Poultry Industry News

Poultry, Forest, Rice Pros Inducted into AR Agriculture Hall of Fame

Untimely deaths in the family, a sudden illness, and a good intuition for the future of Arkansas agriculture played roles in the lives of the five newest members of the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame.

Inducted Friday during a luncheon at Embassy Suites in Little Rock, the five are:

• Allen Bedell of Hot Springs, a forester.

• Neely Cassady of Nashville, a poultry operator and former state senator.

• Gary Sebree of Stuttgart, a rice farmer and longtime director of a rice growers' cooperative.

• Mark Simmons of Siloam Springs, a poultry executive.

• the late Bobby R. Wells of Fayetteville, a rice scientist. 

The hall of fame now has 158 members since its establishment in 1987 to acknowledge those who have helped make agriculture a $16-billion-a-year industry in the state.

A Man Among Trees

Allen Bedell blushed, folded his hands into his lap and gazed downward when a fellow member on the Arkansas Agricultural Board noted Bedell's latest honor. Bedell wasn't as bashful in 2009 when he testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

"For too long the timber industry has been a stepchild in the agricultural field," Bedell said in advocating for an industry ravaged by a slow economy.

Now retired from logging, Bedell continues his support of the logging and forestry industries through his membership since 2001 on the Arkansas Forestry Commission. He was its chairman from 2008 to 2013. He also helped found the Arkansas Timber Producers Association 25 years ago.

Bedell was an engineering major at Louisiana State University in 1958 when he abruptly switched to forestry, largely because of working with his grandfather, a Missouri logger, the previous summer. "My mother said, 'Oh, son, don't do that, you're throwing your life away,''' he said recently.

Bedell was a forester for Georgia-Pacific Corp. in Fordyce and also owned two whole-tree chipping operations. He also started the Log a Load for Kids program, which has raised about $8 million for patients at Arkansas Children's Hospital.

"I guess I've gone full circle," he said. "Logging led me to forestry, and then forestry led me back to logging."

Bedell said he knows the three other loggers who preceded him into the hall of fame. "To be mentioned in the same breath as those guys is just breathtaking," he said. "I still think they got the wrong envelope."

A Poultry Pioneer

Neely Cassady was serious whenever he told people that he grew up in a chicken house, Cassady's son, Mark, said recently.

"During the winter months, he and an older brother really would sleep in a chicken house," stoking a small fire to keep the chickens -- and themselves -- warm, Mark Cassady said. The two had one blanket between them. "Whoever woke up without the blanket would know it was time to restart the fire," Mark said.

Lankston Cassady, his father, had a hatchery business near Nashville in Howard County, but died at 58. Neely was just 18, but he took over the business, never attending college as he had planned. The youngest of seven children, he was the only one to continue in the poultry business.

He built two poultry companies that are now part of Pilgrim Industries and Tyson Foods. He served part of southwest Arkansas as a state senator from 1983 to 1997. He was president of the Arkansas Poultry Federation for a year and a Tyson board member from 1974-2001.

Neely Cassady, 88, has Alzheimer's, Mark said. "I know he's honored, but he also thinks the true recognition belongs to his father, who really started the poultry industry in southwest Arkansas," he said. Mark Cassady represented his father at the induction ceremony.

An Accidental Farmer?

Gary Sebree's induction was largely for his leadership of Producers Rice Mill, a farmer-owned cooperative. But Sebree credited an early bout with tuberculosis for his success in business and in life.

Sebree was 18 and majoring in science at Hendrix College in 1959 when the diagnosis abruptly changed his plans. He'd grown up on farmland near Stuttgart established by his grandfather. "My father took over for him, and he had a couple of brothers, so it looked like there wasn't enough farmland to go around," he said. "I actually never intended to farm. It was a strange deal."

Going home to recuperate "gave me a chance to do some things on the farm that I hadn't been able to do before,'' Sebree said. After recovering, he returned to Hendrix for a short time.

"For some reason, it just wasn't the same," he said. "I came back home. Now I tell everybody that getting TB was the best thing that happened to me. I have two wonderful kids and four great-grandkids, and probably wouldn't have married the woman that I did." He and Phyllis Sebree have been married for 54 years.

Sebree was chairman of Producers Rice Mill for 24 years and a board member for 19 years. Owned by farmers, the co-op's membership grew from 956 members in 1971, Sebree's first year on the board, to 2,637 in 2013. Members' sales grew from $17 million to $568 million during the same period. Arkansas is the nation's top rice producer.

"It's all a great honor," Sebree said. "I told someone the other day, it [the Hall of Fame] wasn't really on my bucket list. I was just trying to help the industry, but I had a lot of good people around me who helped."

Friday was a big day for Sebree. He also turned 76. And, later that night, a friend from college, Jim Rasco, was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

A Family Business

Like Cassady, Mark C. Simmons took over the family business after his father's long illness and death but had enough time, over the span of several years, to learn from him.

"I took over in 1973, when he was in the hospital," Simmons, 70, said recently. "I was 26. It was a shock ... but I'd had several years of working closely with him. So, while I wasn't necessarily running the company, I was highly involved and had some experience."

He was 4 years old in 1949 when his father moved the family of four from Nebraska to Decatur in Benton County. "He leased a plant but quickly outgrew it, so he built a new one in Siloam Springs that opened in 1952," Simmons said.

Simmons worked with his father throughout high school and while attending the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

As president of Simmons Foods since 1973 and chairman since 1987, he has watched his privately held company grow from a single processing plant in Siloam Springs with about $20 million in sales and 350 employees to $1.4 billion in sales and 6,000 employees at more than 20 facilities across North America.

"There have been bright spots no question about it," he said. "But the poultry industry for decades has been extremely cyclical, where you make pretty good money one year, do OK another year, and lose money the next. But through the years, we were able to expand when others were contracting."

Simmons said he recently perused previous classes of the Arkansas Agricultural Hall of Fame and realized he knew, or had known, some 30 percent to 40 percent of the inductees.

"While this is an honor that is being given to me, it is really deserved by the people of Simmons who've made our organization a great place to work. My family, my wife, our employees -- all of them deserve this honor more than I do," he said.

A Brilliant Mind

The late Bobby R. Wells was only about 5 feet 9 inches tall, but was a giant in Arkansas agriculture research, especially in rice, said Richard Norman, a longtime colleague and friend of Wells at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where both men taught agronomy and soil science. 

"He was a humble man and a wonderful mentor to students and young scientists," said Norman, who nominated Wells. "He was innovative. He wasn't one of those who, as they get older, would say, 'oh, we've already done that, or there's no better way to do that.' He was always pushing students to keep experimenting."

Wells died Dec. 22, 1996, at age 62, of complications from abdominal surgery.

Wells came from Kentucky to Arkansas in 1966 to be an assistant professor at UA's rice research station in Stuttgart. After 16 years there, he moved to Fayetteville to teach and, eventually, became chairman of the Department of Agronomy.

Wells developed what is still believed to be the nation's only college course in rice production, Norman said.

After Wells moved to Fayetteville, Norman filled the vacancy at the rice research center but was eventually brought to Fayetteville to fill a faculty position in what is now the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences. Norman is a professor there.

"Filling out the [Hall of Fame] paperwork was an honor, and it also made me miss him all over again," Norman said.

Wells' wife, Marcia, lives in Arizona. Their only child, Teresa, who followed her father in becoming a scientist, died in September.

Source: nwaonline.com



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