by Caleb Talley
Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released their most recent population estimates for every county in the country. The population of Arkansas increased, with some counties seeing tremendous growth since the last official census.
The areas that saw the most growth were Northwest Arkansas, Central Arkansas and Jonesboro. Benton County, alone, grew by roughly 40,000 people since 2010. Washington Country gained nearly 30,000. Pulaski, Faulkner and Saline counties each grew by about 10,000 people. Craighead County gained more than 10,000.
And that’s surprising to no one. Each of these regions of the state, in addition to having growing institutions of higher learning, have experienced incredible economic growth in recent years. They have attractive entertainment venues, dynamic food options. People, both young and old, are flocking to live there.
Also not surprising is where the people are leaving: the Delta. The counties that make up most of East Arkansas – save for Craighead and Greene counties – saw the biggest drops in population in the last seven years, some losing thousands of residents since the last census.
Mississippi County lost a whopping 4,000 people since 2010. Phillips County lost more than 3,000. St. Francis and Crittenden counties lost more than 2,000. Lee and Desha counties lost roughly 1,300. Chicot, Arkansas and Monroe counties lost 1,000 or more. And they didn’t have that much to lose in the first place.
Reports like the one released by the Census last week tend to have a ripple effect, especially in the realm of politics and business. Local Delta leaders begin taking a hard look at their communities – if they haven’t already – to see what can be done to curb the downward trends. Leaders at the state level look at these reports and consider them when weighing decisions about development and the allocation of resources.
In that vein, last week, I heard a certain popular radio host on a certain Little Rock-based conservative station say that, perhaps, the state’s scare highway funds should be spent primarily in areas of the state with a high population. With the state hurting for highway dollars, he suggested the money be spent in Northwest and Central Arkansas, perpetuating even more urban sprawl in already congested regions of the state.
His theory, while it may have been in jest, was echoed by a couple of urban-area lawmakers who praised the idea of directing infrastructure resources and building more roads in the state’s most densely populated areas.
As someone who hails from the rich, rural plains of the Arkansas Delta, I take issue with that.
To put it plainly, no area in the state relies on infrastructure more than rural Arkansas, because rural Arkansas – primarily the Delta – is where our food comes from.
The Delta is a powerhouse when it comes to agriculture, both in Arkansas and around the nation. It’s the state’s largest industry, contributing 17.1 percent of the state’s value. That comes out to about $21 billion – and that doesn’t even include the retail food sector, like grocery stores, restaurants, etc. The most significant portion of that comes from the Delta.
As of 2015, agriculture contributed more than 264,000 jobs, generating more than $9.5 billion in wages. That’s more than 15 percent of the state’s total revenue generation.
Our agriculture sector is great for the economy, but let’s not forget about the impact it has on our food supply. In the Delta, rice is king. So much so that Arkansas is the nation’s largest rice producer. Roughly 50 percent of the rice consumed in the U.S. comes from East Arkansas.
East Arkansas is rich in soybeans, sweet potatoes, wheat. You can’t eat it, but it’s among the nation’s leaders in cotton production, too.
If Central Park is the lung of New York City, then the Delta is the stomach of Arkansas. Each Arkansas farmer, on average, feeds more than 150 people. And with each passing year, those farmers will be responsible for feeding more and more.
In order to feed Arkansans and the rest of the nation, the Delta needs serious investments in infrastructure. The construction and maintenance of better highways in rural Arkansas is critical to preserving and improving the link between the farmer and the consumer, and it’s a prerequisite for accelerated economic development in the region.
And I’m not the only one who thinks so.
“Since agriculture is our state’s largest industry, contributing over $21 billion to our economy each year, rural communities are the economic backbone of our state,” said Lauren Waldrip Ward, executive director of the Arkansas Rice Federation. “To remain viable, our agriculture industry must have dependable roads and infrastructure in the rural towns and communities where we operate in order to continue providing the food, fiber and shelter that we depend on, not only here in Arkansas but across the world.”
Infrastructure investment are necessary in highly populated regions of the state – I’m not saying they aren’t. Lawmakers should be spending just as much time considering ways to combat urban sprawl, which has created the need for more and more highway construction, rather than ways to perpetuate it. But that’s an entire topic in itself.
The Delta may be declining in population, but it’s impact on our state’s economy and food supply grows every day. It’s time it gets the respect it deserves.
In Cash & Candor, Arkansas Money & Politics / AY Magazine Editor Caleb Talley aims to shoot it straight when it comes to business and politics in and around the Natural State. Talley comes to AMP by way of the Arkansas Delta, where he called balls and strikes at the Forrest City Times-Herald. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more Cash & Candor here.