GUEST OPINION: Agriculture: Growing our greatest asset | TSLN.com
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Greg Ibach
Director, Nebraska Department of Agriculture

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GUEST OPINION: Agriculture: Growing our greatest asset

National Ag Week is a time for Nebraskans to join together and celebrate our state's largest industry. It's a time to reflect on our accomplishments and look toward our future. The week of March 16 is dedicated to our farmers and ranchers who are committed to their crop and livestock operations all year long. The food, fuel and fiber we all utilize come from those farmers and ranchers, and we appreciate their passion and dedication. I encourage all Nebraskans to join me in thanking our agricultural producers this week.

Nebraska agriculture continues to thrive and grow, contributing over $23 billion to our state's economy. One in four jobs in our state depends on the agricultural industry, which translates into over 300,000 jobs. The international demand for high quality food and grains from Nebraska has also continued to expand to over $6.6 billion being generated from Nebraska exports in 2013. In the first 11 months of 2014, Nebraska beef exports reached a new milestone with $1 billion in sales.

No doubt it is an exciting time to be involved in agriculture. Governor Ricketts and I have no intention to rest on these successes. We are focusing on a strategy to grow our agricultural strengths and career opportunities across the state by working to expand the value we add to our raw commodities like feed grains and oil seeds into renewable fuels, livestock feed and processed foods.

These efforts, while creating additional jobs, accentuate the fact that opportunities exist for youth to find rewarding careers in jobs that support what is now modern day Nebraska agriculture. This includes careers for both rural and urban youth with the right interest, skill sets and education.

Recently, Governor Pete Ricketts and I met with a group of nearly 100 high school and college aged youth to discuss their future in the agricultural industry. During our time together, we had an open and honest dialogue about the students' goals. We also discussed their concerns, from consumer misconceptions about agriculture to the high costs of starting their own farming operations. The insight provided and passion exhibited by these young adults is remarkable. I appreciated their expressed desire to see agriculture succeed far into the future.

While this discussion was held with youth who already exhibit an interest in becoming a part of the agricultural industry, we must encourage all youth to consider the tremendous amount of opportunities available to them in agriculture. From 2010 through the end of this year, it is estimated that there will have been 54,400 job openings in agriculture and natural resource related fields, with only an estimated 29,300 graduates to fill them.

With that many jobs to fill, young adults have a wonderful opportunity to pursue higher education and find a good career in the agricultural field. Austin Zimmerman is a recent college graduate who is using his engineering degree to design grain bins at GSI Ag that are utilized by producers on every continent of the world. Many of the top paying jobs for recent college graduates directly correlate to the agricultural industry.

One way that both urban and rural students can learn more about those future career opportunities is through the Nebraska Agricultural Youth Institute (NAYI). NAYI is a 5-day summer conference for current high school juniors and seniors to come together and learn about the agriculture industry, how to be advocates for it, and career opportunities available in it and how to obtain those careers. We have seen an upswing in the amount of delegates interested in participating in the Institute in the past few years, and last year NAYI hosted the largest group of delegates in its 43 year history.

The increased interest our youth are showing in agricultural careers does not end at NAYI. Those students are pursuing higher education in the agricultural industry at a good rate. The University of Nebraska – Lincoln's College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources saw a 6.6 percent increase in student enrollment in 2014 and the University of Nebraska – Curtis School of Technical Agriculture (NCTA) saw a 28 percent increase in enrollment this last year.

Let's use National Ag week as an opportunity to celebrate the past, the present and the future of our agriculture industry.