In 2018, Cam Newton tallied 11 votes to be Mecklenburg County’s soil and water conservation district supervisor.
It’s the last office at the bottom of the ballot. After voters selected their top pick for Congress, maybe skipped through a few judges and marked the bubbles of recognizable names for local boards, a handful of humorous yet engaged citizens thought they’d write in the city’s pro-dabber for this little-discussed office.
Two years later, Rich George, a climate activist, was campaigning early at the polls for the same position. Recruited by the county Democratic Party, George found himself in a nonpartisan race, during an explosive presidential election, at the height of a pandemic.
“Absolutely no one was paying attention to soil and water,” George says. “Literally, I was the 42nd race on the ballot. I was on page 11. I was the fourth of four names and had never run before. It was a bit of an uphill battle.”
But he suspects everyone who he talked to outside of polling places voted for him, and he won, by a relatively small margin.
Why it matters: Soil and water conservation boards may be obscure, unsexy public bodies, but they’re in an influential position to promote natural resource conservation.
- Decades ago, soil and water conservation districts were intentionally organized so residents would elect representatives who best understand soil and water issues on the local level, according to the UNC School of Government.
- Plus, it feels good, informed and darn-right democratic when you fill out your whole election ballot, doesn’t it? This supervisor role is a relatively easy one to pick, if you take the time to learn a little.
How it works: The soil and water conservation district has no real authority. Instead, supervisors are in charge of managing grants to landowners willing to partake in conservation practices, like installing a pet waste receptacle in their front yard or creating a rain garden that collects storm water runoff out back.
- For example, if a property owner has an eroding slope, they can seek a reimbursement or cost sharing option from the district to plant some vegetation on the slope.
- George says it’s difficult to initiate any substantial change on the board, which can be frustrating. Chair Barbara Bleiweis says there’s not much money to work with, either.
Between the lines: On top of managing the voluntary programs, Bleiweis says she is working on a farmland preservation plan in her capacity as a supervisor. The plan aims to safeguard legacy farms and create pathways for “next generation farmers” to own and crop land.
- “There’s this huge appetite for development, and it’s really hard to feed 1.1 million people if you’re losing (farm) land to neighborhoods,” Bleiweis says.
Flashback: Nearly 3,000 soil and water conservation districts operate across the nation, but their unique history began in North Carolina.
- The story starts with Hugh Hammond Bennett, now known as “the father of soil conservation,” who spread awareness of the threats of erosion on agriculture. Bennett was from Anson County, about 40 miles east of Charlotte.
- In 1935, as the Dust Bowl tormented the southern plains, Congress considered a law to establish the Soil Conservation Service as dust clouds darkened Washington. Testifying before lawmakers, Bennett was able to explain what was happening and why, convincing them to pass the bill.
The legislation sparked, later in the 1930s, the formation of local soil and water conservation districts across the U.S. “We’re going to know more about the local landscape than the federal government, and the districts were born with that in mind,” Bleiweis says.
- The first was set up in the Brown Creek watershed of North Carolina, Bennett’s home.
What’s happening: This election cycle, two supervisor seats are open. (Three supervisors are elected by the people, and two are appointed by a state commission.)
- Bleiweis (who calls herself “bottom-of-the-ballot Barbara”) and vice chair Nancy Carter are up for reelection.
- The incumbents are challenged by Alonzo Hill and Hunter Wilson. Also, Tigress Sydney Acute McDaniel — who also previously ran for mayor, county commission and state house — is on the ballot.
What they’re saying: Hill says he’s running to be a voice for urban farmers who are concerned about dwindling resources and climate change. He says he has connections through his work on food insecurity with UCITY Family Zone, a partnership to improve the quality of life in University City.
- “I have the ear of the community,” he says.