Near Hannibal, one landowner works for change, listening and looking for common ground.
Brent Hoerr experienced a Mississippi River flood for the first time in 1973. His Missouri family lost their farm home that year, rebuilt, and lost it again in 1993. His dad was a levee Board member, so from a young age Brent saw both the personal and political sides of farming in the floodplain. “I learned there are some things you can control, and some things you can’t,” he says.
Floodplains have always been one of the best places to farm.
“The river bottom is where I work to support my family,” says Brent. “It’s important for those of us who depend on it for our livelihood to be good stewards of it. It matters what we do and how we do it.”
Where the Hoerr family lives, levees were installed 100 years ago to protect public health and transportation systems, and to promote economic growth. The levee system has been maintained locally with some public assistance ever since.
Brent has been part of that work as commissioner and president of the Marion County Drainage District for more than 34 years. The Drainage District is a group of elected officials who manage a pump station and natural drainage outlets to the Mississippi, help maintain levees, construct and maintain drainage from farmland, and attend to local flood protection.
“We’ve seen the extremes of droughts and floods in the last few years. They challenge, stress, and overload all our systems, whether it’s agriculture, transportation, or the environment. We want them all to be resilient and thrive,” he says.
Effective solutions to floodplain issues can only be found by identifying issues and resolving them cooperatively.
“Challenges arise because the floodplain is complex,” he says. “Yet there’s room along our rivers for all to thrive when we work and plan together to achieve our goals.”
Brent believes effective policy will be based on science and real experience in the floodplain. To bring these worlds together, he says, “We need to create places to talk, and we need to ask, ‘What are you doing? Where are you going?’ We need to work to find out if there are some things we share.”
On a March morning Brent is returning from a meeting in Washington D.C. and responding to a U.S. Senator who wants to meet about the river. “What we need,” he says, “is a comprehensive flood control plan for the upper Mississippi.”
After saying this, Mr. Hoerr offers that he does not have all the answers. He has questions. He’s curious. He listens to the words and intentions of people he meets, and this attitude appears to open doors.
“We can be experts in things we’re interested in,” he says, “those things that affect our lives. I’ve taken an interest in a five-mile stretch along the Mississippi River. I’m trying to identify and work with what’s going on.”
At the meeting he attended in D.C., Brent says the focus was comprehensive flood control. “We didn’t get very far because there are a lot of groups on the river. In the end we may not get a whole loaf,” he continues, “but we might get a half, and a half may be better than where we are now.”
“Listening,” he continues, “is an important tool that is often overlooked.”
A friend told Brent Hoerr long ago that people who show up can have an influence. He took it to heart and works at farming and bringing context to the numbers and strategies and government processes that impact his stretch of the river and the people who live near it.
In the realm of floodplain management, actions count. But it may be Brent Hoerr’s persistent listening that makes the biggest impact in his neighborhood.