Whitman, NE, rancher heads up Nebraska Department of Ag

By Connie Sieh Groop for Tri-State Livestock News

Experiences provide insight into policy issues

Experience with “boots on the ground” gives the top officials in Nebraska’s Department of Agriculture unique insight into the policies developed and enforced.

Sherry Vinton, a lifelong Nebraskan and livestock producer, lives in Lincoln as she serves as Director of Agriculture, but her heart remains back on the ranch south of Whitman in the Sandhills of Nebraska. Updates from her husband keep her in touch with their Angus cow-calf operation where calving is underway. She knows what it’s like to move those animals across the native pastures with feedstocks supplemented with irrigated alfalfa. She and her husband, Chris, have three married children (two who work on the ranch, and one who farms in northeast Nebraska) and 10 grandchildren.

Her experiences shape how she looks at her job. “We are at a critical juncture in agriculture,” Sherry said. “There are so many things that are changing. This role provides me with an opportunity to stand strong with our new governor, aiding in his mission to defend, promote and grow all of agriculture in Nebraska. He is the first agriculture governor in this state in 100 years.”

In her position, her department oversees animal disease traceability programs, regulatory programs for plants and animals, food safety and consumer protection programs, and the promotion of Nebraska agriculture and ag products.

Each of those areas is important, but Sherry emphasized the most difficult problem that agriculture in Nebraska faces in 2023 “is drought, plain and simple.” There really isn’t a way for humans to fix that. But “We have the most irrigated acres in the nation so we are fortunate that we can mitigate drought. For the other half of the state with rangeland acres, it is a big problem. We have a hay hotline set up as our hay and forage stocks are at the lowest level since the 1950s. These resources are quickly running out and we watch the drought monitor closely. Many people developed drought plans they implement for alternative grazing.”

In her role, Sherry said, “One of the main things I plan on doing to promote ag is to develop specific talking points about the importance of food and energy security as national security. It’s very easy for us to forget the efficiency of modern agriculture production. We saw how things broke in so many areas during the pandemic, yet our farmers and ranchers didn’t blink an eye; they kept producing in abundance.”

Another area is promotion of the renewable fuels industry and the circular economy in Nebraska of grain, livestock and renewable fuels which truly feed the world and save the planet.

“We have to continue to be viable businesses and know what makes us important, besides providing food. Agriculture provides food security and energy security. We need to have our consumers, customers and citizens understand that.”

Developing ways to do that is imperative. “We are fortunate to have a great NDA promotional team,” Sherry said. “Of course, we will not change everyone’s mind about the things they hear. But there is a movable middle. We provide true data and facts to get the message out there, and sometimes that’s the best we can do. Working with the public, being the face of ag means working at the local and state level, plus the national and international level, to target our message to those who need to see it. We focus our message on our high-quality products and the sustainable methods used in the production of our grains and livestock.”

An important area concerns animal health. “We continue to work with our state veterinarians and their teams to update our animal emergency plans. That’s a pretty top priority for me. Currently, sales receipts for cattle are up and there are more cattle on feed in the state because we have the resources to put them in feedlots. As the conditions had been historically dry, owners reduced the cow herd inventory. Consumer demand continues to go up, which has pushed cattle prices to historic highs.” 

As a survivor of 40 years in production ag, Sherry said she’s surprised at how few in top ag positions at the state and national level have boots on the ground. When attending national conferences, her background and that of her NDA deputy, Hilary Maricle, are uncommon.

Sherry is in Lincoln now because the job demands it. “People voice genuine surprise when I said I was on the ranch or that Hilary is on the farm now. I think it’s so important that we have genuine producers who understand how the direction of trade and policy, promotion and regulation is actually going to affect those who are still producing ag commodities. It’s not the same as if their grandparents had a farm. It is different when you are making your living on the land rather than visiting once in a while.”

Sherry tapped Hilary to join her as her deputy, as they have worked together on several issues through the Nebraska Farm Bureau. “We complement each other. Hilary has wonderful administrative and teaching skills. Mine are more in business. We are both deeply rooted in production agriculture. Our family operation is mostly cattle, but we operate two pivots while Hilary’s family is more involved in farming and animal livestock. I appreciate those who have given their lives to public service, but working day-in and day-out in an ag operation offers a different perspective when it comes to laws.”

Keeping young people in the state will keep more dollars in the state, Sherry said. “I am certainly excited to be in this position. I truly believe agriculture is a modern miracle. I want to do anything I can to provide for the next generation to be on a farm or ranch or to be an ag entrepreneur. In Nebraska, agriculture provides one in four jobs. Value-added agriculture provides a way to keep more dollars in the ag communities and provide jobs for young people who are one of the most state’s more precious resources. There will be more job opportunities for them. The ag community faces a continual challenge in providing a skilled workforce and the housing needed for the people serving the industry.”

Sherry says she will continue to push back on over regulation. “I’ll continue to advocate for modern agriculture in private hands with incentives for our farmers and ranchers as they become more efficient and inventive, so they can profit from the fruits of their labor.”

They have assigned many rules to this department over the years. “For me to serve in a regulatory role, I hope I can provide the efficiency and the light touch that our farmers and ranchers appreciate. We’ve got some unrealistic environmental regulations that are quickly becoming an issue. It’s important that agriculture remains proactive in promoting current and accurate modeling for these new carbon intensity scores and life cycle assessments that are going to be assigned to commodities and practices. We have to make sure that the models accepted are accounting for our new precision ag practices that are resulting in increased yields and increased weights because of improved feed efficiencies and genetics. Some are very outdated. If we do not speak out on that, there is a danger of huge policy mistakes.”

“I want to thank our farm and ranch families for their dedication,” Sherry said. “They make it look so easy and I know better. There truly isn’t any other way of life more worth living. I’m honored to do my duty, but I’m thankful to have raised our kids on the ranch and to work with my husband.”

“I never set my sights on this job,” Sherry said. “I was surprised and honored when Gov. Jim Pillen asked me to serve. The path I have chosen in life has put me on this track. It really is a road less traveled as I live down a one-lane oil road and then a dirt trail that is 30 miles from a school and a church. I’ve been fortunate to hold leadership positions which led me here, to serve as Nebraska’s Director of Agriculture.”

Nebraska Department of Agriculture’s Director Sherry Vinton feels that her experiences on their ranch provide her with valuable input in working on issues facing Nebraska. Pearls Snaps Photography, Nicole Schmidt, Arthur, NE | Courtesy photo