Wesley Ward of Lake City was set to become Arkansas' third agriculture secretary after Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed paperwork confirming Ward in the post Friday.
Earlier in the day, the Arkansas Agriculture Board voted 12-1 to nominate Ward, 32, who was Hutchinson's choice for the job. Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said Ward will be sworn into office as soon as possible but said a day hadn't been set.
During a special meeting held by teleconference, the board nominated Ward, an attorney who is also a captain in the Marine Corps Reserve, to replace Butch Calhoun of Des Arc, who left the position Dec. 31.
In an interview later in the day, Ward said he's spent the past week talking with the department's staff, as well as university contacts and agriculture industry groups.
"The first step is just making sure I'm familiar with all the different programs they are involved with," he said. In the long term, he'd like to see the department do more to help create agriculture-related jobs as well as work with veterans interested in becoming farmers.
After Friday's vote, board Chairman Aubra Anthony of El Dorado congratulated Ward.
"I think that I can say personally and collectively that we welcome you and that we pledge to work with you for the success of our industry and our department and all Arkansans depending on agriculture -- and that's everyone in the state whether they realize it or not," he said.
After a brief discussion that included Ward outlining his ties to agriculture, the 13 members of the 21-member board who participated in the meeting voted on Ward's nomination.
Mack Hayden of Russellville, a member of the nominating committee that met Tuesday to consider Ward for the post, told fellow board members that he thought Ward would be a good fit.
"I think that the candidate is well-qualified with the experience in agriculture and the direction that we need to go," Hayden said.
Another committee member, Robert Carruthers, said it was important that Ward reassured the committee he'd work to keep the department's existing staff in place.
Ward outlined his experiences for the board, noting he grew up in northeast Arkansas, a row-crop heavy part of the state. After high school, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and spent four years on active duty. Afterward, he joined the Marine Corps Reserve and attended Arkansas State University where he earned a degree in agricultural finance. He then got his law degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where he later completed a joint degree program in agricultural and food law.
After law school, he returned to active duty and was deployed to Afghanistan and Jordan. On his return, he worked for U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., in 2013 as a field coordinator doing agricultural outreach. In 2014, he mounted an unsuccessful campaign for Craighead County judge.
"There are very few people in Arkansas who don't have some sort of historical ties to agriculture," he said, noting his family has operated farms and raised cattle and also been involved in agricultural education. "While I haven't been specifically involved in large-scale production, I have some experience with smaller scale and have family that are involved with different aspects of agriculture."
Ward acknowledged he may not have all the answers, but added, "I promise you [that] you won't find find anyone that's going to work any harder for the state and for all our agricultural interests throughout the state."
The board then moved the nomination and held a roll-call vote.
Joan Cash of Jonesboro, said she was voting yes given the assurance that Ward has said he'd keep the department's existing staff intact.
The lone dissenter was dairy farmer Frederic Simon of Conway.
"I'd like to see a little more experience in production agriculture, myself," Simon said in explaining his vote, adding he meant no disrespect to Ward.
The state's first secretary, Richard "Dick" Bell of Stuttgart, was head of Riceland Foods before taking the post. The second secretary, Calhoun, was a farmer and former head of the state Department of Rural Services.
On March 13, Hutchinson asked the board to consider Ward, even though the board sent the governor a nominee nearly six weeks earlier.
On Feb. 4, the board nominated two others to be considered for agriculture secretary: retired Arkansas National Guard Gen. Ronald Chastain and Cynthia Edwards, the Agriculture Department's deputy secretary. Edwards withdrew her name from consideration. Chastain has declined to comment.
Created in 2005, the Agriculture Department has more than 530 employees. It 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.
Davis, the governor's spokesman, said in an email that Ward would be paid the same salary as Calhoun. Calhoun was paid $101,913 in 2014.
Business on 03/21/2015