How government can regain voters' confidence

By Blake Hurst

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The lead up to this year's election has shown almost total agreement on at least one topic. No, make that two topics. We aren't pleased with the candidates for president, and we've lost faith in our leaders and in the government they lead.

This is a non-partisan observation, or at least a bi-partisan condition. Republican, Democrat, Trump supporter, Clinton lover, or somebody who thinks the answer to our problems is the restoration of the monarchy. I'm sure somewhere there is a King George Revanchist group complete with a website and several thousand twitter followers. Regardless, we've all soured on the ability of the government to accomplish even the simplest of tasks.

Think about the past couple of decades: the Iraq War, the financial meltdown, Obamacare, or the continuing scandal that is the Veteran's Administration. Heck, the mark of a successful government agency these days is a month without indictment or a week without armed protests. As Casey Stengel said about the hapless New York Mets, “can't anybody here play this game?”

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Here in Missouri, we'll have a chance to vote this November to continue that rarest of birds, that prothonotary warbler of the political kingdom, a government program that works. Back in 1984, Missouri voters approved a one tenth cent sales tax, with the proceeds to be split between state parks and a program to reduce soil erosion. 

There was and is some political genius in this combination. During the Missouri State Fair, Missouri Governor Nixon kicked off the fall campaign to re-approve the tax. Standing at the podium were leaders of both farm groups and environmental groups. Aim the Farm Bureau and the Nature Conservancy in the same direction, and you've got a good start to a winning political campaign. The revenues from the program are a wonderful lubricant, easing relations between the most diverse of groups.

But the success of the program over the past two decades can't just be credited to taxing and spending. Nope, it works for other reasons, reasons that might provide a useful road map to politicians who truly would like to improve the performance of government.

The aims of the program are easily understood, and very important. Millions of Missourians love our park system and use it throughout the year. Every Missourian benefits from cleaner water and better soils. When the program was passed, Missouri had one of the worst records in the nation for soil erosion. We've cut erosion by 170 million tons of soil since the inception of the program, and have made more progress in cutting erosion than any other state. That's progress that can measured and understood.

Secondly, the aims of the program are modest. The goals are important, but no one here is trying to save the world, halt the rise of the seas, or force people to do things that aren't in their interest or their nature. We had a goal of improving parks and protecting soil and water, and we've done exactly that.

The people who benefit most directly from our soil conservation efforts have skin in the game. The program has limits on spending for each project, and requires a twenty five percent contribution by the landowner. Farmers have a real financial incentive to limit their requests to the most important projects, and a further incentive to maintain those projects in the years to come.

The program has a sunset provision and must be voted on every ten years. That concentrates the minds of the people who administer and use the program in a very beneficial way. It also cements a continuing relationship between the umm...diverse groups who support the program. However contentious an issue may be, environmental and farm groups in Missouri know they have an overriding and continuing incentive to keep talking to each other.  

Finally, the program is administered by people close to the ground. Each county in the state has a local committee responsible for the program in their county, with overall guidance provided by a state committee made up of volunteers who understand farming and soil conservation. The fancy way of talking about this is called the principle of subsidiarity. Most of the folks laying out terraces and driving bulldozers aren't well versed in that principle, but they understand that the people in charge of the program know what they're talking about, and understand local soils and local culture. No bureaucrats thousands of miles away, just people who have a passion for saving soil.

Recently, I was talking to a group of high school students from Missouri's cities, who were spending a few days learning about agriculture. One of them asked me if there were any farmers who were “bad actors.” I said yes, there are farmers who operate without concern for the soil or their neighbors. I then told her about a farm we recently purchased in the rolling hills of northwest Missouri. The farm had an absentee landlord, was cash rented, and had been abused for a generation. As I told my teenage questioner, it will take the rest of my farming life to even begin to repair the damage done by a financially pressured renter and an uncaring owner. The incentive for both parties was to mine the soil, and that's exactly what happened.

Because of the farsightedness of Missouri voters three decades ago, and with the continuing support of those voters this fall, I have a chance of stopping the damage on my new farm, and with good farming practices, no till farming, and the technical expertise of both state and federal conservationists, we can reverse the damage done to one small farm in one small place.

There will be no statues to the founders of our soil conservation efforts here in Missouri. No one will write books or make documentaries or write about the glories of a grand societal effort to change the world. But those of us who pay attention will be reminded that government can make a difference, and I'm thankful to those visionaries who made it possible for me and thousands of Missouri farmers like me to improve our small part of the world.


If you want to make grand changes that reverberate across the country and across time, best to start locally and work slowly. That's a message unlikely to appear in any thirty second ads this campaign season, but it's how government can regain the confidence of American voters.

About the author: Blake Hurst is a third-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farm Bureau board of directors.

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