September/October 2015 Issue
Despite a recent federal government appointment
and a role in many international trade missions,
Arkansas Farm Bureau President Randy Veach
remains dedicated to Arkansas farmers and ranchers.
Photography by Cindy Momchilov
Top photo: Randy Veach – A lifelong farmer who travels the world promoting Arkansas agriculture.
A few mornings a week, Randy Veach drives down the long gravel road from his farm in Lost Cane to west Little Rock, where he sits in an office overlooking one of the state’s largest highway interchanges. While that trip seems long, at about 200 miles each way, some days he travels even farther.
In his seventh term as president of Arkansas Farm Bureau and as a member of the American Farm Bureau board and many other organizations, Veach has had many opportunities to leave the farm that was first cleared by his grandfather in the early 1900s to travel the world.
He has been a part of international trade missions to Panama, China, Japan, South Korea, Europe, and will soon add Cuba to the list. No matter where he goes, he is always looking out for the best interests of Arkansas farmers and ranchers. He’ll continue that mission in his latest appointment to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Technical Advisory Committee for Trade in Tobacco, Cotton and Peanuts.
Arkansas agriculture is a $20 billion-a-year industry, and good international trade agreements will keep the industry viable, said Veach, who is owner/operator of his cotton, rice, grain sorghum, soybean, wheat and corn farm in Mississippi County, but his son handles day-to-day operations.
“If this huge economic engine called agriculture is crippled, this state will be in trouble,” he said.
AMP had the chance to speak to Veach in late July 2015 about the most important issues in Arkansas agribusiness and what’s to come.
AMP: The theme at Arkansas Farm Bureau’s 67th annual Officers and Leaders Conference this summer was #BeVocal. How does that theme resonate with today’s farmers?
Veach: We have a couple of issues that are affecting the farmers and ranchers in the state. We need to get our story out there, as to how well we treat the land, the environment and the animals. The best stewards of the land and the environment are those that make their living from the land. To be vocal, we need to get all of our leaders out there in their everyday lives and telling the story of how we do things, the way we do things and why we do them that way, because of how important it is to the citizens of Arkansas and the world. Trade of the commodities that we raise is important to the lives and livelihoods of those around the globe.
AMP: What is the biggest issue facing Arkansas agribusiness?
Veach: If we take what we’ve been facing this year, we’ve got areas in our state that have had severe flooding to the point that some farmers and ranchers won’t make any kind of a crop or [will] have difficulty keeping their animals fed because of the weather that they’ve had. And, some parts of our state are deficient in rainfall so we’re dealing with all of those issues. Those are going to be particular for this year and difficult for us. We’ve also seen a downturn on the grains and cotton side. Those prices are beginning to really drop. Our livestock prices continue to stay strong and that’s good. We think that those will continue for a while. We know that these markets are cyclical, and so we know that we have to take advantage of the good years so we can weather the bad years. That’s pretty much the everyday life of our farmers and ranchers.
AMP: As head of Arkansas Farm Bureau and a member of other organizations, you have been a part of many international trade missions. What do those trips involve?
Veach: The first trip I took was with the Arkansas World Trade Center, when I was on their advisory board. That was kind of a learning curve for me, and I began to realize that we can make a difference if we get people in those other nations — especially our trading partners — to know us and have a relationship. That’s going to be a big plus for us in Arkansas when it comes to trade.
We always try to pay close attention to the timing and our opportunities. If we spend that money and go, we want to be in a position to talk to trade ministers. We make them aware of the commodities that we have and how high quality, how safe and affordable they are. Our intention is never to put their farmers and ranchers out of business, but it is our intention that if they need commodities, we want them to look to Arkansas for those commodities to feed, clothe and shelter their people.
AMP: Who are some of Arkansas’ main agricultural trading partners, and what do we export?
Veach: Canada is No. 1, followed by China, Mexico and Japan. We export about 50 percent of our rice, about 90 percent of our cotton. We have huge exports in broilers, eggs and beef. We produce the safest, most affordable, most abundant supply of food of any other nation.
AMP: In September 2015, you’re going to Cuba with the Arkansas World Trade Center and Gov. Asa Hutchinson. What is the possibility of Arkansas playing a role in trade with Cuba, and what is the potential economic impact?
Veach: [President Barack Obama] has opened up diplomatic relations [with Cuba]. They can have an embassy here, and we can have an embassy there. That gets the ball rolling. There are some opportunities to open up financial transactions between the two. The embargo was placed on Cuba 55 years ago by Congress, so the only ones that can open trade with Cuba is Congress. There has to be a bill introduced — the likelihood of it being addressed this year is not very great. We’re probably looking into next year.
There are a lot of possibilities in Cuba for our commodities out of the state of Arkansas. Rice is a big one, and we’re the No. 1 rice producer in the nation. Poultry is another big part of that. We’re No. 2 in broilers in the nation. There’s good opportunity for beef and a good opportunity for grains, and probably also for swine.
Cuba’s financial situation at this point is not very good. We don’t know how delinquent they are, but they are delinquent on payments for rice to Vietnam. Those things have to be considered. Cuba will need tourism and banking opportunities to open up for them so that they will be able to generate some income for the country and be able to pay [for Arkansas commodities]. If we normalize trade relations with Cuba, we want Arkansas to be on the forefront of who they want to do business with.
AMP: You were recently appointed to the USDA Agricultural Technical Advisory Committee for Trade in Tobacco, Cotton and Peanuts. What will that role involve, and why is it important to have an Arkansan on the committee?
Veach: I’m a cotton farmer and have been all my life. There are not a lot of us left in Arkansas. We will be providing technical advice on U.S. trade issues to [U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman]. We will be looking at trade agreements, how negotiations are going, and then we will be writing our input on which direction we might take. We’ll be passing that advice on to those that are making negotiations, and, hopefully, we can — and, I wouldn’t have accepted [the post] if I didn’t think we could — make a difference for the farmers and ranchers in Arkansas.
I consider it an honor and a privilege to be able to do that because of our organization. I’m representing Arkansas Farm Bureau and Arkansas farmers and ranchers. I feel very passionate about the sustainability of the farmers and ranchers in our state. We are not sustainable if we are not profitable, and trade is huge — huge for profitability of our farmers and ranchers in Arkansas. We’ve got to keep a strong trade policy and make sure that all our commodities are represented and get a fair shake in these trade agreements, as much as we possibly can so that they can continue to remain strong.
AMP: Another important issue is Trade Promotion Authority, which Congress renewed in June 2015. How does that impact Arkansas agriculture?
Veach: Every Trade Promotion Authority is specific. People think when we pass TPA, we’re just extending the same TPA that we had the last time, but we’re not. This TPA is specific in nature, and it will address some of the issues that can or cannot be dealt with or how they’re dealt with in a trade agreement. But, what TPA does is this. If we have a trade agreement, without TPA, that we’re considering in Congress, it can be amended and amended, and what happens a lot of times is the Congressmen, if they don’t feel like their constituents are in favor of a trade agreement, will put in amendments and delay.
We belong to the World Trade Organization, an organization of around 160 countries. The WTO has not been able to change the original agreement in the last 10 years or more. We’re struggling in that area and beginning to get some revisions that would be better for the farmers and ranchers in Arkansas. A lot of countries are making bilateral trade agreements — that’s between you and another country. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a multi-lateral trade agreement [of the United States and 11 other countries], including Japan, Mexico and Canada. All [of our trading partners except for] China are included in this TPP, so we’ve got a big issue there in dealing with these countries.
As a nation, if we delay these agreements in Congress by amending and amending, finally those agreements are going to go away. A lot of these countries have the same situation, but they can get them passed, but we wait, and, then we’re out of it. They’re going to be making agreements with Brazil and Argentina and Vietnam, and we’re going to be sitting on the sidelines. We can’t afford to do that. With TPA, the negotiators put together an agreement and it goes before Congress, which votes “yes” or “no.”
We’ll have to see what the agreement looks like before we’ll even know if we support it. If it’s favorable for the farmers and ranchers in Arkansas, we’ll support it. If it’s not, we won’t. Our congressional delegation will need some direction, too. We’re in close contact with them, and we have a great relationship with every one of them. They understand the importance of agriculture. It’s the largest industry in our state. It’s a huge economic engine — $1 billion in trade supports 8,000 jobs. Not only is it important to our farmers and ranchers, it’s also important to jobs in our state.
AMP: How important is it for farmers to raise awareness about the state’s agricultural industry as a way of remaining sustainable?
Veach: That’s the kind of thing we have to do. We’re trying to encourage [farmers and ranchers] to talk to those around them about agriculture, how important it is, and how we do it on our farms and ranches. And, how conscientious we are about the environment and about the well-being of our animals. Our farmers and ranchers are very conscientious. We just need the public out there to understand that what we do, we do it the right way. That’s the bottom line.
AMP: What role does social media and other technology play in raising awareness about the state’s agricultural industry?
Veach: We understand and realize that we live in a faster-paced world. Technology has got to be embraced. We have to change, or we’ll perish. We have a full-time social media person at Arkansas Farm Bureau to help us address those issues. Our young farmers and ranchers are all pretty up on those things. We work with video conferencing and webinars, because we know how valuable our farmers and ranchers’ time is so we try to maximize that as much as we can. We are advancing like we should so that we can get our word out. It’s a great way to get our story out there over social media.
AMP: Many Arkansans seem to care more about where their food comes from these days. Do you see the eat-local movement as a trend or paradigm shift?
Veach: It’s not a population-wide sweeping trend. But, yes, it is a trend. We want to provide what the consumer wants. For example, we are conscientious about the health and well-being of our animals. We provide for them, as they need to be provided for and take care of them. Ranchers and farmers take care of their animals because that’s their livelihood, and they’re good at it. We need that to be understood.
Some things are perceived to be harmful to your health when they’re not. Genetically enhanced crops have never made anyone sick, but malnutrition kills a child every six seconds around the globe.