August 2018 Issue
By Dwain Hebda | Photo by Jessica Barksdale
Wes Ward and Lauren Waldrip Ward are the real Arkansas deal. They grew up two hours apart – she in Moro and he in Lake City – both enjoying everything the East Arkansas outdoors had to offer.
The couple met at a work function in 2015, and as the saying goes, that was all she wrote; they married the following year. Wes says the quick courtship speaks to the enormous commonality the two share.
“We have very similar backgrounds and environments, agricultural communities, small towns,” Wes says. “It’s part of our shared history, and I think it’s one reason we’re so compatible.”
Even their professional lives intertwine. Lauren is the executive director of the Arkansas Rice Federation and he is the Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture. In their respective roles, they each advocate for the Arkansas farmer, a lifestyle and profession they know all too well.
“Both of us being able to advocate for something that allows farmers to do their job, enables them to produce a safe and quality food supply and have the resources they need to do that, that’s very special for us to do together,” Lauren says.
Agriculture is Arkansas’ largest industry, contributing $21.4 billion in value added to the state’s economy annually according to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, Research and Extension. Arkansas’s top three agricultural products, ranked by cash receipts, are broiler chickens ($3.1 billion), soybeans ($1.4 billion) and rice ($1 billion). In 2016, Arkansas ranked in the top ten nationally in eight agricultural production categories including, somewhat unsurprisingly, first in rice, second in broiler chickens and third in catfish.
Less well-known is that Arkansas ranked fourth in cotton and cottonseed that year as cotton production is staging a comeback, growing 26 percent in 2016. The state also ranked fifth in the country in turkeys that year. Wes said these facts demonstrate the versatility of Arkansas’ ag industry.
“Arkansas is one of the few states in the country that does so many things and does them very well,” he says. “We’re ranked every year in the top 25 in the nation in 15 to 20 agricultural commodities. You don’t see that in other states.”
In terms of raw tonnage, rice is still king, encompassing 1.5 million acres in 2016 and producing north of 200 million bushels every year, 49 percent of the total U.S. rice crop. The state also ranked first in the nation for rice exports, at $859 million. The rice industry contributes $4 billion to the state’s economy and employs more than 25,000 people, including five generations of Lauren’s own family.
“I grew up on a rice farm, and I didn’t really appreciate that until I got to college and realized not only what it meant to me but what it meant to the state as a whole,” Lauren says. “So now, every day, I get to tell that story.”
Part of the story lies in the laboratory where research and innovation have developed progressively better strains of the grain and superior growing practices that boost productivity while still looking out for the environment.
“Our researchers are doing a lot of work to put the types of plants into the hands of our growers so that we can meet the demands of the market,” Lauren says. “Our researchers are also doing a lot to determine different conservation practices like alternate wetting and drying or multiple inlay irrigation.
“Our farmers are adopting those techniques and as a result, over the past 20 years our rice farmers have increased their yields by 50 percent while also reducing water usage by over 50 percent,” she adds.
Wes points to this kind of scientific innovation as the sectors of the ag industry people rarely think about yet provide many career choices for people to consider.
“There’s a lot of career opportunities for people beyond the production side of things,” he says. “One thing we’re trying really hard to promote is all of agriculture and all of the opportunities that exist. We want to make sure people know if they want to work in agriculture but maybe the cost of entry is too high to come right out of school and buy a thousand-acre farm, here’s all the other things you can do to be involved in the ag industry.”
Wes, who was tapped for his current role in 2015, earned his bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Business with an emphasis in Agricultural Finance from Arkansas State University. He also holds a law degree and completed the joint LL.M./M.S. degree program at the University of Arkansas for a Master of Laws degree in Agricultural and Food Law and a Master of Science degree in Agricultural Economics.
He’s spent nearly 18 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, both active duty and reserves, with deployments to Afghanistan and Jordan to his credit.
Lauren holds undergraduate degrees in marketing and public relations from the University of Arkansas and an MBA from the Sam M. Walton Graduate School of Business. A partner in Campbell Ward, a bi-partisan state and federal public affairs and public relations firm in Little Rock, her work experience includes rebranding the Razorback Foundation (resulting in a 20 percent boost in membership) and PR work for Sen. John Boozman and Arkansas Farm Bureau. Last August, she was named Executive Director of Arkansas Rice Federation, with which she had worked in various capacities since 2015.
She says issues such as the Farm Bill pending in Congress or debate over state initiatives provide ample grist for dinner table discussion, given the Wards’ common interest in agriculture.
“Our marriage is special because we’re both passionate about the same things,” Lauren says. “It’s no secret that we’re on the same team.”