Governor names pick for ag secretary

Gov. Asa Hutchinson named attorney Wesley Ward of Lake City as his preference to become the state's third agriculture secretary, replacing Butch Calhoun, who left the post in December.

The governor announced his choice Friday, passing over the state Agriculture Board's nominee, retired Arkansas National Guard Gen. Ronald Chastain, who now works for U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.

"Wes Ward is someone who understands Arkansas's important place in the world when it comes to agriculture, and his credentials make him impeccably well suited to this job," the governor said in a release.

Ward, 32, a graduate of Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, holds a bachelor's degree in agricultural business and a master's degree in agricultural and food law. He also serves as a captain and civil-affairs officer in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves.

On Friday, Ward said he was humbled by the governor's announcement.

"It's truly an honor to be recommended to the board by the governor," Ward said. "As you know, Arkansas agriculture is very important to the economy. I'm looking forward to working with the board, hearing what they have to say and just go from there."

Ward said his most recent experience in agriculture has been academic, but said that he's looking forward to working with Agriculture Department staff, given their experience.

The governor's spokesman, J.R. Davis, said numerous names were circulated for agriculture secretary before the governor decided Ward would be the right person "to be the strongest advocate for Arkansas agriculture."

"The governor consulted with hundreds of individuals in the agriculture community and heard many different ideas over the past few months," Davis wrote in an email. "Absolutely, the viewpoints of the Agriculture Board were taken into consideration.

How the Agriculture Board will handle the governor's choice was unclear Friday.

Under the state law that created the Arkansas Agriculture Department, Act 1978 of 2005, the Agriculture Board selects the secretary, whose "name shall be submitted to the Governor for confirmation." The secretary serves at the pleasure of the governor.

Telephone messages left with board Chairman Aubra Anthony of El Dorado and Vice Chairman David Feilke of Stuttgart weren't returned Friday.

On Feb. 4, the board nominated two people -- Chastain and the Agriculture Department's current deputy secretary, Cynthia Edwards -- to replace Calhoun. However, Edwards withdrew her name from consideration later in the day.

At the time, Anthony said the agriculture secretary needs a broad range of experience in the industry and that it is important for the department to have a secretary in place as early as possible to represent the interests of the state's agriculture industry while the Legislature is in session.

In an email response to questions Friday, Chastain, whose serves as Boozman's agricultural liaison to the board, declined to comment about Hutchinson's choice.

Ward is in line to become the state's third agriculture secretary, a post created by the Legislature in 2005 when it reorganized several agriculture-related agencies into a single department.

The first, Richard "Dick" Bell, served from 2005 until his retirement in June 2012. Before becoming agriculture secretary, Bell served as the president and chief executive officer of Riceland Foods Inc. in Stuttgart from 1981 to 2004. Calhoun, who was director of the state Department of Rural Services before his appointment, was the choice of former Gov. Mike Beebe, who recommended him to the Agriculture Board. Calhoun left the post Dec. 31.

Ward, who unsuccessfully ran for Craighead County judge in 2014, spent four years on active duty with the Marine Corps, according to his campaign website. Upon his return, he attended ASU and University of Arkansas law school in Fayetteville. He also worked as a field coordinator in 2013 for U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., doing agricultural-related work.

Randy Veach, president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau, said in a statement that Ward's background will help him in the role of agriculture secretary in monitoring the state's agriculture industry, which generates more than $20 billion in economic activity annually.

"We appreciate Gov. Hutchinson's diligence in finding the right person for this position and we will do everything we can to help Wes continue the positive work of Dick Bell and Butch Calhoun, his predecessors as Arkansas' secretary of agriculture," Veach said.

Calhoun made $101,913 annually as agriculture secretary.

The Agriculture Department oversees the state Plant Board, the Forestry Commission, the Livestock and Poultry Commission, the Aquaculture Division and the land surveyor, as well as programs that benefit agriculture, such as dairy stabilization, farmers markets, and other promotion and marketing programs.

Business on 03/14/2015