In Delta, gover­nor calms on NAFTA

Out­ing a chance to meet farm­ers

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - BRIAN FAN­NEY

STUTTGART — On his sec­ond day vis­it­ing farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties in the Arkansas Delta, Gov. Asa Hutchin­son defended free trade and said he hopes to meet with the pres­i­dent of Mex­ico next month.

The Thurs­day visit at the Univer­sity of Arkansas Agri­cul­ture Di­vi­sion’s Rice Re­search and Ex­ten­sion Cen­ter was one stop on a seven-county “Turn­row Tour” of east and north­east Arkansas farms.

Rice farm­ers, sci­en­tists and busi­ness­men turned out to talk to the gover­nor — in­clud­ing Danny Kennedy, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Rice­land Foods. Arkansas pro­duces more rice than the rest of the na­tion com­bined.

Hutchin­son cel­e­brated gains for farm­ers at the stop. He noted that China had agreed to im­port Amer­i­can rice and that Scott Pruitt, the head of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency with whom he met in Arkansas last month, would be more farmer friendly.

The gover­nor also said he planned to meet with

Mex­i­can Pres­i­dent En­rique Pena Ni­eto when pressed by one at­tendee to urge Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to first do no harm when it comes to the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment.

J.R. Davis, a spokesman for the gover­nor, said later that the meet­ing with Pena Ni­eto is in the plan­ning stages and has not been fi­nal­ized.

“Mod­ern­iz­ing NAFTA — that’s fine,” Hutchin­son said. “It’s prob­a­bly a good idea, but if we mod­ern­ize it, we’ve got to keep in mind that we want to make sure that we keep that trad­ing re­la­tion­ship ex­pand­ing ver­sus shrink­ing.”

Af­ter the event, Hutchin­son said the trip to Mex­ico — planned for late Septem­ber — would in­clude vis­its with busi­ness­men and an open house at Arkansas State Univer­sity’s new cam­pus in Mex­ico.

“Mex­ico is a very sig­nif­i­cant trad­ing part­ner to Arkansas,” Hutchin­son said. “We want to make sure that main­tains strength and to as­sure them that while we rene­go­ti­ate NAFTA and

strengthen that, we cer­tainly don’t want to re­duce that trad­ing re­la­tion­ship that we have with Mex­ico.

Dur­ing the meet­ing, farm­ers pressed the gover­nor about the fu­ture wa­ter sup­ply, a failed plan to re­or­ga­nize the Arkansas Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment and the pos­si­bil­ity of elim­i­nat­ing tax ex­emp­tions for farm­ers.

Kennedy said the state should be open to pri­vate in­vest­ment for big projects that aim to re­duce the need for ground­wa­ter by har­ness­ing the White and Arkansas rivers.

“If we can fig­ure out a way to do that — put in pri­vate money — and not lose con­trol of the wa­ter, I think there’s a lot of work­able so­lu­tions,” the Rice­land CEO said. “Grow­ers are the best in the world at try­ing to fig­ure out how to get some­thing done. Those dis­cus­sions, I think, would re­ally ben­e­fit the state and more than just agri­cul­ture.”

The Grand Prairie Area Demon­stra­tion Project and Bayou Meto Wa­ter Man­age­ment Project are ex­pected to cost more than $1 bil­lion, but fed­eral money for the projects had dwin­dled, Kennedy said.

Hutchin­son said the project plans might need to be changed to lower the cost.

“These projects need to be re-ex­am­ined to make them work un­der the more con­strained in­vest­ment com­mit­ment from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment,” he said. “That’s what I’ve asked the ir­ri­ga­tion districts to do, to re-en­gage engi­neer­ing ser­vices to re­ex­am­ine the orig­i­nal plans, to see how they need to be ad­justed so they can come to fruition sooner than 50 years.”

Dur­ing the meet­ing, Robert Sei­den­stricker, who grows rice and soy­beans about 15 miles north of Stuttgart, ex­pressed con­cern about a pro­posal to re­or­ga­nize the state Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment — a plan that the House de­feated dur­ing the reg­u­lar ses­sion ear­lier this year.

Sei­den­stricker said the plan could politi­cize en­ti­ties such as the Plant Board, which largely has op­er­ated free of pol­i­tics since its cre­ation in 1917.

“I am just 100 per­cent for keep­ing those agen­cies as in­de­pen­dent as they are,” Sei­den­stricker said.

Sup­port­ers have said House Bill 1725 by Rep. Dan Dou­glas, R-Bentonville,

would have saved about $600,000 a year through var­i­ous man­age­ment tools in­volv­ing the Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment and its sev­eral en­ti­ties, in­clud­ing the Plant Board, the Live­stock and Poul­try Com­mis­sion and the Arkansas Forestry Com­mis­sion.

Hutchin­son said Thurs­day that greater in­te­gra­tion would al­low the state agri­cul­ture agen­cies to re­spond to prob­lems as a group in­stead of oper­at­ing in sep­a­rate si­los.

Also dur­ing the meet­ing, Gary Se­bree, a rice farmer, said the pos­si­ble end of agri­cul­ture-fo­cused tax ex­emp­tions was of con­cern to him. He said a tax ex­emp­tion on agri­cul­tural in­puts like seed keep his busi­ness above wa­ter.

The Leg­is­la­ture formed a task force to look into end­ing some ex­emp­tions to lower the over­all tax rate, Hutchin­son said.

“I would en­cour­age you to look at this as an op­por­tu­nity to show the value that those ex­emp­tions bring and make your case,” the gover­nor said. “I think the Leg­is­la­ture would be very re­spon­sive to that mes­sage.”

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