WorkingNation’s Green Jobs Now series is looking at green jobs opportunities and the skills needed to get those jobs across the country with a series of state-by-state reports and is republished with permission. This week: Arkansas.
Chris Isbell of Isbell Farms is a prime example of a lifelong learner. “If I had to farm like everybody else, I wouldn’t want to be a farmer because I like to experiment. I like to look at new things. I like to test the envelope on just about everything. That’s just my personality. And I was allowed to do that here,” said Isbell, who co-owns the 3,000-acre farm with his wife, Judy in England, Arkansas.
Isbell is from a lineage of at least five generations of farmers, with his father being the first to grow rice. Rice, not cotton. It may surprise you to learn that more than 47 percent of all the rice grown in the U.S. is from Arkansas, which had a record harvest last year.
More than 30 years ago, Isbell began attending the gatherings of the Rice Technical Working Group. “Academics from all of the rice-growing states meet every two years. They share their experiments and the papers they’ve written. It’s basically peer review.”
Over time, Isbell developed close relationships with a number of the conference attendees. “Through the years, we kept those friendships up and it’s helped out many times in our decisions about where to go and what to do next on the farm.”
Green jobs growth in the natural state
As Isbell Farms is demonstrating, sustainability practices are taking root in the agriculture sector — leading to more jobs that can be categorized as green.
“The strong uptick in green job demand in 2021 in Arkansas is an indication that the green economy in the state is taking hold,” according to our new Green Jobs Now: Arkansas report, a WorkingNation and Emsi Burning Glass analysis of the green labor market in the state.
The report indicates there was demand last year for 1,374 new green workers in the state with the current green workforce estimated at more than 6,558.
Green jobs are found across many industries, according to the report, including manufacturing and construction. But the report adds, “We see surprising industries such as professional, scientific and technical services coming up as having demand for green workers.”
The report said, “The workers in this industry include software developers [and] business management analysts. … This is yet further evidence of the breadth of today’s green economy.”
The report points out, “While we see demand across Arkansas for green workers, the greatest concentrations can be found in the Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway metropolitan area.”
It is projected that in the next five years, employment demand for green jobs in Arkansas will increase by 9 percent, outpacing the national average of 5.7 percent.
Green Jobs Now: Arkansas finds almost 445,000 workers in Arkansas, or nearly a third of the entire Arkansas workforce, could be green workers — suggesting a talent pool that could learn new skills to work in the sector. The report notes that the average green jobs salary in Arkansas is more than $61,466.
Green practices and skills address agricultural issues
Paula DiPerna — a consultant to WorkingNation on the green economy and a special advisor to CDP, a nonprofit that works with its members to manage their environmental impacts — said, “One of the big problems in Arkansas has been the runoff, the pesticides, the fertilizers, all of that running off into the river waters.”
Back at the farm, Isbell said zero grade fields address this problem. “Our water, according to the researchers, is cleaner leaving the field than when it’s pumped on. The rice crop serves as a filtering system. Because the zero grade fields don’t require water moving through them to remain flooded.”
Much of the farm’s energy is generated by their on-farm solar project. According to the Isbell Farms website, solar provides power for “irrigation, grain drying, farm shops, and residences.” Unused power is transferred to the local power grid.
Among the varieties being sustainably grown by Isbell Farms are types of Japanese rice, including some used to make sake. Years ago, at one academic gathering, a man from Japan told Isbell about a “spectacular” rice that could only grow in a certain region of his country.
Once back in Arkansas, Isbell studied the rice and its region at the local library. “No internet,” he explains. “I looked at the globe and spun it. I looked at our latitude versus the latitude of Japan. And they were right on the money. I said, ‘I bet I could grow it here.’”
These days, Isbell Farms supplies rice to premium sake brewers, both domestically and internationally.
Sharing the learning mission
Isbell makes his farm available to higher ed, giving students the opportunity to conduct field research — for example, learning about and monitoring specific sustainability practices’ role in reducing gas emissions.
University of Arkansas is conducting methane emissions testing. Isbell explains that leftover straw from the rice crop deteriorates underwater and sends methane into the atmosphere.
The farm uses an irrigation method called alternate wetting and drying (AWD) that helps save water and cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions. “We flood [the field] and then let it dry up. Flood it again, let it dry up. Flood it again. When you do that, these microbes switch from anaerobic to aerobic and they stop making methane.” Of note, Isbell said the research indicates the methane emissions are reduced by 64 percent using AWD.
Research and implementation call for green skills
“Arkansas is a great state to study agriculture because we have totally different geographies. Where I live in Fayetteville, we have the rolling Ozark Mountains which have pastures. In the southwest, there are forests. And then in the eastern part of the state, there are row crops,” said Benjamin Runkle, professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of Arkansas.
“We’re working with farmers to do different kinds of sustainability studies and implementations. The soil is very rich. It comes from the long-term history of the Mississippi River meandering across a flood plain, but it’s created a lot of different zones. You have sandy soils and clay soils. So, you need to create custom-made solutions for each farmer to be able to do the best kind of irrigation that they can,” said Runkle.
Runkle notes that the Isbell family has been very generous making their farm available for study: “I do research on the Isbell farm. We have instrumentation on the fields. We take notes about what they’re doing. We analyze their crop yield and figure out different ways that it could be more sustainable.”
Runkle’s research points to the significant impact of AWD in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the field. “You re-oxygenate the soils and prevent the methane from being produced. Sometimes a really small change can make a really big difference. We’re working on creating tools that also help make that a little bit easier. These are busy farmers managing a lot of land. We’re working to build little sensors they can put in one area of the field. Little things to look at so they can improve their practices.”
“I am an engineer. [The farmers] are also engineers — optimizing across a lot of different things. They can think very holistically about their farm and really understand deeply. So, then when they do make a change, they want to be really committed to it and understand all the possible implications — pros and cons — of doing that. That’s some of what our research can help demonstrate or test or explain to them.”
Career opportunities for students
Runkle said a lot of his students get jobs after graduation interacting with agriculture — for example, with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which offers incentive programs for farmers to implement conservation practices. “[Students] had some experience on the farm and the research. They want to stay in that area. They get to use the engineering skills that they’ve learned in the classroom to then help implement change.”
“A lot of the students are really eager to be a part of the solution to the environmental problems that they’re seeing. And there are jobs, more and more, that are available to them.”
“This biological engineering is really about how to better use our landscapes for not just food production,” said Runkle. Looking ahead, he said, the landscape can be used to foster climate-smart agriculture.
With more farmers installing solar on their land, Runkle said students are landing in the renewable energy industry. He adds, “The types of jobs could include instrument maintenance and reading. Could be modeling and interpreting what the farmers are doing. Could be providing education for farmers. There’s a lot of strategies that are needed. A lot of different types of minds I think are needed in this area. It’s not just engineers, but people who can translate information back and forth.”
“One other tool that’s really interesting is satellites from NASA and other places that are crisscrossing the sky every night. Taking lots of pictures of the earth from which we can determine things like how well is that plant growing? Is it green in the winter or brown in the winter? Is it flooded or not flooded? We’re able to then turn that information into something that’s quantifiable in terms of the carbon impact of the landscape. So that’s also a whole new area of jobs and training and new types of education that we’re going to have to develop.”
Runkle said, as the focus on sustainability changes, teaching is working to keep up. “I’m starting some teaching on what we call natural climate solutions. You could be a financial accountant. You can also be a carbon accountant and work with landscape managers to take an accounting of how much carbon their operation costs and then how much savings they can have by storing the carbon or by reducing some of the energy use in greenhouse gas production.”
DiPerna is not surprised by students’ interest in sustainability: “Green thinking is baked in to so much of the thinking of kids in college and in graduate school. I think you’re just seeing the natural evolution of knowledge.”
Runkle said it’s not just students who are becoming more knowledgeable about tech. “The other thing with data and everybody being a technologist is a lot of farming, in general, is just becoming more data-rich. [The farmers] are looking at the weather on their phones to how much money they’re paying for fertilizer. There’s a lot of data interpretation and services and instruments. Their tractors are very advanced. They can drive themselves. And, of course, they fly drones.”
We’re going to build upon our past and our legacy
“Green is kind of a crosscutting. It’s going to impact just about all jobs in the future,” said Mike Preston of the Arkansas Department of Commerce. The Commerce Department oversees a number of divisions, including the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services and the Office of Skills Development.
Preston sees the state’s green economy being driven by three industries that have long histories in the state — agriculture, steel and timber. “We’re going to build upon our past and our legacy and just do it better and in a different, more efficient way.”
Preston notes that U.S. Steel recently broke ground in Osceola on a $3 billion mill. “It’ll be the most technologically advanced steel mill in the world. They have a goal of a net zero carbon footprint by 2050, which for a steel mill is just incredible to think about.” He said the facility — an expansion after U.S. Steel’s 2019 acquisition of Big River Steel — will create 900 new jobs.
With U.S. Steel moving into Arkansas, DiPerna said, “Don’t miss the big story.” She said steel manufacturing becoming more sustainable is a major step forward.
Regarding timber, Preston said, “We have an abundance of forest. We restock our forest every year. There’s a new technology called cross-laminated timber which is used in building materials. It’s as strong as any other industrial material in terms of making buildings. Extremely eco-friendly.
“I’d say for Arkansas, the future is bright. The brightness gets even brighter with the green jobs because there’s going to be more and more coming.”
“Arkansas seems to be demonstrating that the future of economic growth is tied to environmental protection,” DiPerna said. “Once you don’t see economic growth in conflict with environmental protection, then you can open your eyes to the idea that a lot of people are going to be employed, stay employed, or upskill in that new world.”
Intersection between agriculture and energy
April Ambrose, the first employee at Entegrity in Little Rock — basically, a green building consulting firm that focuses on energy and sustainability — said the opportunity for sustainability practice is bigger than those in agriculture may realize. “It is a solar gold rush in Arkansas. One of the things that makes it nice is that you can have meter aggregation. I, as a farmer, might have a meter for my home. I might have a shop. I might have a number of different pumps, and now rather than having to put solar at each of those locations, I can have solar offsite somewhere that counts toward those meters.”
“In areas that are not usable for farming, you can put solar and be generating income to offset your utility bill for all of the other areas.”
As part of its educational initiatives, Entegrity has a partnership with Heifer International, said Ambrose. The organization provides training to students, usually members of Future Farmers of America, “helping them understand the role of regenerative agriculture and carbon sequestration in the soils — as it relates to the land where solar is installed.”
Ambrose also points out there is a big push to make solar “dual use.” She explains, “There’s this land that [solar] sits on that should be able to do something. Can’t grow plants up too high and shade the panels, but what can be done under that? Low-growing pollinator plants and then putting bees on-site. Grazing land for sheep because sheep won’t affect the systems. They can keep the grass low and keep it mowed where you don’t have to maintain the growth in those areas.”
She adds, “Now you can’t use goats. Goats will eat the wiring. Cows will rub against the systems to scratch themselves, but sheep work really well.”
Ambrose also notes, “In fact, if the panels are high enough, you can still do row crops underneath, as well.”
Sustain resources for future generations
Isbell said farming sustainably can be costly, but the mission is too important to turn back now. “From the farmer’s perspective, this thing is consumer-driven. This is what the consumer wants. If we’re going to sell the consumer rice, then my mantra has always been, ‘You sell somebody what they want. You don’t try to convince them they want something else.’”
“The market has gone to sustainability and we are able to do that. So why not? Especially in the greenhouse gases, carbon sequestration, and things like that. The consumer may be living in an apartment building downtown, wherever, and all he can do for his carbon footprint is purchase products that were produced sustainably.”
Isbell adds, “The whole farming community is out here if you can just convince them to step up and do the same thing.”
“The thing about environmental jobs, green jobs is that they have only one objective in the end,” DiPerna said. “You can call any job green that has this objective — reduce waste of natural resources and reduce the contamination of natural resources.
“Anything that has an environmental benefit in that regard to my mind is a green job. There have been farmers for centuries trying to manage the land sustainably, but there was no payoff for it. But now there is.”
Notes Runkle, “I am excited about the possibilities for Arkansas. We’re a state rich in natural resources and opportunity. I think there’s also a lot of opportunity to improve practices. We could make a much more interesting food production system and also make it much more sustainable. Be part of the climate solution.”
And Ambrose said, “As we think about energy as a part of sustainability, you have to go back to the meaning of sustainability. It’s to sustain these resources for future generations. ‘People’ is ultimately the focus and not just the environment. It’s the intersection between the two.”