As the state's leading industry, its impact goes far beyond the plate — providing Nebraskans with jobs, contributing to the state's economy, and touching the lives of its citizens every day.
Production agriculture contributes more than $25 billion to Nebraska's economy each year, thanks to the hard work of Nebraska farmers and ranchers working on 48,000 farms and ranches spread across nearly 45 million acres. In fact, farms and ranches use 92 percent of Nebraska's total land area.
"Few other states have an economy with this degree of agricultural prominence," said Mike Boehm, vice chancellor for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. "Even as our cities grow and our economy diversifies, agriculture remains critically important to the economic prosperity of Nebraska — and it will long into the future."
When it comes to research that supports both large-scale and small-scale crops, the state looks to the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture in Nebraska.
Agronomy views agriculture from an integrated, holistic perspective. Agronomists are experts in crop production and soil management, as well as ecology. Horticulture is the branch of agriculture that deals with the art, science, technology, and business of plant cultivation — generally specialty crops.
Together, the department's work helps feed Nebraska — and that of a growing global population.
Soil science and giving back
Agronomy and Horticulture is a large department, employing nearly 70 faculty who spend their time conducting research, teaching, and participating in outreach through Nebraska Extension.
Their research portfolio — comprised of federal and other grants that fund important studies that impact agriculture — has reached nearly $60 million over the last five years. These dollars build on state support, which pays faculty and keeps buildings open and lights on, and allows researchers to pursue innovative approaches to pressing problems.
The department is led by Martha Mamo, a soil scientist whose research efforts integrate soil processes, water conservation, and food security. After receiving her undergraduate and master's degrees from Alabama A&M University, she completed her doctorate at the University of Minnesota.
"I am interested in how to give back, how to best serve humanity through agriculture," Mamo said. "I think of it under the umbrella of food and nutrition security. Food- and nutrition-secure people can think about the future."
She believes you can take a profession two ways.
"You can say, 'I have to make a living.' Or you can say, 'I want to have a purpose, to wake up every day and know what you do has relevance to people.'"
Mamo sees Nebraska as the perfect laboratory in which to test various conditions for growing crops.
From rolling hills to fertile valleys and expansive plains to the awe-inspiring Sandhills, the geography of Nebraska is one of the most unique in the United States. The landscape changes dramatically, especially traveling from west to east. Nebraska's five unique agro-ecological zones translate to the production of a wide variety of crops.
"From the eastern part of the state to the western part, there are major differences in precipitation levels, soil types, elevation, and temperature. There is so much diversity in what you can grow," she said.
Real impact on Nebraska's producers
When it comes to work that directly benefits Nebraska, the agronomy and horticulture department conducts research ranging from plant breeding and genetics to rangeland and crop management.
The outcomes of that research make a difference to the bottom lines of farmers and ranchers across the state. As an example, UNL soybean lines — which pack increased yield, seed protein, and oil, and other novel quality and defensive traits — provide an estimated $100 million per year directly to the farmers who grow them.
From a crop management perspective, research-based yield forecasting, such as the risk of early-killing frost, provides in-season, real-time information for decision-making and planning. Recommendations on planting dates and crop inputs like seed and fertilizer have led to consistent increases in profit for corn and soybean farmers across the state.
The University of Nebraska–Lincoln is the national leader in addressing the 22 million tons of annual rangeland production lost to woody plant encroachment. Woody plant encroachment refers to the gradual conversion of grassland habitats. In other words, under the right conditions, areas that were historically treeless are becoming wooded. While trees fill an important ecological niche in ecosystems and our communities, they can be disruptive in the Great Plains' grasslands.
Nebraska is a beef state, and Mamo's faculty support research around grassland use.
"We have rangeland scientists looking at how often and how long cattle graze to determine grazing management strategies," Mamo said. "How does the vegetation and the soil respond to different ways of managing? How do cattle respond?"
Supporting the land grant mission
The power of research is heightened when the next generation of the workforce is exposed to new knowledge, then plays key roles in knowledge transfer as they become professionals.
"Research is only one part of the land grant mission," Mamo said. "Once knowledge is generated through research, it needs to integrate with teaching and learning, extension and outreach."
The department of agronomy and horticulture is at the heart of what a land grant university does — research, teaching, and outreach. The benefits impact Nebraska and beyond.
Many department faculty members have international collaborations, including Mamo herself, who works with water management in international settings — where, unlike Nebraska, irrigation is not necessarily well-developed.
"We're looking at small-scale irrigation, one farm at a time," Mamo said. "We worked with farmers on creating shallow wells and then using those wells for irrigation. That led to technology diffusion — the farmers taught each other how to drill a well, how to apply the water, and how to provide service on the irrigation equipment they used.
"This is how knowledge is developed. You introduce something but leave it up to the users to do peer-to-peer teaching, and it's very powerful."
Deploying research into the hands of people who use it — even if those people live in other countries — ultimately benefits Nebraska.
"We bring our internationally-developed knowledge back to Nebraska, so those collaborations can enhance what we do here," Mamo said. "The international research centers that we work with help formulate research questions that are relevant for Nebraska agriculture."
At the end of the day, agricultural work abroad amplifies the ability of our university to do its work right here at home.