farming

The Arkansas State Plant Board welcomes a new director on Monday.  Butch Calhoun will lead the 101-year-old agency that regulates agricultural policies in the state.  It's the same board that made the closely-watched decision last fall to ban the herbicide dicamba.  Calhoun, who's a native of Des Arc, spoke with Ann Kenda of Arkansas Public Media about his thoughts going into this high-profile position.

He takes over from Terry Walker, who announced his retirement last month.

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As they wait for aid from Washington, Arkansas farmers are already looking ahead to other markets where they can sell their soybeans now that the Chinese market has been complicated by a hefty new tariff.

Brad Doyle, who grows soybeans in Weiner, said the $12 billion in planned aid from the federal government to help farmers recoup some of their losses from the ongoing trade war is welcomed news, but Arkansas’s farmers will still need to seek out additional markets to replace China, which was the largest buyer of American soybeans prior to the current trade war.

Ann Kenda / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

The U.S. Senate easily passed its version of the 2018 Farm Bill on Thursday with a vote of 86 to 11.  The stage is now set for a negotiation with the House over new work requirements for food stamp recipients.  

The House version of the Farm Bill, passed in April, would require able-bodied individuals who aren’t caring for children under the age of six to work at least 20 hours a week to be eligible for food stamps.  People can also enroll in school or job training, or volunteer in their community, to meet the requirement.

After hearing about a dozen complaints from farmers, growers and applicators around the state, the Arkansas Agriculture Department has issued a statement urging strict adherence to the label instructions for loyant, a newly-released rice herbicide made by Dow AgroSciences.

State Agriculture Department spokesperson Adriane Barnes said the decision to issue the advisory was made out of concern for soybeans, which are still early in the growing season.

Zach Gibson / Getty Images

On the eve of a major vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on the 2018 Farm Bill, both parties are scrambling to get their preferred amendments into the legislation. 

The amendments range from a new rule to allow food stamp recipients to purchase multivitamins with their benefits to a program to increase the accuracy of the grading of cattle across the country. 

Other issues include caps on payments to wealthier farmers and lower subsidies for government-backed crop insurance programs demanded by conservatives, and new work requirements for food stamp recipients opposed by advocates for the poor.

Ann Kenda / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Arkansas’s agricultural producers are reacting to recent trade trouble between the U.S. and China.  While analysts have stopped short of calling it a trade war, the two countries have spent the last few weeks announcing a series of new tariffs on airplanes, cars, high tech and numerous agricultural products that include pork.

About one in four hogs raised in the U.S. is exported, according to Jim Monroe of the National Pork Producers Council.  China represents the third highest value market for U.S. pork with purchases of more than $1.1 billion per year.

“Even the tiniest penetration into the Chinese market can result in millions of pounds of volume,” said David Newman, an Arkansas State University Animal Sciences professor whose family has been involved with pork production for many years.

Ann Kenda / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Farmers around Arkansas are feeling optimistic about the chances of corn producing a healthy harvest this year.  Nationally, corn hit a record yield in 2017 and prices averaged $3.50 per bushel, making corn among the best paid of the major row crops.

Arkansas may not be part of the traditional corn belt of the U.S. but still makes a great place to grow corn, according to Bono farmer Tyler Nutt.  He said much of corn’s success is due to Arkansas’s status as the second most poultry-producing state with almost unlimited demand for corn to feed chickens.

“You put a pencil to it, and whatever pays out better, that’s typically the crop you plant,” Nutt said.

He said corn is also good for the soil, and needs far less water than rice.

Arkansas farmers who grew cotton in 2017 will be getting rebate checks this spring from a boll weevil eradication program that’s been considered a success.  The rebate is 75 cents per cotton acre.

Regina Coleman, Arkansas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation’s executive director, said the rebate is possible because the foundation was able to pay off a federal loan for the program early and currently holds a cash reserve. 

Farmers paid into the program at a rate of three dollars per acre last year.  The 2017 assessment was lower than a previous rate of four dollars per acre.

Arkansas’s cotton farmers are looking forward to the growing season with some optimism that the fluffiest of crops will continue to experience a mini-resurgence.

According to the Arkansas Farm Bureau, Arkansas ranks fourth for cotton production.  Most farms don’t grow cotton exclusively but rotate it in with other staples such as corn and soybeans.

At a recent Agri-Business Conference at Arkansas State University, Gary Adams with the National Cotton Council in Memphis said the U.S. as a whole produced its largest cotton harvest in a decade last year, and signs are pointing towards more growth in 2018. 

Ann Kenda / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Leaders from Arkansas’s sizable rice industry are coming together to seek a compromise on the divisive issue of agricultural burning, which tends to inflame relations each fall between farmers who burn residue off their fields and people who say they’re creating a public health hazard that can be seen and smelled for miles.

That concern was one of the leading issues at the Arkansas Rice Federation's annual meeting this week in Jonesboro. Most farmers, according to Jeff Rutledge with the Arkansas Rice Council, want to be good neighbors.

“Our families are raised here, and we breathe this air, too,” he said.

Carrie Antlfinger / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Lawmakers are expected to begin work next month on the sweeping legislation known as the Farm Bill.  The bill covers dozens of nutrition, agricultural and rural policies that affect everyday life.

While discussions around the Farm Bill often focus on food stamps, the supplemental food program that assists millions of Americans, including about one in seven Arkansas residents, this year lawmakers are also concentrating on agricultural safety net programs for farmers.

Ann Kenda / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

A dispute is brewing between Arkansas’s rice industry and makers of other products over ownership of the word “rice” and the right to market foods as such.

“It is a grain, not a shape,” said Lauren Waldrip Ward with the Arkansas Rice Federation.

Ward and others are asking Arkansas’ federal delegation for some help in appealing to the Food and Drug Administration to restrict the use of the words "rice" and "riced" on products that do not contain grains.

Ward said rice is a significant sector of the Arkansas economy, with some 2,500 rice farms contributing billions to the state economy every year and supporting about 25,000 jobs, including many in the state’s most rural areas.

Ann Kenda / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Soy has been widely accepted as a heart-healthy food for nearly two decades.  Manufacturers of packaged food products have claimed that soy protein reduces the risk of coronary heart disease, and labeled their products thusly.

Now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration isn’t so sure and is seeking an unprecedented revocation of the authorized claim.  With an authorized claim, manufacturers get a stamp of approval from the FDA to directly state a health benefit — calcium, for instant, helps stymie osteoporosis.

The agency said a review of evidence linking soy protein to improved heart health wasn’t conclusive enough to warrant an authorized claim. 

Douglas Balentine, director of the Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling, said studies have evolved since the authorized claim for soy's heart benefits was approved in 1999.

Ann Kenda / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Rice industry leaders have announced a plan to form a task force to look into whether voluntary smoke management guidelines can help reduce tension between farmers who use field burns to clear residue after the harvest, and residents who say the smoke aggravates asthma symptoms. 

The task force  will use a model based on smoke management guidelines for forestry landowners.

“They’ll use it as a template but draft smoke management  guidelines that are voluntary but more applicable for agriculture, specifically with crops,” said Lauren Waldrip Ward, executive director of the Arkansas Rice Federation.

Dan Charles / NPR

On the eve of a major decision by the state over the controversial weed killer dicamba, tensions are running high in Arkansas’s farming communities.

“This is probably the most divisive the agricultural community has ever been,” said Shawn Peebles, an organic farmer in Augusta. 

Peebles said he hasn’t personally sustained damage from dicamba drift but he is experiencing issues with companies no longer wanting to do business with Arkansas growers due to concerns about residue from the weed killer.  

Ann Kenda / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

When the winds are just right on an October afternoon, clouds of smoke can be seen from the rural highways of Mississippi County. 

Once in a while, an out-of-state motorist calls 911 to report a fire, but most people who live and work in the county are familiar with the phenomenon.  It’s agricultural burning, a widely used but controversial practice that allows the farmers to clear their fields quickly after a harvest and get ready for the next season.

Ann Kenda / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Grass Roots Farmers' Cooperative in Clinton consider so-called locavores and farm-to-table chefs who want assurance their meat is raised organically their target demographic, and they're turning to the emerging information system blockchain technology for its ease and thoroughness of reporting.

Blockchain works by providing a shared digital ledger of trusted information that cannot be edited and is not controlled by any one person.  It promises to provide at the speed of a webpage load a full history of a product, service or idea. 

This same technology is also being tried by the world's largest food retailers like Walmart who are perhaps more concerned with quickly tracking the source of food contamination in the event of an outbreak or health scare.

Dan Charles / NPR

The Saint Louis-based company that makes dicamba is responding to a proposed ban on the high-tech weed killer for the 2018 growing season.

Ty Vaughn, global regulatory vice president for Monsanto, said the company is disappointed and troubled by a vote from the state plant board to pursue a ban on farm applications of dicamba after April 15.  Vaughn said dicamba is being used successfully in other states.

“We’ve seen growers in 33 states over the past year have really good success with our system.  Our main goal here is to allow growers in Arkansas to have the same access,” said Vaughn.

Ann Kenda / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

The subject quickly turned to dicamba during Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s two-day, seven-county tour across east and northeastern Arkansas.   The tour stopped in rural Leachville on Wednesday so the governor could meet with farmers where they live and grow their crops.

The controversial weed killer is currently on a 120-day ban for farm applications in Arkansas and Missouri amid complaints that it can be carried by the wind to neighboring farms and settle on to crops where it isn’t intended.

“I know that here in Mississippi County particularly, it’s like ground zero for the problems with dicamba,” said the governor.

Ann Kenda / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

On a recent summer afternoon, workers and trucks buzzed in and out of a pump station under construction in DeValls Bluff.  Several miles away, the site of what will eventually be a 100-acre regulating reservoir is currently filled with dirt.

Already 17 years in the making, the project tends to spark cycles of controversy among those who say it’s a badly needed solution to the region’s water woes and those who say it’s too large of a financial and environmental burden.  Such woes include rapidly dwindling ground water.

Ann Kenda / Arkansas Public Media

CLARIFICATION: Michele Reba is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, Delta Water Management Research Unit. Her affiliation was misrepresented in an earlier version of this story.

Four Arkansas farms have made a deal with the world’s largest software maker, Microsoft. The Whitaker Farms in McGehee, Isbell Farm in Stuttgart, Hooks Family Farm in Hazen and Florenden Farms in Burdette join two farms in California and one in Mississippi as the first recipients of carbon credits for rice production. 

The program rewards farmers for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from rice, considered among the more environmentally damaging of all crops.  With a carbon credit, companies can exceed emissions caps by paying for reductions elsewhere, such as on a farm.