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iLEAD III Sees Diversity of Operations in Northeast Arkansas

by Kim Rowe, Hempstead County Extension Agent-Agriculture - October 27, 2023

Photo collage of iLEAD visit to northeast Arkansas

Northeast Rice Research and Extension Center (NERREC)

On Oct. 19, 2023, our second face-to-face iLEAD session brought us to Poinsett County, between Jonesboro and Harrisburg. We were warmly greeted at the new Northeast Rice Research and Extension Center (NERREC) by Dr. Tim Burcham, the director of the center, Ashlyn Ussery, instructor for youth education, and Greg Simpson, farm manager.

Dr. Burcham started our journey by giving us an overview of the station’s roots and the progress being made to bring it to completion. He said to his knowledge, this was the only new experiment station being constructed in the United States.

Then, we loaded onto the wagon for the research tour. Dr. Burcham gave an informative tour explaining water issues plaguing rice production, differing soil types in the region, challenges the researchers are facing on the station, and how they’re addressing challenges particularly in growing soybeans in zero-grade, precision-leveled fields as soybeans are not flood tolerant. 

Dr. Burcham emphasized the need for water conservation in rice production, citing the station’s existing reservoir as an important component for serving the research needs supporting reduced reliance on ground water and irrigation tailwater recovery. As we concluded our time at NERREC, we all agreed the crash course in rice production made experts out of us all.

Jackson County Extension Center

Next, we traveled to the new Jackson County Extension Center near Newport to meet staff chair Matthew Davis who had just completed a building project of his own. The newly branded Jackson County Extension Center brings together applied research, production, and adult and youth education. The project combined the Jackson County Extension Office and the formerly named Jackson County Extension Center into the new Arkansas Corn and Grain Sorghum Producers Board building which opened earlier this year.

Ashley Dingman, volunteer management coordinator for the 4-H Youth Development program, led us in a fun community-building activity and spoke about the role of volunteers in extension work. Finally, Davis, who oversaw the construction and expansion of the center, gave us a trailer tour of the research fields which ended at the new 4-H outdoor skills area where most of us tried our hand at axe throwing after a short lesson from cohort member, Jesse Bocksnick, 4-H outdoor skills coordinator. Feeling empowered after chunking sharp, heavy steel objects at targets, we journeyed on to Batesville for the final leg.

Livestock and Forestry Research Station-Batesville 

The Livestock and Forestry Research Station just outside of Batesville completed our session on Friday, Oct. 20. Dr. Shane Gadberry, station director, welcomed everyone and gave us a brief history before we started our station tour. Aboard the tour bus, we visited the cattle working facilities.

Dr. Gadberry discussed the pens, sweep tub and chute design, referring to Temple Grandin, world-renowned animal scientist, who is responsible for designing equipment and techniques used in modern cattle handling.  This was a favorite stop for the group as several mentioned they had never seen working facilities. We then began the ascent to the forested land to see research projects in reforestation led by Mike McGowan, current iLead cohort member, who conducts much of his research on the station. McGowan was our guide as we saw logging equipment in an overmature hardwood tract where eastern red cedar was in abundance and had been removed to allow for natural hardwood regeneration. Our afternoon concluded with a lesson in civil dialogue from Dr. Debbie Nistler, assistant vice president for 4-H and Youth Development.

The experiences and perspective gained in this session were in perfect contrast to each other and in keeping with the rich history of the Division of Agriculture. We saw a brand-new research and extension center not yet completed, an extension center with a shiny new office and meeting facility, and one of the oldest research stations in our system with a new director committed to moving things forward. Dr. Julie Robinson explained the different designations of each type of Division of Agriculture property, which was eye-opening for some who have solely experienced only one side or the other. Each stop varied so much in the research and activity focus, this session gave us all an enlightening, broad view of the various entities within the Division of Agriculture and the vast differences, both geographically and agriculturally, in a relatively small area of the state. We are all looking forward to wherever iLead takes us next so stay tuned! 

The next iLEAD session, set for Nov. 17, 2023 will take place virtually. To learn more information about the iLEAD program, please reach out to Julie Robinson at or Lisa Davis at