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Conservation sustains rice industry

Unique collaboration with Ducks Unlimited marks leadership of recently retired leader of USA Rice Federation.

Louisiana farmer Christian Richard, right, presents now-retired USA Rice Federation President and CEO Betsy Ward with a retirement gift from state rice leaders during an event at his farm last year. “Going to events like this has been the best part of my job,” Ward told the crowd. “I’ll be back to see y’all at events like this.” PAM CARAWAY

She wasn’t looking when the headhunter called. Either time. And she didn’t know anything about rice the first time. She worked on the forest side of the ag industry. She was comfortable.

But USA Rice Federation knew Betsy Ward was the leader they needed – first to lead foreign promotions and a few years later, to lead the organization.

Arkansas farmer leader Jennifer James said that headhunter made the right call, and the board made the best decision for the industry.

“She successfully led the industry through several tough issues all the while keeping each segment aligned for the common good of the whole industry,” James said. “She led with strength, grace, and integrity and always a smile on her face.”

The comments align with those of Louisiana rice farmer Christian Richard, who recently presented Ward with a retirement gift from the state rice industry.

“She’s just been steady,” Richard said. “The good leaders are always steady, regardless of the circumstances.”

With Ward’s retirement last month, Delta Farm Press slowed her down for a few minutes to talk about the 16 years she led USA Rice. She chose three things that stand out as industry victories: sustainability initiatives, a strong Political Action Committee, and the federal rice program. She gives the industry the credit.

“It’s incredible how great everybody is to work with,” Ward said. “Everybody celebrates when we have a victory.”

USA Rice’s most enduring victory with Ward at the helm was to create a partnership with Ducks Unlimited. The Regional Conservation Partnership Program is unique to rice.

Rice farming is good for ducks

A Congressional Resolution passed last September to honor the 10th anniversary of the partnership, noted the program “beneficially impacted more than 800,000 acres of rice and rice rotation lands on more than 1,000 farms.”

Scott Manley, director of agriculture support for Ducks Unlimited Southern Region sees a communication benefit that goes beyond one partnership.

“Betsy has taught us a lot on how to focus on our common goals and not let potential differences slow us down,” Manley said. “What is good for rice is good for ducks and it is that simple.”

For Ward, the effort was a way to get in front of the nationwide conservation movement. USA Rice in partnership with Ducks Unlimited expanded that effort in 2022 with a grant through USDA’s Climate Smart Agriculture Initiative.

“It’s helped us define sustainability ourselves rather than have somebody else, like the government, do it for us,” Ward said. “Not being proactive on environmental issues can really come back to haunt you.”

A small industry with a mighty PAC

Political issues can do the same thing, Ward said. For that reason, USA Rice also encourages the industry to support its political action committee, or PAC. “With the PAC, we’re able to support our friends, the people that do good things for us in Congress,” Ward said.

When Ward was named president and CEO in spring 2007 around 70,000 people were members. Today, the PAC’s membership tops 400,000.

 “It’s part of the DNA of all our members that we need to support the PAC,” Ward said. “And they’re doing it.”

And that leads to the third primary victory that Ward pointed to: including rice in the Price Loss Coverage program established in the 2014 Farm Bill. The program replaced direct payments, which brough the ag policy in line with the World Trade Organization.

“The PLC needs to be updated, but it has served farmers well,” Ward said.

The PLC is a naturally jumping point to areas of focus for her successor, Peter Bachmann. The existing farm bill was extended, the next farm bill isn’t written, and rice farmers are looking for an updated PLC with a higher reference price.

Farm bill veteran leads USA Rice

This won’t be Bachmann’s first farm bill circus.

Bachmann worked at USA Rice on domestic farm policy issues from 2015 to 2017, according to a press release from USA Rice.

From there, he went to work as a senior advisor to then-USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue.  He helped write the 2018 Farm Bill, develop and implement the 2018 and 2019 trade mitigation packages, and advocate for U.S. ag exports. Since his 2019 return to the leadership team at USA Rice, he has directed trade policy.

Other challenges Ward sees include unifying the rice industry and competing against cheap imports from India.

A strong reputation for food safety will help the industry. “Americans are comfortable eating U.S.-grown rice,” she said. “They don’t worry whether it’s safe.”

Still, lower prices for imported product present an ongoing threat to the domestic industry, Ward said.

“The challenge for now and also for the future is cheap imported rice,” she said, noting India pays high subsidies to its farmers. We can’t compete on price. We can’t produce it as cheaply as they can because their government subsidizes it. It is chipping away at some of our markets.”

Ward knows challenges will always arise. With Bachmann at the helm and following a good harvest, Ward is comfortable about stepping away.

“I feel good about leaving now,” she said. “2022 was a disaster for the rice industry. Now is a better time.”

James agreed.“Betsy is a people person, and she built a staff around her at USA Rice of strong and capable people,” James said. “Because of her leadership, the U.S. rice industry is stronger, more united, and enjoys a great reputation throughout the United States and the world.”

https://www.farmprogress.com/rice/conservation-sustains-rice-industry QR Code

Published Date: January 12, 2024

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