Cattleman in command
A Carhartt-clad Mike Parson is crouched under his John Deere baler, attempting to unsnarl tangled net wrap with help from two of his security detail officers. The governor only has a few precious hours before his next official appearance, and he is trying to get a field of hay baled this July afternoon on his Bolivar, Mo., farm.
“Some people will think you staged these photos,” said Kevin Spaulding, Parson’s southwest regional office director, who was on hand to chaperon our Today’s Farmer interview. “But this is who our governor is. What you see is what you get with Mike Parson.”
What Missouri gets with Parson is third-generation farmer, Army veteran and former sheriff and state legislator. He once owned and operated a gas station. He’s a proud member of the First Baptist Church. He’s a grandfather of five, father of two and husband to Teresa for 34 years. He’s a friend to agriculture. And he unabashedly adores the Show-Me State.
“It’s an honor, coming from where I come from, to be the governor of Missouri,” Parson said. “The love I have for this state and its people make me want to work hard for them every day. And my Christian beliefs and faith guide me in trying to do the right thing.”
When he’s not running Missouri’s executive office, Parson is running his red Angus-based cow/calf operation, not far from where he was raised in Wheatland, Mo. In fact, he loves telling that he was sorting cattle at his farm last year when he got the call notifying him he would soon become Missouri’s 57th governor. Serving as lieutenant governor at the time, Parson assumed the top job a few days later on June 1, 2018, after months of scandal and criminal charges forced Eric Greitens to resign.
The new governor’s first job was to establish order out of the chaos.
“One of the biggest challenges was the way everything took place going into office,” Parson said. “Most governors have 60 days to prepare and put a team together. We had 60 hours. Making sure to get the right people in the right place was important to me. Needless to say, it was overwhelming, but I’m really proud of the people who are serving in those capacities. They’re all very qualified, and they’re all hardworking.”
In his first year as governor, Parson made 185 appointments, issued nine executive orders and worked to change criminal justice reform, infrastructure and workforce development. Among the legislation he recently signed are several initiatives that will benefit farmers, including a $5 million appropriation for the newly created Rural Broadband Development Fund to expand access to high-speed internet across the state. It’s a much-needed measure, Parson said. As recently as last year, Missouri was ranked 42nd in the nation in broadband connectivity.
“Farmers, agribusinesses and ag tourism operations must have communications capability, and that takes broadband internet,” Parson said. “Lack of access is a huge issue for our state.”
The governor also signed into law Senate Bill 391 that prohibits county commissions and health departments from passing regulations on confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, that are stricter than any state regulations. Many agriculture organizations supported the bill’s passage, although opponents argued the bill thwarts local government’s authority to meet the needs of their communities.
“The CAFO bill protects our farmers and makes sure they can operate,” Parson said. “I think it’s a good piece of legislation that encourages investment in our rural communities.”
Parson also has championed workforce development from Day 1 as a key priority of his administration. He said education is the answer. He wants to establish additional trade schools, especially in rural areas, to give young people the skills they need to succeed in today’s high-tech workplace. He supported and signed the bill creating Missouri’s new Fast-Track Workforce Initiative Grant Program, which is aimed at giving Missourians 25 and older advanced training for jobs that are in high demand.
“After meeting with mayors across the state, both urban and rural, the biggest thing we heard was workforce development,” he said. “There are so many opportunities in this state, but we need to make sure young people have the standard of education they need and the skills to truly meet the demands out there. That’s really important to me.”
Agriculture is one of the fields that needs highly skilled workers, Parson added.
“Easily in 10 years’ time, you might not recognize agriculture,” he said. “It’s going to be an exciting arena in the future. Today’s young people, and their parents and grandparents, have to understand how much agriculture is going to change—and accept that change. We have to be able to meet the food demands of the world, and God’s not making more land. It’s going to be through technology.”
Parson, a former member of the state House and Senate, put that experience to use in pushing his agenda with lawmakers. In many cases, he said, not being elected governor had its advantages.
“Frankly, the way I came into office gave me some freedom,” Parson said. “I didn’t have any campaign promises to uphold. I just got to do what I believe the people in the state wanted, and I stayed focused on that.”
The governor said he considers his first year in office as a success, but it hasn’t been without its challenges—the first of which was helping Missourians get through one of the worst droughts in the state’s history in the summer of 2018. The cattleman personally knew how dire the situation was for farmers, recalling how he had to feed hay in August for the first time in his life. Right after taking office, Parson issued an executive order declaring a drought alert and reactivating the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ Drought Assessment Committee. This coalition of state and federal partners worked together to provide struggling farmers unprecedented access to public lands for accessing water and harvesting hay.
“We had to get out in front of the disaster declarations because I knew the drought was going to affect farmers long term,” Parson said. “We had to think ahead, not just about the quality of the crops in July and August but also what cattle producers were going to feed in the winter. We had people on both sides of the aisle who reached out early on to help us through that situation.”
This year, the problem is just the opposite—too much water. In response to historic flooding this spring, Parson requested another federal disaster declaration and activated the Missouri National Guard to help fight rising water across the state. He acknowledges that having natural disasters two years in a row is devastating for some farmers.
“Mother Nature can outdo you in a heartbeat,” Parson said. “What our farmers are going through is difficult, but we all know those are challenges that come with agriculture. From my position as governor, I want to do everything I can to help them and give them the tools to succeed. The reality is, it’ll be a hard year, and there’s no way to sugarcoat that. But the one thing I know about Missouri farmers is that they’re made of tough character.”
Even though he has to balance both urban and rural interests as governor, Parson said advancing agriculture—the state’s No. 1 industry—will remain among his top priorities. So far, his political career has proven that commitment. While in the Missouri legislature, Parson sponsored the Missouri Farming Rights Amendment, which changed the state constitution to guarantee all Missourians the right to farm and ranch. During his first year as lieutenant governor, his office launched the “Buy Missouri” initiative to actively promote products that are grown, manufactured, processed and/or made in Missouri. Parson also was inducted into the Missouri Farmers Care Hall of Fame in 2018.
“We all have to remember how important agriculture is and how important rural Missouri is to making the state complete,” Parson said. “It’s a way of life and a heritage we need to protect. My son is farming with us now, and we have grandkids who are interested in the farming business, so I fully believe we’ll get to that fifth generation. I want to make sure other families have that same opportunity.”
For Parson, baling hay on a hot afternoon is a welcome respite from his official obligations. A member of local MFA affiliate Bolivar Farmers Exchange, the cattleman describes farming as his “getaway,” although he admits he and Teresa don’t get away to their rural home nearly enough these days.
“As governor, there are so many great things you get to do, but the downside is your time,” Parson said. “You’re driven by a schedule every day. It takes away from my family. It takes away from my farm. It’s demanding job if you’re going to do it right. And I only know one way, and that’s to go to work and give it my all.”
The farming governor is a favorite to run for a full term in 2020 and likely wouldn’t have opposition from within his Republican party. Constitutionally, he will be limited to one elected term because Greitens had more than two years left when he resigned. Parson hasn’t formally announced his intentions, but his campaign accounts are actively collecting donations, and he hinted to Today’s Farmer that there would be a big announcement in “the next 30 to 60 days.”
“Let me just say that I feel really good right now about where we are and where we’re going,” Parson said. “I feel like we had a great year, and I have a lot of support across the state. It’s unbelievable how many people have reached out and encouraged me to run. That decision, that announcement, will be coming, but right now, I’m focused on Missouri.”
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