Lauren Waldrip Ward didn’t have a swimming pool in her backyard when she was growing up in Moro, a town in Lee County. Her father Mark Waldrip farmed rice and on hot days he let her and her siblings swim the irrigated fields he tended. It made her appreciation the critical role rice farming culture plays in the state’s social fabric.
Ward was named the Arkansas Rice Federation’s new executive director Wednesday (Aug. 9). She told Talk Business & Politics rice farmers face a series of issues including water conservation and tax exemptions that must be maintained.
“I am honored to have this leadership opportunity to support and promote an industry that has given so much to me, to Arkansas and to the world,” Ward said. “Rice is a big part of my life story and now more than ever, it is vital that we tell the story of Arkansas agriculture and our rural communities. I look forward to continuing my advocacy on the issues that face our growers and our industry.”
A fifth-generation farmer, Ward is the wife of Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward, a Craighead County native. Prior to her selection, Ward worked in numerous capacities for the ARF since 2015. She has worked in media relations, communications, public affairs, and in other capacities. She studied public relations and marketing at the University of Arkansas. She previously worked as the director of special programs for the Razorback Foundation.
“Lauren’s thorough background and knowledge of the industry has been an asset to the Federation since she began,” Arkansas Rice Federation Chairman Jeff Rutledge said. “We are excited about what the future holds for the Federation and Arkansas’s rice industry under her leadership as executive director.”
Rice is the dominant crop in the Natural State. Each year Arkansas farmers grow almost 9 billion pounds, and it produces half the rice grown in the United States. It’s a $6 billion industry in the state, and creates about 25,000 jobs directly or indirectly, according to ARF. About one in five jobs statewide are tied to agriculture.
Water conservation will be a key issue facing rice farmers in the coming years, Ward said. Farm practices have improved and most farmers know the importance of conserving the resources they have, and recycling water is a critical component. From a public policy perspective, continuing tax exemption programs to subsidies rice farmers will play an important role in helping to keep family farms in the family, she said.
“When Arkansas grows, it literally grows,” she said.
New export markets could be a boon to Arkansas rice farmers. China recently opened its rice import markets to the U.S., and there has been a push to allow agriculture credits in communist-controlled Cuba. Ward has visited the island nation that imports nearly 600,000-metric tons of rice each year. President Barack Obama attempted to ease trade restrictions with the island nation in place since Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro assumed power more than five decades ago. In June, President Donald Trump announced plans to roll back the Obama policies, and it could hurt trade markets between the two countries.
Arkansas’s proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and its rice quality make it a natural trade partner, for Cuba, but several hurdles remain, she said. Ward traveled to Cuba in June 2016 on a trade mission. Lifting trade restrictions with Cuba goes beyond rice, and other products, she said. Our way of life, capitalism, and other social norms would be a great benefit to the Cuban people, she said.