Fort Report: The Harvest
When I stopped in on Bob Meduna in the fields just west of Wahoo, I asked, “How does the harvest look?” “Looks pretty good,” Bob said. “What’s everyone else saying?” It was one of those perfect fall mornings in Nebraska. On the horizon, the rich blue sky seemed to stretch down and touch the amber rolling hills--with two differently colored combines adding depth to the scene.
Nebraska’s strength, her character, and her tradition is found in the land. It is clearly the most defining element of who we are and what we make. Agriculture creates our habits of being, our culture, our economic largesse. One quarter of our jobs are tied to it. Out of the state’s total land mass, over 90 percent is farms and ranches. The Cornhusker State is the third-largest corn-producing state and the top popcorn-producing state in America. Our ag sector is a major exporter. One out of every four rows of Nebraska soybeans go to China. We are the number one state for beef exports.
But the little-told story is that agriculture is also America’s strength. It is foundational to America’s economy and our relationships abroad. Feeding the world is something we take for granted because we do it so effectively. Twelve years ago, we averaged 154 bushels of corn per acre; today that number is 178 bushels.
With a new Farm Bill coming up, a lot of the discussion will be on the necessary stabilization policies for agriculture for the benefit of Nebraska and America. At the State Fair in Grand Island this summer, the federal delegation held an important panel discussion with farmers from our diverse agricultural sectors. The challenge moving forward is to broaden our thinking from just expanding markets to creating healthy farm income. Low corn and soybean prices and higher input costs are parts of the challenge. But there are other drags on the equation, such as health insurance costs. You can buy fertilizer through your co-op, but you can’t buy health insurance. This is an unfair choke point inhibiting more solutions for farmers and small businesses who do not benefit from the risk-pool diversity of larger corporations. Washington seems to be waking up to this reality—admittedly, a bit late—but I am hopeful for a sensible bi-partisan solution.
Moving up the value chain from raw commodities, some of the most forward-thinking ag work in the world is being done right here in Blair, Nebraska. Novel business in the production of bio-fuels, amino acids, lactic acid, glycine, and enzymes from local grain production provide value-added products for human and animal nutrition and even new source material for bio-plastics.
A glance across the pond shows the potential of small-scale production agriculture. Under the mantra of “twice as much food using half as many resources,” Dutch farmers are reducing water use for key crops by up to 90% with a staggering increase in output. The Netherlands is the number two exporter of food as measured by value, close on the heels of the United States, which has 270 times more landmass.
It may surprise you that, after a long period of decline, the number of people engaged in agriculture is growing. Expanding our ag family with innovative opportunities that add value to our commodity groups, augment specialty crops, and reconnect the farmer to the family, the urban to the rural, will expand local economies and tap into the important growing trends of knowing your food and artisanal agriculture.
Someone told me this week to “Keep Nebraska a secret.” Tempting. I knew what he meant in a deeper sense. Our current economic construct, however, was at one point somebody’s innovation. Our best protection is to keep moving forward— preserving, enhancing, and creating new possibilities under that rich blue Nebraska sky.