WESTBORO, Missouri — Stories come from all over, a hitch in the possibility of distance learning at a time of pandemic. Rural kids set off for a town’s McDonald’s, or a Walmart parking lot, hoping for any available wi-fi.
The lack of broadband puts students at a disadvantage, an odd notoriety given the nation’s pride in technological advances.
Blake Hurst finds it unacceptable, an unfortunate throwback to days before rural electrification.
“It took a lot of concentrated effort from private industry and the public and government to make sure that all Missouri was served with electricity in the ’30s and ’40s and even into the ’50s,” he said. “We’re in the same situation with broadband, and it’s just as important.”
Those who advocate for policies that benefit farm country — not really benefit, just balance the urban-rural divide — have known the struggle in recent years of widening the map of rural broadband.
As president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, a 105-year-old institution that in an earlier day hastened the placement of power lines, Hurst has made this a priority. Rural schools and their students need this, so he gave it a voice.
It would not be the only thing on his agenda. He has led the bureau’s board of directors and its 134,000 member families since his election in 2010. Hurst announced this month that he would not seek another two-year term.
About 280 miles separate the Farm Bureau headquarters in Jefferson City from the Hurst farm and greenhouse operation northeast of Tarkio, and his presidential duties have taken him to all corners of a state with diverse agricultural products.
“That has been a source of continuing interest and a lot of fun,” he said. But, Hurst added, the time has come to stay home more.
The decade did not lack for challenges.
Two major flooding events hit along the Missouri River in 2011 and 2019, with other years of lesser high water. (“It’s not minor to the people involved,” he said.) He hopes some lessons have been learned along the way.
“I have felt a difference in response to the 2019 flood, and perhaps more seriousness on the part of Congress, our state leaders and our environmental agencies and everybody involved,” Hurst said.
“People have realized that those flood plains are going to be used for human uses, that we’re going to continue to farm there and we’ve got to protect them better than we’re doing now.”
Hurst fears that rural Missourians have lost focus on the importance of global trade. About 20% of all agricultural output in the United States is exported, with the percentage even higher in Missouri. Almost half the state’s soybeans go abroad.
In 2015, Hurst became a leading voice for the normalization of trade relations with Cuba, saying it represented 11 million potential customers for Missouri agricultural goods.
“We have to keep that concentration on trade,” he said. “And we have to say, people won’t trade with us unless we trade with them. It’s a two-way street, so that openness to new markets, to new ideas, I think is important.”
Part of the Farm Bureau’s mission is advocating for public policy that helps rural Missouri. The list in the last 10 years has included items such as an easing of federal regulations, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Waters of the United States” rule, and improved out-state roads and bridges.
Hurst has become a familiar figure to lawmakers in Washington and Jefferson City.
“Blake is one of the most forward-thinking agriculture leaders in America,” Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt said in a statement on learning Hurst would not return as the organization’s president. “His ability to communicate big ideas and advocate for commonsense solutions has been a big help to me and so many others.”
Hurst said elected officials have been “extraordinarily responsive” to the ideas of the Farm Bureau, and he feels a responsibility to do right by his requests to them.
“We want to make sure that the things we ask for are in the best long-term interests of our communities,” he said. “Be careful what you ask for if you’re going to be in a position where you’re lobbying because you better make sure it’s the right thing.”
Eric Bohl, the Farm Bureau’s director of public affairs and advocacy, said Hurst’s curiosity about agriculture made him a good president.
“I think that’s one of the things that made him successful, that he’s legitimately interested in learning more about things that he isn’t personally experienced with,” Bohl said. “That helps him be a better leader and helps him understand the things that other people in the organization are going through.”
During the current pandemic, and despite some snags in the food supply chain, agriculture has met a challenge, Hurst said.
“By and large, you went to the grocery store and you were able to buy supper,” he said. “That’s really a success, so that’s what we do well. We just have to keep talking about how important it is to give us the tools to do that job well.”