Last August, I drove to Scottsbluff for a meeting of the Nebraska Corn Board. This meeting marked the first time the Nebraska Corn Board had met as far west as Scottsbluff; it also marked the first time I had driven across the state since March, when COVID-19 paused normal operations across the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, our state, our nation and our world.
On that drive, I noticed, as I always do, the shift of the landscape over the 398 miles between Lincoln and Scottsbluff; the change in elevation, ecology and land use from east to west, which makes Nebraska such an ideal place for agriculture production, research and innovation. I got a burger from my favorite spot in Bridgeport, which reminded me of something I noticed immediately when I moved to Nebraska four years ago and have come to appreciate more and more since—the strength and spirit of our state’s rural communities.
Nationally, 2020 was defined by a global pandemic, racial tensions not seen since the 1960s, and an increasingly divided public. All of these have been acutely felt in Nebraska. But we’ve also seen Nebraskans come together, roll up their sleeves and keep our state moving forward, just as they did after the flooding, bomb cyclone, and irrigation tunnel collapse of 2019, and after countless hard times before that. This is an attitude reflected in the findings of the 2020 Nebraska Rural Poll, in which a majority of rural Nebraskans reported that they believe their communities are resilient, and that they can count on their neighbors to help one another through difficult times.
Within the UNL’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, researchers across the state found ways to keep their experiments moving forward. Our students in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources left campus in March and finished the semester remotely; I heard from many students that their parents were glad to have them home to help with calving and planting in between college projects and exams. Nebraska Extension continued its outreach to producers, families and individuals, adapting both their programming and delivery methods to meet the challenges of this unique time in history. And most importantly, Nebraska’s farmers, ranchers and meat-packing workers continued to grow and process the food that feeds Nebraska, America and the world.
Ted Carter became the new president of the University of Nebraska in 2020, and it is clear that he values agriculture and understands its importance to our state. When he unveiled his five-year strategy in August, he identified five areas in which, through partnerships, NU is poised to become a worldwide leader. Those areas include both water and food security and rural community vitality, along with infectious disease, national and cyber security, and early childhood education. Later in 2020, UNL announced eight grand challenges it would strive to address through research. Those challenges include sustainable food and water security; climate resilience; community and economic vitality; early childhood education and development; health equity; anti-racism and racial equity; quantum science and engineering; and science, engineering, and technology for society. IANR is already engaged in meaningful research, teaching and extension in all of these areas.
The inclusion in rural economic vitality in both Ted Carter’s strategic plan and UNL’s grand challenges underscores that our university leadership understands that the success of rural communities is foundational to the strength of our state as a whole. This year, IANR launched Rural Prosperity Nebraska, which brings together researchers, Nebraska Extension professionals and students to work with rural leaders across the state to strengthen our rural villages, towns and cities. Through this new effort, we are expanding our popular Rural Fellows program, which places 20-30 student interns each summer in rural communities across the state, to up to 200 students in up to 100 communities in 2021.
Our rural communities help make our state the unique, resilient, wonderful place that it is. They are the birthplace of innovation and the home of Husker grit. I am proud to work for a university that recognizes this, and to live in a place where people look out for one another and help when times get tough.