U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services Bill Northey met with Arkansas government and agriculture leaders in Little Rock on Tuesday to acclimate himself with Arkansas-specific issues.
Arkansas is unique among all agriculture dominant states in that it produces half of the domestic rice crop in the U.S. each year. Arkansas Agriculture board member Jennifer James told Talk Business & Politics as the farm bill makes it way through Congress, it’s critical federal officials understand the policy impacts to growers in the state.
Northey, who took office March 6, oversees the Farm Service Agency (FSA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and Risk Management Agency (RMA). Northey previously served as the agriculture secretary in Iowa. He wanted to learn about ag practices in Arkansas, especially rice, James said.
“I was very impressed with his receptiveness to understand what we do here in Arkansas,” she said.
One issue of concern for rice farmers is the price loss coverage component (PLC) in the new farm bill. The PLC provides money to rice farmers when the price drops to a certain levels, she said. It helps to ensure rice farmers can survive when prices are low.
Rice prices have been in the doldrums this year, she said. Bushel prices have hovered near the $5 per bushel mark, making it difficult for rice farmers to sustain operations when the prices are in that range, she said. Prices need to be in the $6 to $7 per bushel range, she added. A bushel of rice is typically 45 pounds, but it can fluctuate from 40-50 pounds based on grain type, moisture, and other factors. The best way to increase rice prices is open markets, especially international markets, she said. Lawmakers in Washington D.C. are in the midst of restructuring multiple trade deals including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Northey participated in an agricultural producer luncheon in Little Rock hosted by the Arkansas Agriculture Department and then traveled to Stuttgart to meet with producers and rice industry representatives. He toured a rice field and learned about irrigation practices for rice, James said. Arkansas had about 1.1 million rice acres last year.
“Farmers are the salt of the earth and it’s a pleasure to be able to work along side our growers,” Northey said. “We are committed to customer service and will become irrelevant if we aren’t in touch with the specific needs of each of our states.”
During the rice specific meeting, growers highlighted industry priorities including the significance of working lands conservation programs and the importance of irrigation infrastructure projects. Arkansas rice farmers have consistently led efforts to improve conservation and stewardship of Arkansas lands and waterways, said Arkansas Rice Federation Executive Director Lauren Waldrip-Ward. Her husband, Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward was pleased Northey took time to visit the state and meet with farmers and other state ag partners.
“We greatly appreciate Under Secretary Northey’s time in Arkansas learning about our state’s largest industry and his efforts to gain a better understanding of our growers’ needs,” Wes Ward said. “I have witnessed and appreciated Secretary Northey’s work first-hand through his previous post as Iowa Agriculture Secretary and know he will continue to advance our industry in his new capacity.”