Wes Ward and Lauren Waldrip Ward couldn’t be more dyed-in-the-wool Arkansan if they tried. Each grew up on the rural plains of eastern Arkansas, they spend their free time together hunting and fishing the Natural State and generally give off that giddy aura of the recently wedded soulmates they are.
Lauren grew up in Moro and Wes in Lake City, two spots unknown to many people but which formed each in a manner essential to their future. In fact, Wes credits their common upbringing and passion for the state and its people as important ingredients of the success of their relationship.
“Even though there was some distance between where we grew up, we have very similar backgrounds and environments, agricultural communities, small towns,” Wes said. “It’s part of our shared history and I think it’s one reason we’re so compatible.”
“Our marriage is special because we’re both passionate about the same things,” Lauren said. “It’s no secret that we’re on the same team.”
Wes and Lauren met at a work function in 2015 and as the saying goes, that was all she wrote; they married the following year. While they’re not the only couple to balance a relationship with the demands of leading in the workplace, few duos have roles as closely intertwined as theirs – hers as executive director of Arkansas Rice Federation and his as Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture.
“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 said.
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 can be fairly described as devoted to the service of others; besides his current gig in state government, 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.
“I jokingly say one of my hobbies is the Marine Corps,” Wes said. “Seriously, the Marine Corps prepared me for this role in general because in the military you were always concerned about global events and what’s going on and how that impacts things and were we prepared to meet challenges in the future.
“That’s very similar for agriculture and how do we prepare and make sure that we’re ready if a situation goes this direction or if it goes another way. It provided a lot of similar aspects on how you look at the world.”
Lauren holds undergraduate degrees in marketing and public relations from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and an MBA from the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton Graduate School of Business. A partner at Campbell Ward, a bipartisan 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 public relations work for Sen. John Boozman and the Arkansas Farm Bureau.
In August, she was named executive director of the Arkansas Rice Federation, with which she had worked in various capacities since 2015. It’s the professional role that hits closest to home for this fifth-generation family rice farmer and, not surprisingly, she wastes no opportunity to extol the industry’s virtues.
“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,” she said. “So now, every day, I get to tell that story.”
The impact of rice on the state’s ag economy is enormous. Arkansas grows more than half of the nation’s rice, representing more than $6 billion in economic impact. More than 25,000 jobs are tied to the crop as well, many of them in Arkansas’ rural communities.
Arkansas rice is shipped to markets and nations around the world, a picture that has become increasingly complicated. Political shifts, armed conflict and an uneven playing field has steadily increased the pressure on American farmers’ competitiveness on the world stage.
“Speaking only to the rice industry, something that we’re seeing in lots of our competing countries is, these countries are breaking the agreement that they have through the World Trade Organization by receiving illegal subsidies from their governments,” Lauren said. “That’s a resource that our farmers don’t have access to because we’re playing by the rules. It’s essentially putting [American farmers] at a significant disadvantage.”
“That speaks to farmers having to understand what’s going on around the world,” Wes added. “Paying attention to governments and conflicts and how does this impact agriculture and how do we make decisions in preparation and response to some of those. It’s a difficult task to try to anticipate and work through these issues sometimes.”
Global situations as well as more immediate issues like the state’s farm bill, with which the Wards have been occupied of late, routinely make their way into dinner conversation, Wes noted. And that’s fine by the both of them.
“We spend a lot of time talking about agriculture, we really do,” Wes said. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. Sometimes people say that’s your job, that’s my job let’s not take our jobs home. We talk about work and agriculture all the time and I think it’s because we care so much about it.”