Paul Fell

Hats off to Governor Pete Ricketts and a couple state agencies for formalizing an approach to international trade.

Nebraska governors have been leading trade missions to other countries for at least three decades, but the Ricketts’ plan unveiled during his second annual Summit on Economic Development in Lincoln, creates a Council for International Relations in conjunction with the departments of agriculture and economic development.

Is this a big deal? The export of more than $6 billion in agricultural products in 2015, more than 25 percent of the state’s agricultural cash receipts, makes it a big deal. The fact that it brings together business, agriculture and education groups to expand overseas trade opportunities and new international partnerships is reassuring.

I have often wondered, important as it is for Nebraska to be a global player, if the trade missions were just a way for some state officials to get out of the country. Sure, the reports have trickled in that people in one country are buying Nebraska beef and another country is buying some kind of cash crop. But it has been hard to quantify their importance to the big picture of the state’s economy.

Ricketts said international trade and engagement is a crucial part of Nebraska’s long-term growth. Beef exports, inbound foreign investment, and student and cultural exchanges bring benefits to the entire state, he said.

The Nebraska Governor’s Council for International Relations is an important next step to grow trade for the state by leveraging combined resources, growing current investments in Nebraska and exploring prospects for future partnerships. Ricketts has outlined three goals for the council:

1) developing long-term strategies for expanding existing and developing new trade relationships; 2) growing partnerships and identifying new collaborations with overseas counterparts; and 3) growing current investments in Nebraska while exploring prospects for future investment.

State Agriculture Department Director Greg Ibach, Economic Development Director Courtney Dentlinger and University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green are all on board with the effort to create a link between the ag sector’s trade promotion, the university’s international outreach and the business community interest in foreign direct investment.

At least 20 organizations are involved in the council activity. Let’s hope that meetings of such a large group don’t become unwieldy and that the plan is to create working groups with future direction based on formal action suggested by reports from those groups. Let’s also demand public accountability from the council to give us a comfort level that they are on track to delivering what has been promised.

Green said global engagement has been helping Nebraska attract top-level talent and establish innovative partnerships for years. He said he’s hopeful that the council will allow Nebraskans to come together to take a long-term view of the state’s effort to grow in a global world.

Nebraska Corn Growers Association Vice President Den Nerud offered an interesting perspective. He said with 95 percent of the world’s population living outside Nebraska’s borders, there is great potential for growth. He said he sees the council developing a road map of strategies to prioritize international opportunity.

It’s not the property tax relief for which the Nebraska ag sector has been clamoring, but it does sound like it has the potential to benefit farmers and ranchers state-wide. Let’s hope it works.

J.L. Schmidt is the statehouse correspondent for the Nebraska Press Association. He has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered independent for 18 years.

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