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Ann Kenda / Arkansas Public Media

Ann Kenda joined Arkansas Public Media in January 2017 from Sudbury, Massachusetts.  She is a graduate of Syracuse University and previously worked in public radio, commercial radio and newspaper in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  She focuses on health, justice, education and energy as part of the Arkansas Public Media team.  Her stories can be found on the airwaves, ArkansasPublicMedia.org and social media.

Student actors and crew from Arkansas State University are moving into bold new territory with an ambitious staging of "In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play" by Sarah Ruhl.  Ann Kenda with Arkansas Public Media takes us behind the scenes to a tech rehearsal.

"In the Next Room" opens on Friday, February 16 at 7:30pm at AState's Simpson Theater.

Lawmakers are expected to begin work next month on the sweeping legislation known as the Farm Bill.  The bill covers dozens of nutrition, agricultural and rural policies that affect everyday life.

While discussions around the Farm Bill often focus on food stamps, the supplemental food program that assists millions of Americans, including about one in seven Arkansas residents, this year lawmakers are also concentrating on agricultural safety net programs for farmers.

Arkansas’s health groups are reacting to corrective statements the tobacco industry began airing on network TV in late November with some optimism that they will help reduce the state’s high smoking rate as well as concern the ads won’t reach young people.

Soy has been widely accepted as a heart-healthy food for nearly two decades.  Manufacturers of packaged food products have claimed that soy protein reduces the risk of coronary heart disease, and labeled their products thusly.

Now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration isn’t so sure and is seeking an unprecedented revocation of the authorized claim.  With an authorized claim, manufacturers get a stamp of approval from the FDA to directly state a health benefit — calcium, for instant, helps stymie osteoporosis.

The agency said a review of evidence linking soy protein to improved heart health wasn’t conclusive enough to warrant an authorized claim. 

Douglas Balentine, director of the Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling, said studies have evolved since the authorized claim for soy's heart benefits was approved in 1999.

Rice industry leaders have announced a plan to form a task force to look into whether voluntary smoke management guidelines can help reduce tension between farmers who use field burns to clear residue after the harvest, and residents who say the smoke aggravates asthma symptoms. 

The task force  will use a model based on smoke management guidelines for forestry landowners.

“They’ll use it as a template but draft smoke management  guidelines that are voluntary but more applicable for agriculture, specifically with crops,” said Lauren Waldrip Ward, executive director of the Arkansas Rice Federation.

On the eve of a major decision by the state over the controversial weed killer dicamba, tensions are running high in Arkansas’s farming communities.

“This is probably the most divisive the agricultural community has ever been,” said Shawn Peebles, an organic farmer in Augusta. 

Peebles said he hasn’t personally sustained damage from dicamba drift but he is experiencing issues with companies no longer wanting to do business with Arkansas growers due to concerns about residue from the weed killer.  

When the winds are just right on an October afternoon, clouds of smoke can be seen from the rural highways of Mississippi County. 

Once in a while, an out-of-state motorist calls 911 to report a fire, but most people who live and work in the county are familiar with the phenomenon.  It’s agricultural burning, a widely used but controversial practice that allows the farmers to clear their fields quickly after a harvest and get ready for the next season.

Grass Roots Farmers' Cooperative in Clinton consider so-called locavores and farm-to-table chefs who want assurance their meat is raised organically their target demographic, and they're turning to the emerging information system blockchain technology for its ease and thoroughness of reporting.

Blockchain works by providing a shared digital ledger of trusted information that cannot be edited and is not controlled by any one person.  It promises to provide at the speed of a webpage load a full history of a product, service or idea. 

This same technology is also being tried by the world's largest food retailers like Walmart who are perhaps more concerned with quickly tracking the source of food contamination in the event of an outbreak or health scare.

The Saint Louis-based company that makes dicamba is responding to a proposed ban on the high-tech weed killer for the 2018 growing season.

Ty Vaughn, global regulatory vice president for Monsanto, said the company is disappointed and troubled by a vote from the state plant board to pursue a ban on farm applications of dicamba after April 15.  Vaughn said dicamba is being used successfully in other states.

“We’ve seen growers in 33 states over the past year have really good success with our system.  Our main goal here is to allow growers in Arkansas to have the same access,” said Vaughn.

At the ranch on County Road 766 in Jonesboro, a pretty silvery-white calf born just three days earlier was happily playing and running around on a field. He’s one of the newest members of Arkansas’s collective herd, population 1.75 million.

“The last bull we bought cost $3,600, and he’s a good bull, but probably the next one we buy will be higher than that.  You have to look for traits that will improve the calves that you already have,” said rancher Eric Grant. 

There’s a dent in the fence from when a massive bull tried to hurl himself through it to get to a cow.  The bull seems to have an uncanny sense for when a cow is in heat even several fields away, Grant said.

Arkansas continues to struggle with one of the highest obesity rates in the country, a new State of Obesity report released Thursday confirms.

A team from Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to come up with state rankings by weight.

Arkansas’s obesity rate stood at 35.7 percent in 2016. In other words, one in three adults is classified obese. Arkansas tied with Alabama in the ranking as the third worst state in the nation.

On a recent summer afternoon, workers and trucks buzzed in and out of a pump station under construction in DeValls Bluff.  Several miles away, the site of what will eventually be a 100-acre regulating reservoir is currently filled with dirt.

Already 17 years in the making, the project tends to spark cycles of controversy among those who say it’s a badly needed solution to the region’s water woes and those who say it’s too large of a financial and environmental burden.  Such woes include rapidly dwindling ground water.

About one in three Arkansas residents is obese, and doctors say it’s leading to people dying much younger than they need to, and leading unhealthier lives in the meantime.

“They have more co-morbidities, which means they have other disease processes that basically can shorten their lifespans, such as diabetes and hypertension and heart disease,” said Dr. Shane Speights, dean of the New York Institute of Technology's College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University.  He said since the human body is not meant to carry hundreds of extra pounds, morbidly obese humans may suffer severe hip, joint, knee or ankle pain.

A recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count data center finds that heart disease is the fifth-highest cause of death for children and teenagers in Arkansas. 

At five-percent, heart disease is dwarfed by other causes, such as accidents, which account for 34 percent of childhood deaths. But doctors say heart disease can still endanger kids and put many others at risk for problems in adulthood and lead to heart attacks under the age of 40.

CLARIFICATION: Michele Reba is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, Delta Water Management Research Unit. Her affiliation was misrepresented in an earlier version of this story.

Four Arkansas farms have made a deal with the world’s largest software maker, Microsoft. The Whitaker Farms in McGehee, Isbell Farm in Stuttgart, Hooks Family Farm in Hazen and Florenden Farms in Burdette join two farms in California and one in Mississippi as the first recipients of carbon credits for rice production. 

The program rewards farmers for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from rice, considered among the more environmentally damaging of all crops.  With a carbon credit, companies can exceed emissions caps by paying for reductions elsewhere, such as on a farm. 

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