More than 200 rice growers gathered in Jonesboro, Arkansas, recently for a joint meeting of the Arkansas Rice Federation and Arkansas Rice Council, their first full in-person meeting in two years. The growers were joined by several members of the state legislature, area politicians, representatives of Congressional leaders, USA Rice staff, and Governor Asa Hutchinson.
Attendees heard a Washington, DC, update from USA Rice President & CEO Betsy Ward who talked about the significant challenges ahead as the current Farm Bill is set to expire next year.
“Getting anything passed in the current environment in Washington is not easy, and opening something up like the Farm Bill, that can be controversial in some corners, is definitely risky,” Ward said. “But either way, guided by our members, we’re already talking to Members of Congress, exploring ways to make a new Farm Bill work even better for rice. Hearings are scheduled in the coming months.”
Ward also talked about runaway input costs and USA Rice efforts to find some relief from the government, as well encouraging the Biden Administration to outline a coherent trade agenda that she said should include agreement enforcement with China and taking a case to the World Trade Organization (WTO) against India.
No ag meeting can take place without a discussion of sustainability and conservation, and Ward told the assembled environmental stewards that rice is well positioned to benefit from the $1 billion Climate Smart initiative announced the day before by the Biden Administration.
“Rice is no stranger to collaborative partnerships that promote responsible agriculture and benefit the environment, so while we’re still studying the specifics of the program, we see no reason why the rice industry can’t be a leader here.”
Keynote speaker Governor Asa Hutchinson thanked Ward for her comments and then praised the rice farmers of Arkansas for not missing a beat during the difficult pandemic.
“I know you know these facts about rice, but you should know your governor knows too, and that I like to brag on you about it,” the Governor said as he rattled off the impressive statistics of rice production in Arkansas.
While on the topic of the economic impact of rice and ag in general to the state, Hutchinson took some time to discuss a transformative investment project with U.S. Steel in northeast Arkansas that will make Mississippi County, Arkansas, the top steel producing county in the entire country.
Arkansas Rice Federation Chair David Gairhan thanked the governor for his remarks and support, presenting him with a token of appreciation, and also thanked the many exhibitors and sponsors who made the meeting possible.
The general session continued with a panel discussion of Farm Policy moderated by Arkansas Rice Council President Dow Brantley with Fitzhugh Elder, Republican staff director of the Senate Agriculture Committee; Dr. John Newton, the committee’s chief economist; Stetson Painter, district representative for Congressman Rick Crawford, and Ben Mosely, USA Rice vice president of government affairs.
Inflation, input costs, and government spending dominated the discussion, with the speakers further explaining why the Farm Bill process could be fraught in 2022 and 2023.
A discussion of conservation policies followed with Harrison Pittman, director of the National Agricultural Law Center at University of Arkansas; Jamie Powers, director of agriculture outreach for RIPE; and Austin Brown, manager of sustainability for Riceland Foods. Moderated by USA Rice Director of Grower Relations and the Rice Stewardship Partnership Josh Hankins, the group discussed the Biden Administration’s focus on climate policy and what changes ahead are inevitable and what are uncertain.
“It’s kind of like going to a haunted house. Is it going to be just a little ‘boo,’ and oh, that was fun, or is it going to be a maniac jumping out at you with a hockey mask and a chainsaw?” Pittman asked. “We don’t know, but we do know it’s happening.”
Dr. Jarrod Hardke offered some thoughts on the coming crop year and acreage, and Dr. Tim Burcham provided a brief update on the new Northeast Rice Research and Extension Center being built a few miles away, including an impressive drone flyover of the 600-acre farm.
Arkansas Rice Executive Director Kelly Robbins, who had opened the program that morning, closed it, thanked all the speakers and attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors, and sent the group to lunch and the Arkansas Rice Council annual business meeting.
“It was nice to see so many members of our rice community out here, getting the updates they need, interacting with each other and our partners,” said Gairhan. “After too much time on computer screens and phones over the last two years, I’m glad we got to do this in person, and I thank everyone for attending.”
USA Rice provided this information.