Meeting Discusses Markets For Arkansas Rice, Impact Of Government Shutdown

Jan 8, 2019

Betsy Ward, president and CEO of USA Rice Federation, speaking at the Arkansas Rice Annual Meeting Tuesday in Stuttgart.
Credit Arkansas Farm Bureau

The Arkansas Rice Annual Meeting took place Tuesday in Stuttgart. It’s a key event for industry and government leaders to discuss the state of agriculture.

Organizers say about 400 people attended the meeting, included several top state officials, state senators and state representatives.

On the minds of many this year was the impact the current political climate is having on growers. Among those speaking was Betsy Ward, president and CEO of the USA Rice Federation. The group advocates for all segments of the nation’s rice industry with offices in Little Rock, suburban Washington, DC and Hamburg, German.

The conference was emceed by Talk Business & Politics host Roby Brock. After Ward's comments to the group, she was interviewed by Brock for KUAR News.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS 

On the recently-passed Farm Bill and a new marketing provision with Cuba

Overall we’re really pleased with the Farm Bill. We worked a long time to maintain the provisions that we had in the 2014 Farm Bill which worked very well for rice, but one of the tweaks that they made was, there’s a program that’s funded through the Farm Bill, it’s the export promotion programs that are managed by USDA and they tweaked it a little bit to allow some funding to be used to promote in Cuba which is kind of interesting since we haven’t really been doing much in Cuba under the Trump Administration.

But at the same time there is still a credit restriction that has been in place which has hampered efforts to try to make deals with Cuba

You’re right. They need cash. They don’t have a lot of money, so the inability of our banks to basically loan money, to give credit to Cubans, really restricts their ability to buy a lot of U.S. ag products. They want to buy our rice and corn and chicken and all those things, but the ability to at least go down and promote our products is a step in the right direction.

How the government shutdown is impacting agriculture

We got a Farm Bill passed and now we are going to have difficulty unless the government opens up having farmers go sign up and finish off their loans from last year. The FSA offices are primarily shuttered, so it makes it very difficult to move forward in this new crop year with those folks not working. In Washington, everybody we work with at USDA is on furlough so they’re not available to – they’re really not permitted to actually work, so you can’t contact them if you have questions. They’ve suspended some of the key economic reporting that they do from the USDA that people rely on to sort of project what they think is going to be happening in the coming year, and I think that hampers everybody. And finally for us, we do a lot of market promotion with USDA funds and all of that funding has been suspended. So we’re basically not promoting any markets overseas which is a tragedy for us.

When that changes, new opportunities are expected for Arkansas producers

We have been working on market access to China for over 10 years. The issue had been the lack of something called the phytosanitary protocol which we negotiated an agreement with China on last July. It was signed and probably within a few days of it being signed was when the Trump Administration announced the tariffs on steel and aluminum, and then other products from China. So the Chinese sort of stopped the forward progress that we were making on rice. There has been a renewed effort to… I think you know President Trump had met with the president of China a few weeks ago. There’s a delegation there now trying to relieve some of the pressure on agriculture, soybeans in particular, but also rice is at the top of the list. So we are fairly optimistic that the Chinese will allow rice imports now, and so we’re just looking for the first offer to come. This is potentially a huge market for all of us.