Agriculture: Nebraska's Chief Economic Driver

Agriculture: Nebraska's Chief Economic Driver

Greg Ibach
Greg Ibach

Nebraska will continue to be a very strong agricultural state in the future, and communities will continue to support the industry of agriculture, according to Greg Ibach, Director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. Communities that embrace agriculture, especially those with thriving livestock industries, will be the most vibrant, he added.

"The livestock industry needs manpower and employees more so than the crop industry," he said, and jobs drive the economy. "If you double the size of your row crop operation, you can probably get it done without hiring more employees. But if you double the size of your feedlot, you're going to have to hire more employees," he said.

The overall outlook for Nebraska agriculture is positive, Ibach said. Nebraska is the fourth largest agricultural economy in the United States and is second nationally in cattle production.

"Certain sectors can really forget the importance of agriculture in this state," Ibach said, but he believes Omaha, among other communities, recognizes the importance of Nebraska agriculture.

"Look at the companies in Omaha," Ibach said. "ConAgra is an agricultural company; First National Bank of Omaha is one of the biggest agricultural lenders in the nation; Farmers National Company is also big. Many of these companies are deeply rooted in agriculture and they derive their success from the success and prosperity of the agricultural industry in Nebraska," he said.

Anyone who employs people in agriculture realizes the importance of the work force and wants to make that work, Ibach said.

But there's a clash when it comes to the work force and who's going to do the hard work of growing, processing and shipping agricultural products, Ibach said. Immigrants have been supplying much of the agricultural labor force in Nebraska, but the attitude in some communities is that immigrants are taking the jobs from Nebraskans. "People think they (the native-born Nebraskans) should have those jobs, but they don't want to work hard enough to do them. But they don't want others to come in and do the jobs, either. That's the clash," he said.


Future of Communities
"At the end of the day, agriculture is still going to be the most important employer in the state," Ibach said. Small communities that embrace agriculture and look for ways to help agriculture grow and expand in those areas will be successful over time, he added, but each community needs to determine what its economic drivers are and develop the economic base the community can support into the future.

"We've had a lot of debate in Nebraska on whether it would be more exciting for young people to move back if we had a theatre, or a golf course, or other social amenities, but it's more important to develop the economic base first and watch the social amenities follow," he said.

Ibach and his family farm and raise cattle near Sumner, Nebraska. "Sumner is a few miles from Kearney, a few miles from Lexington," he said. Sumner is a community of about 250 people, and has a bank, a welding shop, a restaurant, a co-op, a post office, a grocery store and a school, among other businesses.

"I know of several examples of husbands who are working in livestock operations in our community, and their spouses are either starting businesses or working in other jobs in the community," he said. For example, one woman is a teacher; another opened a beauty salon "and does a great business," Ibach said.


Future Farmers

"Agriculture sits at the center of the world's challenge to feed an ever-growing population; produce renewable fuels; use biotechnology to address drought and yield challenges; and also provide the platform for nutraceuticals.

Our understanding of genetics in humans and animals points to limitless possibilities for medicine and organ donation. Agriculture, and people involved in the careers around agriculture, will have the responsibility and power to determine the quality of life that the world will enjoy for the next century and beyond.

Agriculture's challenge is to make sure that the population of the developed world understands this role, as many have grown complacent and unappreciative on a full stomach and a full fuel tank.

Ibach believes communities must take responsibility for much of the future success of the area. Smaller communities that are attracting young people back to the farm undoubtedly have strong National FFA Organization and 4-H organizations, he said. These organizations have given young people the belief that they can be successful in agriculture and in smaller communities. "I think lots of times we've undervalued the need for strong FFA and 4-H programs in our communities," he said.

When he attends a meeting of agricultural producers, he finds that there are many more younger agriculturalists. "Kids are seeing more opportunities in agriculture," Ibach said, "and we're seeing more and more parents encouraging their kids to come home and be a part of the farming operation."

That makes sense, he said. Many children of doctors and dentists become doctors and dentists; the same holds true of farmers.

Lifestyle and cost of living are also contributing factors pulling people back to a future in farming, he said. The relative safety of a smaller community compared to a large city is attractive to people, he said.


Farming and Higher Education
Young people who attend college are attracted to the many options an agricultural education can provide, Ibach said. "There is no college graduate, I think, in more demand today than an ag college graduate," he said. The work ethic, production training and scientific training combine to provide many opportunities in technical and professional careers.

Ibach is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln himself, earning degrees in both animal science and agricultural economics. He believes strongly that the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources (CASNR) provided the education he needed not only to run a successful farming and ranching operation, but also the educational opportunities and qualifications to be Director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR) includes many departments and colleges, including CASNR. The Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources needs to remain strong and remain a very important part of the university system, Ibach said.

"The Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources is a unique organizational and political piece in Nebraska, compared to other land grant universities across the nation," Ibach said. "It is part of the fabric of agriculture in Nebraska. It recognizes that we're the fourth largest agricultural economy in the nation, and the percentage of our economic vitality that relates back to agriculture," he said.