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On a barge at Rosedale

In a recent newspaper column, I harkened back to the much-publicized signing of a pact between the governors of Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. The ceremony took place in the spring of 1988 on a barge anchored in the Mississippi River at Rosedale, Miss.

I was listening to former President Clinton speak to a meeting of the Delta Grassroots Caucus in Little Rock a few weeks ago when I began thinking about that day on the barge.

Here’s how James Saggus of The Associated Press previewed the event in a story on May 12, 1988: “The governors of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana will join forces aboard a Mississippi River barge Friday for a fight against the Delta region’s depressed economy. Govs. Ray Mabus of Mississippi, Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Louisiana’s Buddy Roemer will sign an agreement to address chronic problems of unemployment, illiteracy and poverty in fertile farmlands along the river. … Mabus said he hoped the ceremony would mark ‘the start of a regional economic development effort, one that will signal a new focus on our region of the country and attract international investments and national attention to the three-state region.’ Statistics show the Arkansas and Mississippi counties and Louisiana parishes in the Delta region — the flatlands on both sides of the river from Memphis to Natchez — are among the nation’s poorest, many with poverty levels above 50 percent.”

All three states had young governors with national political ambitions. It was often suggested in the late 1980s that one of them might become president.

“If we are successful, the country succeeds,” Mabus said that day in Rosedale. “We cannot have a truly vibrant country if we have pockets of despair, if there are places that do not fully share in the American dream.”

So here we are a quarter of a century later.

Clinton, of course, spent eight years in the White House.

I spent almost four years working on Delta issues in the administration of his successor. I was appointed by President Bush to serve on the Delta Regional Authority, which had been created in the final months of the Clinton administration.

Now it’s the spring of 2013, and Clinton is speaking on a Thursday night about the problems of the Delta. I’m sitting there taking notes, just as I would always do 25 years ago when I would cover Clinton in my job as Washington bureau chief of the Arkansas Democrat. It doesn’t seem much has changed in 25 years.

Are the problems of the Delta that intractable?

Will we still be talking about the same problems 25 years from now?

I learned a lot about the Delta by working full time on its issues and traveling its highways day after day. It was quite an education. I studied its history and came to the conclusion that, at least in my lifetime, most true Delta counties will never have the population bases they had 60 or 70 years ago.

The tens of thousands of sharecroppers who were once required to grow big crops of cotton are long gone from the region. Their children and grandchildren are never coming back. People go where the jobs are.

For too long our approach to economic development has been based on the idea that “bigger is better.” The goal was to find that manufacturing plant that would suddenly bring 300 or 400 jobs to town. Those kinds of industrial successes are going to become increasingly rare.

I came to the conclusion that Delta communities would have to get away from the idea that “bigger is better” and adopt the motto that “better is better.”

Concede the fact that the population of your town will never be as big as it once was while at the same time vowing that the community will work to ensure that the public schools are better, the hospital is more advanced, the streets are cleaner, race relations are improved, etc.

See what I mean?

Better is better.

Looking to the future, Clinton pointed to the good news: The Delta still has some of the world’s richest land. As the world’s population increases and the United States takes on more responsibility for feeding people, that land will become ever more valuable.

As land increases in value, the tax base improves.

Consider these facts just about Arkansas:

— The state is in the top 25 nationally in the production of 24 agricultural commodities, accounting for more than $16 billion of value added to the state each year.

— Arkansas continues to rank first nationally in rice production, growing about 48 percent of all U.S. rice. Rice is the state’s top agricultural export and is grown on more than 1.3 million acres of land.

— The value of rice exports from Arkansas is $918 million annually. Soybeans are next at $807 million. Rice and soybean prices have been high the past few years.

— The overall value of rice production is valued at almost $2 billion annually. Records were broken last year as rice growers in the state produced 7,340 pounds per acre, up 8 percent from 2011.

— Arkansas ranks third nationally in the production of cotton (with an export value of $473 million) and sixth in the production of grain sorghum.

— The state ranks second in overall aquaculture production and leads the nation in baitfish production, raising more than 80 percent of all U.S. baitfish. Arkansas also leads the nation in the production of largemouth bass for stocker fish, hybrid striped bass fry and Chinese carp.

Danny Kennedy of Riceland Foods does the math: “Today’s world population of 6.8 billion people is expected to grow to 9.1 billion by the year 2050. About half the earth’s population consumes rice as a primary component of their diets. World rice consumption will continue to increase in order to feed the expanding population.”

The world population growth also bodes well for the state’s soybean industry — soybeans are grown in more than 50 of the state’s 75 counties — and its expanding corn sector.

There’s also increased agricultural diversification in the Arkansas Delta. For instance, the state’s peanut crop grew from 600 acres in 2009 to 18,000 acres in 2012. Sweet potato acreage also is increasing.

Yes, the Delta will have fewer people. But the land will be worth more than ever. How do we leverage that to help those still living in the region?

There are two economic keys for the Arkansas Delta as we look out 10 to 20 years:

— Increased trade opportunities and public investment in the infrastructure (navigable rivers, ports, intermodel facilities, etc.) that enhance foreign trade. As far back as 1996, the Federal Highway Administration was noting in a report: “The most significant changes for the Delta economy have been improved access  to intermodal transportation terminals, combined with the increased capacity of those terminals. This has greatly strengthened the region’s commercial linkage to the rest of the nation and to important international markets around the world.”

— More value-added processing for agricultural products. Rather than simply shipping out commodities, the Delta must find additional ways to refine and process those commodities for consumers.

The most frustrating thing in my time with the DRA was the idea on the part of so-called local leaders that a small government agency could somehow change the economic trajectory of the past 50 years.

In his visit to Little Rock earlier this month, Clinton said: “There’s never going to be enough government money to take a poor region of America out of the dumps all by itself. You’ve got to have private-sector growth. And in order to have private-sector growth, you’ve got to have good government policy.”

In the Delta, much of the private-sector growth will be driven by agriculture. So when we talk about good government policy, we’re talking about farm policy, free-trade agreements, port investments and the like.

Clinton, who has always been an optimist at heart, said his “instinct is that the country is due for a pretty good recovery. There is going to be a revival of economic fortunes in rural America. The real questions should be: How do you speed it up? How do you make it sustainable?”

The Arkansas Delta was built first through the harvest of hardwood timber (virgin timber was shipped north to build homes and businesses in places such as St. Louis and Chicago) and later by cotton.

With more and more mouths to feed in the decades ahead, it appears the region’s salvation now will be rice, soybeans, corn, wheat and grain sorghum.

“There’s nothing wrong with people who live in the Delta,” Clinton said. “I just want you all to know that I do believe, after all of these decades, that you’re going to get rewarded if you just stay with it.”

Perhaps the barge that served as a political stage 25 years ago can in the future play a role in hauling grain to hungry people in India and China.

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