researchers and work with the scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Station, located on the RREC campus, to make sure Arkansas keeps its place as the nation’s leading rice producer and exporter.
“My vision is to do all that we can to enhance economic opportunities and improve the health and wellbeing of the people of Arkansas,” Johnson said. “I want to sustain the center’s tradition of developing new varieties, value-added products and services for Arkansas rice growers.”
He said he wants to join efforts with the division’s new Northeast Rice Research and Extension Center and other Division of Agriculture departments to build a comprehensive group that investigates, develops and extends technology and information, and develop new markets.
“I call it the Arkansas rice team,” he said.
Johnson comes to the Division of Agriculture from Central State University in Ohio, where he was a professor of water resources management and dean of the College of Engineering, Science, Technology and Agriculture. While there, he was also director of University Land Grant Programs, which included roles as director of Agricultural Research and Development and administrator of the Cooperative Extension Service.
Before going to Central State University, Johnson served as dean of the College of Agriculture and Human Sciences, research director and Extension administrator at Prairie View A&M University in Texas. Before that, he was interim assistant dean of research in the School of Agriculture, Research, Extension and Applied Sciences and chief research officer at Alcorn State University in Lorman, Mississippi.
During his 16-year career at Alcorn State University, he also served as interim research director, president of the Faculty Assembly, chair of the University Athletics Committee and faculty athletics representative. Johnson worked in the president’s office as co-chair of the transition team for the 17th president of Alcorn State University and as his adviser on land-grant issues. He also served as director of the Mississippi River Research Center that conducted research and public service activities to aid in improving water resources in Mississippi.
Over his career since 1994, Johnson conducted research and/or taught courses related to soils, sustainable agriculture, community agriculture, soil physics, soil conservation and land use, environmental science, microclimatology and many other disciplines.
Johnson said he has known many of the U of A System Division of Agriculture administrators for many years through professional organizations and activities. “I’ve known and respected them for years,” he said.
Johnson and his wife, the former Stephanie Williams of Crossett, have five daughters and one son, most of them grown.
After completing his doctorate in 1992, Johnson served a post-doctoral post in Fayetteville, funded by the Arkansas Soybean Promotion Board,. Johnson also served a brief stint as a research associate at the University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff, before taking his first post at Alcorn State University in 1994.
“This is where my career started,” Johnson said. “It’s like coming home for me.”
Fred Miller is a project/program specialist with University of Arkansas Communication Services. He may be reached at email@example.com.