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Agriculture goals.

AGRICULTURE CONTINUES to play a huge role in Arkansas. And it will in the future.

The state's agriculture secretary, Richard Bell, speaking to the annual convention of the Arkansas Farm Bureau this month, outlined four goals he hopes the new Department of Agriculture can accomplish to help farmers, the state's residents and the state's economy.

Here are Bell's ideas:

* Do more to improve and promote smaller farmers;

* Develop biofuel as an industry;

* Improve nutrition among schoolchildren; and

* Improve and promote agricultural exports from the state.

They are worthy goals and once again demonstrate the wisdom of Gov. Mike Huckabee in choosing the retired CEO of Stuttgart's Riceland Foods Inc. in August to get the new department up and running in the right direction.

Arkansas ranks among the top 10 states in the nation in cash farm receipts. Of that nearly $7 billion, about 65 percent comes from livestock, mostly poultry. About 26 percent comes from rice, cotton, soybeans and wheat, with the rest coming from forestry and other markets. Anyway you look at it, that's big business.

Can the Agriculture Department do the job better than the numerous state agencies did before they were unified in a single department?

Bell thinks so, and we agree that there are numerous possibilities--as well as obstacles to overcome.

Arkansas Business has written about biofuels developed from Arkansas crops. When oil prices hit $60 a barrel, the alternative energy source quickly became a subject much talked about. It's here to stay. Biodiesel is already being produced by Eastman Chemical at Batesville, and the startup Patriot Biofuels will open next spring at Stuttgart. Both have great potential to be a big boost to the state's soybean producers, adding value to the state's economy. And there are other sources of biofuels, so soybean growers aren't the only ones who could benefit. Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale could, for instance, sell chicken fat for conversion to biofuels. Arkansas could easily become a national leader in biofuel.

Bell also wants to encourage more small agricultural companies to become exporters. The large companies such as Riceland, Tyson and others are major exporters, but more small companies could make the state more competitive.

Of course, they face obstacles from foreign governments as well as our own federal government. Just look at what the U.S. has done to the potentially huge rice market in Cuba through an embargo that, after more than four decades, has failed to shake Fidel Castro's grip on the island.

Arkansas, by virtue of its small population and enviable production, has always had to look at exporting its farm products--and it has done rather well. But there's always room for improvement.

Bell is as savvy as anyone in agriculture about what's needed. He's off to a good start in making the state a real leader in the industry.
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Title Annotation:Editorial
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Dec 12, 2005
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