5 Hall of Fame inductees drove state ag forward

To Butch Calhoun of Des Arc, the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame honors the people who have led the way in making the $20 billion industry what it is today, even as fewer people have direct ties to farming.

"Most families are only one or two generations away from being involved in agriculture in some way," said Calhoun, the state's former agriculture secretary and chairman of this year's hall of fame selection committee.

On Friday, five inductees from around the state who worked in the industry will be added to the list of men and women already in the Agriculture Hall of Fame. The new inductees are James Baker of Conway, James Bibler of Russellville, the late Billie Nix of Ash Flat, the late Bruce Oakley of El Paso and John Ed Regenold of Blytheville.

Although the public connections have weakened, the importance of agriculture to Arkansas' economy hasn't diminished even as fewer people work on farms, Calhoun said. Currently, one in six jobs in the state are related to agriculture and the business is becoming increasing reliant on technology, he said.

"This isn't your grandfather's farm. It's a high-tech operation these days," Calhoun said, noting that people with agriculture degrees are in short supply.

But added technology means that fewer people are needed as laborers on farms, especially in row-crop operations. And rural communities, particularly in Arkansas' Delta, have seen population declines as a result, he said.

With fewer people directly involved in agriculture, the Agriculture Hall of Fame is one way to show the average consumer what farming is all about, said Janeal Yancey, a meat scientist with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.

"These folks have done great things producing food and promoting a way of life," Yancey said. "When you honor them and you talk about their role in agriculture, you make that connection to food production."

Yancey started the Mom at the Meat Counter blog in 2011, in part because there are so many people who have questions about meat production. She works to dispel rumors about agriculture, explains labels and covers controversial topics like gestation stalls.

"You get all of this information from so many different sources, and it's really scary," she said. "It's one thing not to understand your food system when it's just you that you're feeding, but when it's your children, that's a whole other level of stress."

Travis Justice, chief economist for the Arkansas Farm Bureau, said the Agriculture Hall of Fame is needed to recognize the contributions made by inductees because it calls attention to the role agriculture plays in the state economy.

"Over my career here, we've seen a consumer populace that, as a rule, is further removed from the farm," said Justice, who has spent 41 years working for the Farm Bureau. He said that over the last few decades, people have less understanding of agriculture in general with the move to more urban and suburban settings.

Justice said the Hall of Fame inductees are people who were pioneers, innovators and leaders in building the industry, which is significant both within the state and globally.

Justice said the "inductees are people who have ended their career in agriculture and made significant contributions to its progress."

One inductee, Jim Baker of Conway, was a longtime manager of the Lewis Livestock Co., past chairman of the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission, and a former administrator of the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration. In 2014, he was elected to serve as Faulkner County judge.

Stanley Russ, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000, said Baker distinguished himself by being active in the community.

"His outstanding trait is that he doesn't have a lot of hobbies and his main one is just -- and I'm not being facetious -- his main hobby in life is looking for someone to help and in particular young people," he said.

Other aspects of agriculture -- forestry and transportation -- were recognized with Bibler and Oakley being selected as inductees, according to Calhoun.

Bibler, former owner of Bibler Brothers Lumber Co., was past chairman of the Arkansas Forestry Commission, a former president of the Arkansas Forestry Association and past president of the Southern Forest Products Association

Terry Freeman, a friend and colleague, said Bibler treated his employees well and made sure the mill kept up with the times.

"When new equipment came out, he always tried to fit it into the mill," he said. "He liked to stay on the cutting edge of technology."

Calhoun said Oakley began hauling fertilizer in 1968 and eventually built his business, Bruce Oakley Inc., in North Little Rock, into one that transports commodities via river ports, is involved in grain merchandising, and operates river towing, barge transport and fuel distribution.

"He started it because he couldn't buy fertilizer," said Calhoun. Today, the company he founded generates more than $1 billion in sales serving the needs of agriculture.

Many hall of fame members do more than play a role in developing the state's agricultural economy, according to Calhoun.

For example, Regenold, who as chairman of the Armorel Planting Co. manages about 10,000 acres of farmland in Mississippi County, also served on the state Highway Commission and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

Nix owned the Ash Flat Livestock Auction until his death in 2010. It's one of the largest auctions in the state, but Tom Peebles, a longtime family friend who nominated Nix, said the auction will be moved from Friday to Saturday for the first time in more than 50 years so his family can attend the induction luncheon.

Nix personally paid for school kids to go on athletic and academic trips and provided jobs for them at the livestock auction, Peebles said.

"Bill Nix was one of those people -- if something needed to be done, he did it," he said. "He was so interested in kids having a chance."

Justice said people who go into agriculture are capable of making a living in many different fields. That means they are also businessmen who have to make a living.

"A number of these people can do it in other places than on the farm," Justice said. "It's a commitment to a lifestyle as well."

For that to happen, Justice said the cost of innovation and the willingness to accept risk has to be offset by the ability to cover costs if the U.S. expects to maintain its food supply while exporting agricultural products to other countries.

"The Hall of Fame is one activity that we can use to focus on that these people were pioneers, innovators, leaders in helping build this industry," said Justice. "It's just another opportunity to remind folks that this industry is significant, in this state particularly. It's significant nationally and globally."

SundayMonday Business on 03/02/2015

Upcoming Events