Fayetteville, Arkansas — Creation of a state agriculture department for Arkansas, one of only two states without one, will get serious consideration from lawmakers this fall and could be on the agenda for next year’s legislative session, state Rep. Jan Judy, D-Fayetteville, said Saturday.
“The attitude among legislators has gone from ‘You can’t do that’ to ‘We need to really take a look at this,’ in part because so many federal grant programs are set up so that only a state department of agriculture can take advantage of them,” Judy told the Northwest regional caucus of the Arkansas Citizen’s First Congress, an organization of lobbying groups Saturday.
For instance, she said in an interview, a federal grant is available to study ways to reduce pesticide use, but the grant conditions were written on the assumption that a state department of agriculture would apply for the money.
Judy stopped short of saying the House Agriculture and Economic Development Committee would recommend forming a state agriculture department. She did say the committee will give the idea a fair hearing.
The Citizen’s First Congress is a coalition of 55 local environmental and civil rights groups that meet to reach a consensus on legislation they all can support. The group’s statewide meeting is set for Sept. 24 in Hot Springs.
Rhode Island is the only other state without an agriculture department, according to information from the nationwide Association of State Departments of Agriculture. But all the functions of such a department are consolidated within the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
In Arkansas, a variety of state agencies regulate some aspect of agriculture, such as the state Plant Board, the Soil and Water Conservation Commission, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Livestock and Poultry Commission, speakers at the caucus said. If all the various state government functions for agriculture were consolidated into one agency, Judy said, that agency would have a budget of $100 million.
Farming groups such as the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation have publicly opposed forming a state department of agriculture, saying it would add another layer of state bureaucracy and regulation.
The congress, however, made creation of such a department an early priority. Splitting farm regulation among so many different agencies allows interest groups to dominate each proposal, congress members said.
On other issues, the caucus agreed that state law should be changed to allow any Arkansas citizen to challenge an alleged violation of environmental law in court. Now, a plaintiff must own property adjoining the site of an alleged violation to file a court action. The issue came up during Fayetteville residents’ recent attempts to stop the cutting of a stand of oak trees during a development project.
The caucus also proposed:
- Election of members of the University of Arkansas board of trustees, now appointed by the governor.
- More planning of development with state-imposed requirements for “green space,” or wooded areas.
- Reform of the state’s forfeiture laws. Police can now seize cash and property suspected of being used in illegal drug trade, with law enforcement agencies and prosecuting attorneys’ offices keeping the proceeds. The Northwest caucus would like to see the amount of seizures reduced and the money go to drug prevention and rehabilitation programs.
- State promotion of the growth of hemp, which can be substituted for trees in the paper-making process. Hemp can be grown on agricultural land and does not require as much bleaching as trees. Bleaching with chemicals produces pollution, the caucus said.
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