Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture discusses Africa trade trip

by Michael Wilkey ([email protected]) 151 views 

Officials are hopeful that a five-day trip last month to Africa will provide Arkansas and its agricultural producers another vast market in which to sell goods, Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward said in an interview with Talk Business & Politics.

Ward, Secretary of State Mark Martin, Deputy Secretary of State Joseph Wood and United States Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden visited Ghana and sub-Saharan Africa during a Nov. 15-20 trade trip.

Others on the trip were officials from Tyson Foods, the USA Rice Federation and World Trade Center Arkansas official Denise Thomas, Ward said.

The Lake City native said he was impressed by the trip as well as the people from Ghana.

“They are definitely very Western friendly,” Ward said, noting many of the people in the country spoke English and displayed American flags. Ward said the people there were also appreciative of the interest of the United States in their country.

That interest has also led to opportunities for American and Arkansas products.

American exports have increased by nearly 50% in the past 10 years in the region, Ward’s office said in the lead up to the trip. There were $2.3 billion in exports in 2014, while the region has imported about $49 billion in food and agri products, Ward’s office also said.

Ward said the African market is a key objective for the USDA, which also sponsored the trip. “It is seen through the USDA as a growing market,” Ward said, noting high-quality products are a key need in Africa.

As for Arkansas, Ward said officials from Tyson Foods and USA Rice Federation discussed the positives of their products. “In Ghana, they want high quality rice and said that 50% of their exports come from Arkansas,” Ward said of the growing market there.

Ward said one-on-one direct contact also played a role in developing business relationships between Arkansas and the African region. “In U.S. culture, we do things by email and phone,” Ward said. “In other countries, they like to meet face-to-face. So, being there has definite benefits.”

Ward said Arkansas already exports about 30% of its products to foreign countries, which is a “significant part of our economy.” Trips like those to Africa and other countries are a key policy objective of the Hutchinson administration, he added.

So far this year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson has traveled to Europe, Cuba, Japan and China on trade missions seeking new markets for Arkansas products. The Cuba trip was key due to the country’s need of poultry and rice, two mainstays of the Cuban diet, Ward said.

Ward was appointed to his post in March 2015 by Hutchinson to serve as Secretary of Agriculture. Since then, Ward said he has been busy.

“The job is going well, working to build relationships,” Ward said, noting the state has everything from row crops in the eastern half of the state to aquaculture in other areas. “It has been challenging, but rewarding. I don’t have any complaints.”

Agriculture is a $20 billion industry in Arkansas and also employs one out of every six jobs in the state, Ward said. Despite that economic impact, he said the industry faces major challenges.

“We have everything from increased federal regulations to low commodity prices. But our farmers and ranchers are tough, resilient and they work hard,” Ward said.

Ward noted that the changes in agriculture have forced farmers to learn to be more creative in their operations. He said poultry has become more prevalent in Northeast Arkansas, with recent projects like PECO Foods and Ozark Mountain Poultry, starting to take shape.

Officials with PECO Foods announced in March 2014 that they would be building a $165 million facility in Clay and Randolph counties. The project, which is expected to create about 1,000 jobs, will include a feed mill in Corning and a plant in Pocahontas.

Officials with Ozark Mountain Poultry announced in June that they would be building a feed mill in Magness, near Batesville.