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UA says land sale to fund research

by Stephen Steed | September 18, 2020 at 2:07 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.

Mark Cochran, vice president of the University of Arkansas System's Agriculture Division, on Thursday defended the planned sale of a portion of its research station in St. Francis County, saying proceeds would be vital to research programs across the state.

"While we know this proposed sale has encountered some opposition, we are extremely disappointed to see that what were healthy expressions of concern have turned into a stream of challenges to the integrity of our reputation as researchers and educators," Cochran said in a written statement.

The UA System board of trustees on March 11 approved the sale of 6,300 acres at the Pine Tree Research Station for at least $16.5 million.

An attorney for the buyer, Lobo Farms LLC in Poinsett County, on Wednesday said the acreage subsequently has been appraised for $17.6 million, or $2,800 an acre. A $1 million donation to a UA endowment also is part of the deal.

Sen. Ron Caldwell, R-Wynne, said Wednesday that the FBI had visited with him about the sale, though he declined to characterize the FBI's interest in the matter or elaborate on the interview.

Mark Saalfield Norris Jr., a financial adviser for Raymond James & Associates in Memphis, is the registered agent for Lobo Farms, which made the only bid for the property.

Norris, who goes by the name "Field," wrote the Agriculture Division on July 31, seeking to calm any claims questioning the legality or integrity of the sale. That letter also was released Thursday by the Agriculture Division.

"I am able to confirm that no member of our buying group is a current or past member of the Board of Trustees of the University of Arkansas or any of its affiliates," Norris wrote. "I can also confirm that no member of our buying group is a current or past member of the Arkansas State Legislature or holds any elected position. There appears to be a plethora of inaccurate information and false statements; however, I feel this is of deep concern and requires an immediate response."

The names of other investors behind Lobo Farms have not been disclosed by the company.

The sale, according to the UA System, requires the approval of Congress, because the land that became the Pine Tree station had been federal property in 1960, when 11,850 acres were deeded to the university system.

The 6,300 acres involved in the sale are heavily wooded and wet, and not conducive to the station's primary mission in row-crop research, mainly soybeans and rice, UA has said.

Just west of Colt, in St. Francis County, the acreage has been open to the public for hunting, fishing, hiking and other activities under a cooperative agreement with the state Game and Fish Commission.

Research in row crops would continue on the remaining 5,000 or so acres at the station if the sale goes through.

In a separate statement, Mary Hightower, an Agriculture Division spokeswoman, said the FBI "has not contacted us about any investigations or requested any records." She said Cochran on Wednesday contacted the bureau "to express our willingness to cooperate with any investigations, if they exist."

The FBI declined comment on Wednesday, saying that it could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation.

Cochran said the sale followed the guidelines of the board of trustees and complied with Arkansas law.

"Especially in these tight times, the proposed sale of this property will provide the Division of Agriculture the needed funds to conduct the research and outreach requested by our stakeholders," Cochran said.

"There's a great need to pursue alternative funding to supplement our state, federal and local funding. The needs we want to meet for our stakeholders include further research into rice production and smart farming, as well as waterfowl and wetland management. It is critical to enable us to answer the needs of our northeast Arkansas rice farmers for research into improved practices on the unique soils in that part of the state."

The Agriculture Division has said $5 million of the sale proceeds would help fund a rice research station now under construction near Jonesboro. Another $6 million would go toward developing programs in "smart farming" research. Other programs in conservation, wetlands protection and eradicating feral hogs would receive money from the sale.

The Game and Fish Commission has managed a large part of the Pine Tree acreage since 1999 under the cooperative agreement with the UA System. Except for the number of permits for hunting deer and turkey, there's no gauge to measure public use of the land.

Public outcry against the sale, primarily on social media, led to lawmakers and others questioning the legality or appropriateness of the sale.

"The only numbers we have for hunting would be the 900 deer permits that we have been issuing for muzzle loader and modern gun hunts in the past and 20 turkey permits," Keith Stephens, a Game and Fish spokesman, said. "These permits are generally all awarded and/or purchased by public hunters. This year, due to the possibility of the sale of a portion of the [managed area], we reduced the number of permits to 225 for deer hunting."

The acreage is open for deer-hunting by bow and small-game and waterfowl hunting without permits.

The agreement between the UA System and the Game and Fish Commission allows the commission to "conduct certain fish and wildlife activities while not affecting or limiting the UA's ability to continue using the property for its educational, research and public service missions," Stephens said. "Current activities include maintaining roads/trails/parking areas/boundary lines, trapping feral hogs, hunting season regulations and limited prescribed burning."

The only income the Game and Fish Commission receives is a $5 processing fee from the sale of permits required for deer and turkey hunting.

Stephens said the commission declined an offer to buy the property and has not advised the UA System in any way on the sale.

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