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Ag chief nominee backed by panel

Board to assess governor’s pick by Glen Chase | March 18, 2015 at 2:12 a.m.
Wesley Ward of Lake City

Wesley Ward of Lake City got a recommendation Tuesday from the state Agriculture Board's nominating committee to become Arkansas' next agriculture secretary.

Ward, 32, was chosen by Gov. Asa Hutchinson last week to replace Butch Calhoun of Des Arc, who left the post Dec. 31. Ward's nomination will be considered by the full board at a special conference-call meeting as early as Friday.

"I'm very passionate about agriculture, and I'm looking forward to representing the state and representing Arkansas agriculture," Ward told the committee after its vote. "I can't say that I have all the answers, but I promise you that I will work as hard as anyone else would, if not harder."

One concern voiced by committee members was that the Agriculture Department's existing staff be retained as much as possible, given its experience and ability.

"We would like our staff kept in place," said Mack Hayden of Russellville. "They've worked good. They've worked good with us. They're hardworking."

Ward responded that he'd begun meeting with staff members Monday and that everyone he'd been speaking with spoke highly of the department's staff.

"I have no intention whatsoever of changing that," Ward said, adding he appreciated the hard work they do.

Another committee member, Robert Carruthers of Morrilton, drew a chuckle from fellow committee members when he observed, "I know that you're going to really give it your best, and believe me, if you don't give it your best, they're going to make you look good."

If Ward's nomination is approved by the full board Friday, he'll become the department's third secretary, after Calhoun and the department's first secretary, Richard "Dick" Bell of Stuttgart, who died Friday at age 81.

In 2005, the Legislature consolidated several agriculture-related agencies into a single Agriculture Department.

With more than 530 employees, the department includes 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.

Ward, an attorney who is a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, graduated from Arkansas State University in 2006 with a degree in agricultural finance. He received a law degree from the University of Arkansas law school in 2009 and in December completed a joint degree program there in agricultural and food law. After active duty, he worked in various legal positions for the Marines, including as a battalion judge advocate.

He ran unsuccessfully in the fall as a Republican candidate for county judge of Craighead County. In 2013, he worked as field coordinator for U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., specializing in agricultural issues.

In early February, the Agriculture Board voted to send two names to the governor for consideration -- retired Arkansas National Guard Gen. Ron Chastain, who now works for U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and the Agriculture Department's current deputy secretary, Cynthia Edwards -- to replace Calhoun. Edwards withdrew her name from consideration that same day. On Friday, the governor announced that he would prefer Ward and asked the board to consider nominating him so he could be confirmed.

At the outset of Tuesday's nomination committee meeting, Agriculture Board Chairman Aubra Anthony of El Dorado, said he'd had a chance to talk to both the governor and Ward. He said he'd also expressed to the governor the board's desire to retain existing staff.

"We have a strong mutual interest to have our new secretary succeed because that's in the best interests of agriculture, business and families in this state," Anthony said just before the committee's vote.

After the meeting, Anthony said Ward may not meet the expectations that board members had in mind in terms of experience for the state's next agriculture secretary.

"He brings perhaps more youth than maybe some people in the past," Anthony said. "But he brings energy and, from my brief conversations with him, an impressive amount of passion and eagerness to learn from other people and represent the whole industry."

Andrew Grobmyer, executive vice president of the Agricultural Council of Arkansas, was on hand to listen to Tuesday's committee meeting.

Grobmyer said the council had been involved in discussions with the governor's office regarding the agriculture secretary, adding he was aware Ward was being considered for the post.

He said it was good that Ward is planning to retain current staff. "I imagine he'll also rely heavily on the Agriculture Board and industry groups," adding that anyone taking a new job experiences a learning curve. He said Ward has good leadership skills and, given his legal background, a "deep understanding of ag policy as well."

Business on 03/18/2015

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