Editor’s Note: “The Economic Development Side” originally appears in the Pine Bluff Regional Chamber of Commerce’s weekly member e-newsletter. It is written by Rhonda Dishner, the Economic Development Alliance’s executive assistant.

Traditional agriculture in Jefferson County was celebrated last week as Pine Bluff’s Chamber of Commerce sponsored, for the 65th time, its annual Farmers Appreciation Fish Fry.

Especially honored at the event was the Lawrence “Wink” Conyer family, Jefferson County’s 2017 Farm Family of the Year. Conyer plants soybeans, rice and corn on about 900 acres in several locations in the county.

He is joined in the business of growing cash crops by other county farm families who also raise soybeans, rice and corn, along with wheat, grain sorghum, cotton, etc., on many thousands of acres of our rich Arkansas Delta soil. These six major Jefferson County crops had a value of almost $200 million in 2015, according to the local UofA Cooperative Extension Service.

Fittingly, the staple food at these appreciation dinners — fried catfish fillets — is also farm-raised.

Most likely in 2018, however, another yield will be added to the list of crops grown in Jefferson County. That crop, cannabis, will be new to Arkansas and the county. Its production and distribution will be a modern blending of farming and state-of-the-art pharmaceutical manufacturing.

Fifty-three percent of Arkansas voters in November 2016 approved legalization of medical marijuana, and the legislation established cultivation facilities and dispensaries. The state’s new Medical Marijuana Commission has decided it will initially allow only five growing operations, with 32 dispensaries equally divided among eight geographic zones.

From January through September, the Economic Development Alliance responded to dozens of requests for information about available sites or buildings in the community area. When one of the first questions asked was whether churches or schools were near suggested properties, Alliance staff knew the caller was looking for a potential marijuana site. Cultivation operations can’t be located within 3,000 feet of churches, schools or childcare facilities. Dispensaries must be at least 1,500 feet away from churches, schools or daycares.

According to information from the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, a total of 13 applications were submitted (by the Sept. 18 deadline) for medical marijuana cultivation operations in Jefferson County. Only time will tell which, if any, of these projects receive a license to operate here. The commission received a total of 95 applications for the five sites to be selected.

It’s assumed by some that Jefferson County received attention from numerous potential cannabis growers because of the county’s fertile delta soil. But all of these new farming operations would be indoors with powerful grow lights and intricate watering systems.

Out in the weather, though — rain or shine, hot or cold, hail or high water—will continue to be our conventional farmers who for generations have helped grow the local economy with each successful planting season.