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State buy of acreage from UA proposed; lawmaker says wildlife area aim

by Michael R. Wickline | October 28, 2020 at 7:24 a.m.
Pengyin Chen holds up a new variety of soybeans at the Pine Tree Research Station near Colt in this 2013 file photo. Chen was the director of the soybean breeding program at the University of Arkansas System’s Division of Agriculture at the time the photo was taken.

State lawmakers Tuesday directed their staff to draft an appropriation for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture for the next fiscal year, at the behest of a state senator who wants state funds to purchase 6,300 acres that the division planned to sell to a private entity.

The Legislative Council and Joint Budget Committee approved a motion by Sen. Ronald Caldwell, R-Wynne, to separate the appropriation for the Division of Agriculture from the University of Arkansas System's appropriation for the 2021 Legislature to consider in its regular session. The appropriations are for fiscal 2022, which starts July 1, 2021.

The UA System's board of trustees on March 11 approved the sale of the property at the Agriculture Division's Pine Tree Research Station, just west of Colt in St. Francis County. Lobo Farms LLC of the Fisher community in Poinsett County made the only offer for the 6,300 acres. The sale price is $16.46 million, plus a $1 million pledge for an endowment, UA System spokesman Nate Hinkel said.

The proposed sale to this private entity caught the attention of hunters and anglers, who've used the property for decades under an old cooperative agreement between the Agriculture Division and the state Game and Fish Commission. The hunters and fishermen turned to social media to call attention to the proposed sale and their opposition to it.

That hunting and fishing agreement expired in 2005, but the land has remained open for hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities, except camping. The Game and Fish Commission continues to manage the property as a wildlife demonstration area.

"What I would like to do is take general revenue money and purchase the land," Caldwell said Tuesday in an interview.

"Basically, what this action today does is ... encourage the university not to execute the contract that they have and sign a deed, so just give us a little time to get into session and try to get the bills passed to purchase it, transfer the ownership from the university to a public domain, whether it is [the Game and Fish Commission] or whatever that domain may be, so that it would stay available for the public and the university can get their money for agricultural research and do want they need to do," he said.

Caldwell said he wants the state to purchase more than the 6,300 acres -- there are another 1,100 acres that the university doesn't farm and he would like to make a wildlife management area out of that 1,100 acres.

"This is just leverage," he said. "This is not to poke them in the eye."

During the budget hearing, Caldwell told fellow lawmakers he proposed separate appropriations for the Division of Agriculture and the UA System because of his concerns about this planned sale.

Caldwell represents Senate District 23, which includes Jackson County and parts of Cross, Lee, Monroe, St. Francis, White and Woodruff counties. The land in question is in his district.

Caldwell, who chairs the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, said there have been several newspaper and magazine articles "about the particular land sales, how this land was acquired to remain in the public domain, and yet the university has contracted to sell it to private individuals."

UA EXPLANATION

UA System President Donald Bobbitt told lawmakers that he understands Caldwell's point of view.

He said the Division of Agriculture has an opportunity to create a new rice research station.

"Remember, agriculture is a $21 billion contributor to the state's GDP," Bobbitt said, referring to the gross domestic product.

"Our board ... has given us the mandate that we need to shed ourselves of properties that are not productive and we have sold other properties across the system that we are no longer using," he said. "It puts them back on the tax rolls. It benefits local governments and local school systems, and when we entered into this arrangement that was our plan, to raise funds for the Division of Agriculture and to also be able to fund this new rice research station."

Mark Cochran, vice president of agriculture for the UA System, said the Pine Tree Research Station has about 11,900 acres, purchased in 1960, and the land is used primarily for row-crop research, and for forestry and wildlife habitat.

"Our funding from the state covers about 45% of our expenditures, and we go out and get extramural funding for the other 55%," Cochran said.

The division conducts primarily row-crop research at the Pine Tree Research Station because it is specific to particular soils, "but through our check-off programs, we do have supplemental income to run our programs, where in the forestry and wildlife areas it is very difficult for us to get the sizable grants that would be necessary to do what was going through," he said.

Cochran said the division was encouraged to look at its properties, and if they were not used to their full potential, to determine whether there were opportunities to work with public and private partnerships.

He said the second motivation to sell this property is the Arkansas Rice Research and Promotion Board "has a set of funds that are probably a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something that really has an impact in the rice industry."

The money from the sale would be "an investment for the future of the Arkansas rice industry ... to create a new rice research and extension center that's on soils that would be representative of the majority of the rice acres," he said.

The rice research center would be about 6 miles south of Jonesboro on Arkansas 1, Cochran said.

The division and the Game and Fish Commission discussed the 6,300 acres for a year and a half, but the commission opted not to buy it, "so we went this private route," he said.

The division's intent is to use the remaining land to continue working with the Game and Fish Commission to provide open hunting and fishing areas, Cochran said.

CONGRESSIONAL APPROVAL

The sale also is contingent on the approval of Congress. That's because UA in 1960 had obtained some 11,800 acres from the U.S. Forest Service for what would become the Pine Tree station. UA paid $560,600, making the final payment in 1978. The deed specified that the acreage be returned to the Forest Service should it ever cease being public land -- a stipulation that requires the congressional waiver, according to the Agriculture Division.

But Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said she wants the Division of Agriculture and Caldwell to reach an agreement to satisfy both parties.

"I am concerned about getting to yes for both you and Sen. Caldwell because there is a great concern in that area about land that has been used by citizens of that area, and they are very much concerned about losing the access that they have had," she said. "Have you worked with Sen. Caldwell to get to a yes for both of you yet?"

"We are working with our buyers. We have an executed contract, but they've expressed a willingness to step aside and give the state the opportunity to come in and purchase it, if it could, and then be able to continue if the state would not come through, so I think that that's kind of in a holding pattern right now, waiting to see what happens within the session," Cochran said.

In response to a question from Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, Cochran said the division has not been offered more money for the land from another entity.

Then, Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock, asked Cochran, "Is it just a rumor or is it true that the Game and Fish Commission offered you $8 million more for the property than what you sold it for?"

Cochran replied, "We had no offer from Game and Fish.

"We worked with them for a year and a half, and they came back and said that they were not in a position to purchase the property and had other priorities, so we have no offer from Game and Fish at this time."

The Arkansas Rice Research and Promotion Board has voted to provide $21.4 million for the future Northeast Rice Research and Extension Center, including an initial $4 million grant, to buy the 614-acre site in Poinsett County for the rice research center.

The board is a quasi-public entity whose nine members are appointed by the governor but receives no state general funding. It has established a $5 million endowment for the operation of the center, which would the UA System's first since 1957.

The Agriculture Division said the sale of the 6,300 acres from its Pine Tree Research Station in St. Francis County is central to matching the rice board's $5 million endowment.

The contract with Lobo Farms expires at the end of the year but can be renewed by mutual agreement, according to the Division of Agriculture.

The registered agent for Lobo Farms is Mark "Field" Norris Jr., a financial adviser with Raymond James & Associates in Memphis.

Norris, the son of a federal judge in Tennessee appointed two years ago by President Donald Trump, has declined through an attorney for the group to identify other investors in Lobo Farms. No law requires such identification.

After questions were raised by outdoors groups, media outlets and some legislators, Norris wrote the division on July 31 to say no members of the buying group are current or past members of the General Assembly or the UA System trustees or hold "any elected position."

Information for this article was contributed by Stephen Steed of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Print Headline: State buy of acreage from UA proposed

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