An annual conference geared toward helping Arkansans improve the quality of their lives through education and collaboration drew a large crowd Friday at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.

“Innovations for farms, families, and communities in changing times” was the theme or the 62nd Annual Rural Life Conference hosted by the School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Since its inception in 1950, the Rural Life Conference has offered farmers, UAPB faculty and students, representatives from public and private agencies, and others the opportunity to discuss, document and develop solutions to challenges facing rural Arkansas.

“Agriculture is such a diverse segment that we’re all engaged in different ways and different capacities,” said Pamela Moore with UAPB’s School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences. “This conference provides an opportunity for us all to assemble under one roof and get the big picture while learning from each other.”

The first guest speaker for the conference was Walter A. Hill, dean of the College of Agriculture, Environment and Nutrition Sciences and Vice Provost of Land Grant, Community Engagement, Integrative and Sustainability Affairs at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Hill discussed the challenges and opportunities of land-grant institutions, using lessons he’s learned from his 30 years as dean of one.

A land-grant college or university is an institution that has been designated by its state legislature or Congress to receive the benefits of the Morrill Acts of 1862, 1890 and 1994.

His lessons were: It takes a team, stay connected to the community, give God the glory, the wise build bridges and the foolish build barriers.

Hill also emphasized giving and working together.

“Team innovation can drive you to more resources,” Hill said.

He went on to discuss the importance of partnerships amongst SOFSEC (Southern Food Systems Education Consortium) Universities and the impacts of it. The universities include UAPB, Alabama A&M, Alcorn State, Florida A&M, Fort Valley State, North Carolina A&T, Southern University A&M College, South Carolina State, and Tuskegee.

“It (SOFSEC partnership) was a great success,” Hill said. “We had those meetings where we brought the community together.”

Hill discussed the production risk factors and possible solutions.

“We all know the issues that don’t allow optimization for small farmers to consistently make a profit,” Hill said.

Unsafe food, loss of customers, weather, loss of yield and quality due to pests, low prices, transportation, and processing were among the risk factors highlighted during Hill’s speech.

Hill ended his speech by encouraging the university to be innovative, and he offered to help with the betterment of the agriculture program while emphasizing the importance of the community.

“If you are creating new graduate programs, make them innovative,” he said. “Don’t do what’s already done. I will find someone at Tuskegee that will connect with someone at UAPB to do a grant or something that we’re not already doing.”

Hill told the audience, “Don’t underestimate your connection to the community.”

He said the community should be respected and helped because they will be the ones to help the university leap forward.

After Hill’s speech, the Rural Life Conference was dedicated to Kenneth J. Lee Sr., who served as the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) liaison with UAPB and Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation (ALFDC). He was honored for his contributions to the School of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Human Sciences at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

He recruited students, monitored projects, conducted and attended workshops, and updated UAPB and ALFDC on Farm Bill and agency changes. He also developed and managed agency programs and policies.

“This is a major honor,” Lee said. He went on thank God and his family, saying that “I couldn’t do it without them.”

He thanked UAPB for honoring him with the award and providing him with the education needed to accomplish great things. He thanked the USDA and NRCS for putting him in a position to accomplish great things for the university.

Following the dedication, conference attendees participated in a variety of workshops pertaining to soybean and rice production, vegetable production, food safety, business and marketing resources, etc.

Attendees gathered for a luncheon, followed by the second guest speaker Alton Thompson, Executive Director of the Association of 1890 Research Directors.

Thompson emphasized the importance of innovation and creativity during changing times.

“In order for farmers, families, and people in the rural communities to adapt to changing times, creativity and innovation will be our only sustainable, competitive advantage in the future,” Thompson said.

He explained the Country Life Commission, created by President Theodore Roosevelt, and how it still has an impact on rural life. The commission was the first major effort to improve the well-being of rural people and to make recommendations on what the federal government should be doing.

“Roosevelt knew that there were rural/urban differentials,” Thompson said. “The rural quality of life is behind the urban quality of life, and we need to focus scientifically on the rural quality of life and the rural prosperity.”

He said that the government has tried to improve the quality of life in rural areas with electricity, roads, and water sewage systems being very successful. Problems such as unemployment, inadequate housing, poor healthcare, poverty, broadband, and other electronic technologies have seen little progress despite the money and effort.

“The Country Life Commission viewed education as very important,” Thompson said, adding that the commission viewed education as the heart of the problems and the solutions in country life.

He used a quote from the commission to express the views on education: “All difficulties resolve themselves in the end to the question of education. The commission judge rural schools to be in a state of arrested development, making it largely responsible for ineffective farming.”

Thompson said that since farming is dependent upon education, if the education is in arrested development and inadequate, the farming will be in that same condition. He offered the resolution of improving the education to improve the rural quality of life.

Thompson encouraged the idea of the creative, innovative people at UAPB connecting with the creative, innovative people of the rural community. He made the audience aware of the changes that could be implemented if people worked together as a team.

He ended his speech by encouraging attendees to take some time each day to think things through for themselves, and to think of ways to make life better for themselves and others. “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them,” Thompson said. “Take some time to think about the future, and do not let the noise of other people’s opinion drown out your inner voice.”