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Cynthia Edwards
Class of 2019

Hometown: Little Rock

Title/Position: Arkansas Deputy Secretary of Agriculture

Briefly describe your role:
I serve as the Chief of Staff for Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward at the Arkansas Department of Agriculture (Department). I oversee the administration of the Department’s Shared Services Division that includes the Fiscal, Human Resources, Marketing and Communications, Legal, Law Enforcement, Information Technology, and Laboratory Services sections. I have been with the Department since 2011.
The Department was created in 2005 and exists to serve Arkansas’s agricultural industry. The Department employs approximately 600 employees within five divisions: Forestry, Livestock and Poultry, Natural Resources, Plant Industries, and Shared Services. The Department has three offices in Little Rock and 63 Forestry Division offices and work centers across the state.

Q: Is what you’re doing now what you always pictured you would do?
I don’t recall having a definite idea of what I wanted to do for a career, but I knew I wanted something challenging and not boring.
Growing up in the middle of “rice country” in DeWitt, Arkansas, I was surrounded by agriculture, but I had a narrow world view of the industry at that time. The only people I knew in agriculture either owned a farm or worked on a farm, and I didn’t give much thought to “off farm” aspects of agriculture or view it as a career option. I focused on business classes in college and became interested in law school after visiting with a family friend who was a labor attorney in Texas and the only female attorney I had ever met. Law school sounded challenging and exciting, so I applied and was accepted.
Law school helped broaden my view of agriculture and its many facets, and I learned about the LL.M. program in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law. The idea of specializing in an area of law intrigued me, and I thought Arkansas’s LL.M. program would be an excellent opportunity.
I was working for a small agricultural law firm in northwest Arkansas when one of my law professors recommended me for a job as an agricultural liaison for one of Arkansas’s U. S. Senators. Although I had never been involved in Arkansas politics, I jumped at the chance and discovered that constituent service fit my skill set perfectly. I thoroughly enjoyed helping farmers as they dealt with a myriad of federal agencies and laws. Taking what I learned from producers and providing that input as Farm Bills and other federals laws so important to Arkansas farmers were drafted was rewarding and met my requirements of challenging and not boring.
My Senate staff career led to my current position when Arkansas’s first Secretary of Agriculture, Richard Bell, hired me as the Deputy Secretary in 2011. My years of working with federal laws and policy were helpful as I learned about Arkansas’s system of government and the role of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture. Being a part of the Department as we implement Governor Hutchinson’s Transformation of State Government legislation certainly qualifies as challenging and exciting, and it is a wonderful opportunity to help the Department continue to meet the needs of Arkansas’s broad, diverse, and highly successful agricultural industry.

Q: What do you see as the greatest challenges for women in your chosen industry? What are the greatest opportunities?
A: The challenges for women in agriculture are similar to those in any industry. But, women in agriculture are incredibly resilient, resourceful, and smart. Their perseverance is being rewarded and appreciated within all sectors of the agricultural industry.
It’s an exciting time for women and men who are interested in careers in agriculture, if they are willing to learn the industry and work hard. The explosion of technology within the industry and the continued advances in research have brought renewed attention to agriculture as a career path. New job opportunities in the food, agriculture, renewable natural resources, and environment sectors are expected to exceed the number of qualified graduates.

Q: Who has inspired you in your life/career?
A: I am fortunate to have had excellent role models within my family that taught by example. My parents stressed the value of education to my sisters and me, and they were always encouraging and supportive of our educational pursuits. They taught us the value of work and the value of spending time with family.
My paternal grandmother was widowed at an early age and reared four children during tough economic times on her own. She purchased and operated a small business in Weiner, Arkansas in the 1950s, and I suspect she was probably one of the few female business owners in northwest Arkansas at the time. She did not believe in whining or complaining; she was an excellent example of making the best of every situation and working hard to get the job done.
On the professional side, I will be forever grateful to an agricultural law professor who recommended me for an agricultural liaison position on the staff of one of Arkansas’s U. S. Senators. I had no idea such a position even existed, and his kind recommendation led to a 30-year career that I have thoroughly enjoyed.
I have been fortunate to work for two U. S. Senators and three Arkansas Secretaries of Agriculture, all in various stages of their careers and with different management styles. Each of these public servants have further reinforced my belief that public service is an honorable profession, and I appreciate the opportunities and support each has provided.

Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring professional?
A: My advice is:

  • Show up with a positive attitude and a willingness to learn and work hard.
  • Accept that change is inevitable, and approach change as an opportunity.
  • You do not have to know everything, and it’s okay to admit it. Be willing to find the answers.
  • Mistakes will happen. Admit them, apologize, correct the problem, learn from them, and try not to repeat them.
  • Be open to unexpected opportunities and flexible enough to seize them.
  • Treat others as you want to be treated.

Q: What’s been your secret to success?
A: Any success I have achieved has been through God’s grace, strong support within my family and profession, and trying to follow the advice above.

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