Speakers planned for rural assembly

University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's 2024 Rural Life Conference speakers will include top row: Jason Brown, left, Louis E. James; bottom row: Homer Wilkes, left, and P.J. Haynie. (Special to The Commercial)
University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's 2024 Rural Life Conference speakers will include top row: Jason Brown, left, Louis E. James; bottom row: Homer Wilkes, left, and P.J. Haynie. (Special to The Commercial)

The 65th annual Rural Life Conference will feature distinguished speakers. The conference is set for March 15 at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's Health, Physical Education and Recreation (HPER) Complex, 1204 L.A. Prexy Davis Drive. The event begins with registration at 7:30 a.m., according to a news release.


Jason Brown – First Fruits Farm owner

Brown, owner of First Fruits Farm of Louisburg, N.C., will deliver the S.A. Haley Memorial Lecture during the morning assembly at 8:30 a.m.

After graduating from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill while on an athletic scholarship, in 2005, he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens.

As a free agent in 2009, Brown signed a five-year contract with the St. Louis Rams. He served three years and was released from contract in March 2012. With several lucrative offers from the Baltimore Ravens, Carolina Panthers and the San Francisco 49ers, Brown decided instead to take a leap of faith and part ways with the NFL.

After his departure from the NFL, Brown moved back to North Carolina and purchased a 1,000-acre farm in Louisburg.

His business, First Fruits Farm has hosted several community events and collaborated with many faith and service organizations. It has also yielded more than one million pounds of produce, which was distributed to food pantries and churches throughout the Research Triangle Region.

Louis E. James – President, CEO of MCL JASCO

James will be the luncheon speaker at 12:30 p.m. He is the chief executive officer of MCL JASCO Inc., a supply chain management and logistics company that at one time only served the automotive industry.

Today, comprised of five sister companies, MCL JASCO, is a 100% minority- and disabled veteran-owned integrated enterprise. It spans beyond the operation and management of supply chain, focusing on the automotive, energy and government industries, according to the release.

"Working extensively with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, James has combined decades of experience with that of his expert project teams to focus on the agricultural needs of historically disadvantaged and underserved communities," according to the release.

His emphasis is on local municipalities, farmers and private landowners. James' efforts provide services in compliance, construction, engineering, technical assistance and outreach.

"His company serves as a government contracted leader in conservation and restoration activities, employing its mission to educate, conserve, enhance and restore the natural habitat in territories throughout the U.S.," according to the release.

Homer Wilkes – USDA Under Secretary for USDA Natural Resources and Environment

Wilkes is under secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources and Environment and oversees the work of the U.S. Forest Service.

During the assembly at 8:30 a.m., he will discuss the role and importance of agriculture.

A native of Port Gibson, Miss., he previously served as director for the Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem Restoration Team and was responsible for overseeing the rebuilding of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. He has also served as the acting associate chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Washington, D.C., according to the release.

Wilkes' tenure with the USDA spans over 41 years. He has served in roles such as state conservationist and deputy state conservationist for the state of Mississippi and chief financial officer for the NRCS in Washington.

P.J. Haynie – Owner of Haynie Farms LLC

Haynie will give a dedication during the conference luncheon at 12:30 p.m. After graduating from Virginia Tech, he chose to pursue his childhood dream and continue his family's tradition of farming. A fifth-generation farmer, he owns and operates Haynie Farms LLC, a grain farming business, which produces rice, corn, wheat, soybeans and canola throughout all four counties of the northern portion of Virginia. Haynie is co-owner of Arkansas River Rice, the only Black-owned rice mill in the U.S. He also serves as chairman of the National Black Grower's Council.

Haynie was featured in the documentary "Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land," produced by Al Roker. The documentary discusses Black land loss resulting from heirs' property laws. Haynie is a life-long advocate for increased awareness about the importance of diversity in the agricultural industry.

The film will be screened a day before the conference, March 14 at 4:45 p.m. in the S.J. Parker 1890 Extension Complex auditorium, 2300 L.A. Prexy Davis Drive.


Sponsored by the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences, the Rural Life Conference will feature workshops, a poster session highlighting research projects and exhibits by governmental and community agencies. This year's conference theme is "Legacy Opportunities for Community Service and Outreach – Connecting, Collaboration and Commitment."

The opening session begins at 8:30 a.m. The program concludes at 4 p.m. Breakfast and lunch will be provided, and door prizes will be awarded.

Those who are not able to attend can take part in some of the planned activities virtually. The workshop sessions will be available via Zoom.

The conference is free to producers, students, veterans, homemakers and retirees. For registration rates for professionals and agency personnel, contact Karen Lee at (870) 575-7225 or [email protected]. Professionals and agency personnel can register and pay for their entry via credit card by contacting the the UAPB Cashier's Office at (870) 575-8279.

Early registration is recommended for accurate breakfast and lunch counts. To preregister, contact Tamera Ford at (870) 575-8806 or [email protected]. The registration form for the conference is also accessible online. Email [email protected] to have the link to the form sent to you. Alternatively, you can use the following link to register: https://shop.uapb.edu/.

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