ALICIA, Ark. -- Three Chinese inspectors took notes but offered no visible reaction as David Smith answered their questions about pesticides and production on the 3,000-acre rice farm he calls his "beautiful garden."
Smith is among the American farmers hoping to eventually sell rice to China. The fast-growing Asian nation is the world's largest producer of rice, but it consumes nearly everything it grows and already imports some rice from Thailand and Vietnam to feed its 1.3 billion people.
After years of effort, U.S. farmers believe they are close to getting permission to sell there as well, and it could be a game changer for an industry that has seen prices stagnate recently. If China opens its markets to U.S. rice, it could cause a spike in demand that drives up prices and encourages farmers to grow more, industry observers said.
The prospect is particularly exciting to Arkansas farmers, who have been hard hit this year by spring flooding and a summer drought. Arkansas' rice crop is expected to be off by at least 20 percent this year. It typically accounts for about half of the U.S. rice harvest.
The U.S. is already the world's fourth-largest rice exporter, shipping to more than 100 countries.
Significant shortfalls: U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says deep budget cuts will hurt America's ability to make up for the significant shortfalls that have plagued NATO's operations in Libya and Afghanistan. He is exhorting U.S. allies to work together or risk losing the ability to take on such missions.
Wait ends: The long wait for Haiti to approve a prime minister ended Tuesday after the Senate voted in favor of Garry Conille to run the government.
The 17-3 vote for Conille to serve as prime minister will enable Haitian President Michel Martelly to install a Cabinet and jump start reconstruction efforts that have been slow to materialize since last year's powerful earthquake. Nine senators abstained in the vote.
Granted freedom: Malaysia's government has granted freedom to 125 mostly criminal suspects kept under police watch and prevented from traveling.
It is the latest step in Prime Minister Najib Razak's move to abolish decades-old security laws that human rights and opposition groups have criticized as draconian.
Gunman arrested: Philippine police have arrested an Abu Sayyaf gunman who allegedly helped behead seven Filipino workers while singing a militant song in a grisly 2007 crime, officials said today.
Police said Adzhar Mawalil was captured Tuesday by government forces on southern Jolo island. Mawalil, 32, has also been implicated in the 2000 kidnappings of 21 mostly European tourists from a dive resort in neighboring Malaysia and the 2009 abductions of three Filipino, Italian and Swiss aid workers for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jolo, national police spokesman Agrimero Cruz said.
All the captives from the Malaysian resort and the Red Cross were eventually freed, reportedly after large ransom payments.
Mawalil appeared in a video circulated by Abu Sayyaf militants showing them beheading six road project workers and a factory worker while singing a song in a Jolo jungle in 2007. The video helped authorities identify and capture Mawalil in Sulu province's Jolo town, two security officials said.
The two officials, who help oversee assaults against the Abu Sayyaf, spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media.
The seven workers were killed by the Abu Sayyaf after the construction company refused to pay a ransom demanded by the militants, officials said at the time. Their heads were dumped by the militants near the gates of a Jolo army detachment to mock government troops.
The Abu Sayyaf, which is listed by Washington as an al-Qaida-linked terrorist organization, has been blamed for deadly bombings, abductions and beheadings. It has been the target of a decade-long U.S.-backed Philippine military offensive on Jolo and the nearby island province of Basilan.
Army scout rangers battled about 50 heavily armed Abu Sayyaf members Wednesday in a forest near Basilan's Al Barka town in fierce fighting that killed a soldier and wounded two others. Several militants were believed wounded but were dragged away by their companions, who retreated after three hours, army spokesman Maj. Harold Cabunoc said.
Reinforcement troops were pursuing the militants, Cabunoc said.
Nearly 400 Abu Sayyaf gunmen remain at large in the jungles of Jolo, an impoverished Muslim region about 590 miles (950 kilometers) south of Manila, and in Basilan and outlying islands. Washington has offered large rewards for the capture of the Abu Sayyaf's remaining top commanders.