Ann Kenda

Ann Kenda joined Arkansas Public Media in January 2017 from Sudbury, Massachusetts.  She is a graduate of Syracuse University and previously worked in public radio, commercial radio and newspaper in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  She focuses on health, justice, education and energy as part of the Arkansas Public Media team.  Her stories can be found on the airwaves, ArkansasPublicMedia.org and social media.

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.

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.

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.

The annual Kids Count report released Wednesday offers mixed news about life for Arkansas’s very youngest residents. 

The state’s overall child well-being index, which is based on a number of education, health and economic factors, improved from 43rd among the 50 states in 2016 to 41st last year.

The number of Arkansas kids living in poverty has declined by 28,000 since 2010, according to the report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  Today, 24 percent of Arkansas kids live in poverty; in the nation it's 19 percent.

At the food pantry in Cherry Valley in rural Northeast Arkansas, clients start lining up hours before its 10am opening.  The pantry is open every Tuesday for two hours, unlike other pantries that open once or twice a month.

“In this area, they just can’t go a whole month without us,” said director Joan Ball.  

Ball and other advocates for the poor worry that business will pick up at pantries and soup kitchens if food stamp work requirements drafted as part of the 2018 Farm Bill end up becoming law.  Ball said the last two weeks of the month are already the busiest as people who’ve already spent their food stamps seek additional ways to feed themselves or their families.

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.

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.

Students and adults in Jonesboro joined the crowds elsewhere in the state and the nation on Saturday for a March for Our Lives protest demanding gun control and other measures to help stop mass shootings, but the Jonesboro rally was also a remembrance of the Westside Middle School shooting exactly 20 years earlier.

“Just because we are students, just because we are kids does not mean we do not understand this issue.  We have a voice,” said Mohannad Al-Hindi, a senior at Jonesboro High School.

“I’m just wondering how many more school shootings it’s going to take,” said Makyla Norvell, 15, who attends Riverside High School.

At the 90-year-old Coker-Hampton Drug Company in downtown Stuttgart, the pharmacist and owner of the last 25 years, James Bethea, is deeply concerned about the reimbursement rates from Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) he believes are putting small pharmacies at risk of losing their businesses.

Bethea has chosen to continue to fill prescriptions even though a recent law in Arkansas allows pharmacists to refuse a sale if it meant that they would lose money due to reimbursement rates being lower than the price of the product.

“Those are our customers, and we’re going to take care of them,” he said.

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