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Agricultural Community ‘Shocked’ that ASU Student Becomes New Soil/Water Conservation District Supervisor

By Jesse Wood

Nov. 16, 2012. The needle barely moved for all but one race after the canvass for the Watauga County Board of Elections on Friday, Nov. 16, which featured 51 approved provisional ballots totaled into final results.

However, after more than 750 write-ins for the Watauga County Soil and Conservation District supervisor were tallied today, Chris Stevens, a senior marketing major at ASU and a registered Democrat, ran away with the position without any farming experience after accumulating 179 votes. 

Ethan Critcher came in second place with 50 votes, and Andy Krause was third with 43. Tracy Taylor, who currently holds the position and didn’t file with the Watauga County Board of Elections on deadline, took fourth place with 37 votes. (Mickey Mouse received three votes and other fictional characters such as superheroes also received votes, however they weren’t tallied.)

Stevens, who said he would accept this position, was sitting in the canvass room in the courthouse as the results were tallied.

Asked why he ran for this position, he said, “It’s an opportunity to become a community leader. I don’t really know a lot, but I am willing to learn the position.”

The soil and conservation district supervisor is a position that is traditionally filled by farmers or at least those with substantial knowledge of the local agricultural community.

And folks involved in that community are shocked that a college student with no farming experience will be district supervisor.

Watauga County Cooperative Extension Service Director Jim Hamilton said Stevens has a steep learning curve, and perhaps Stevens “doesn’t know what he’s getting into.”

“I think if this kid is serious and really puts an effort into his position, he’s going to learn a lot and it might bring some fresh perspective to the board,” Hamilton said.

The Watauga Soil and Water Conservation District is a subdivision of state government charged with planning, executing, and promoting sound conservation practices, according to agency’s website, and its objectives are secured largely through the voluntary cooperation of landowners.

The website continued the description of the agency, “The district administers the N.C. Agricultural Cost Share program to improve water quality and reduce non-point source pollution on agricultural lands. The Natural Resources Conservation Service and other agencies of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as some state and local agencies provide technical assistance. The county, with limited state financial support, provides funds and office space.”

Brian Chatham, the local soil and water technician, was astounded after he learned of the results on Friday afternoon.

“I am shocked, and the rest of the soil and water board will be, too. I just hope the young man understands what all this position entails,” Chatham said, mentioning the initial week-long training with the N.C. School of Governments at Chapel Hill in February and other meetings and travel associated with position.

He added that his colleagues thought that enough people knew to write-in Taylor after she forgot to file that he wouldn’t have had to worry about somebody with no experience becoming elected. 

“In a lot of areas the soil and water board is a stepping stone for political careers. I know other soil and water districts in the state have a newer supervisor come on board and stay on board until they get recognized and step up to county commission level,” Chatham said.

Chatham will meet his new supervisor the Wednesday after Thanksgiving at the next board meeting. 

In an another twist to this story, Stevens isn’t the only college student who serves as a county district supervisor in soil and water conservation. Not only that, he isn’t the only ASU student who serves in that position.  

Danielle Adams currently serves that position in Durham County, according to Deputy Director David Williams of the N.C. Division of Soil and Water. She is registered to vote in Durham but attends ASU.

Williams said the fact that Stevens doesn’t have any farming experience is alarming but it isn’t the first time this has happened.

He mentioned that Stevens will have very knowledgeable folks around him, such as Chatham, and also the fact that the soil and conservation board serves citizens of all districts – not just the agricultural community.

“They have programs that they can offer to agricultural and non-agricultural clients, unfortunately [for Stevens] though, funding for non-agricultural sites is very small compared to agricultural programs,” Williams said. 

Watauga County doesn’t allocate any funds for Stevens position, and Williams said that Stevens will receive a $15 per diem for each day he serves, which is about once a month for the regularly scheduled meeting. Plus, he’ll receive reimbursements for travel expenses.