LINCOLN — Syracuse farmer Steve Wellman, a national leader in the American Soybean Association, was named Monday by Gov. Pete Ricketts to head the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.

Wellman will help lead the Ricketts administration's efforts to expand Nebraska's international trade markets, the governor said in announcing the appointment through a news media conference call.

The new state agricultural director succeeds Greg Ibach, who left the post after 12 years to become undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In accepting the appointment, Wellman described agriculture as the economic backbone of Nebraska and inserted a quick plug for property tax relief.

Nebraska's 50,000 farms and ranches account for 20 percent of the state's economy, he said.

Wellman, 56, owns and operates a fourth-generation farm that produces soybeans, corn, wheat, alfalfa and cattle. His wife, Susan, is a public school teacher.

"He will be a voice for Nebraska's farm and ranch families and will work to expand market access, add value to our quality commodities and advocate for property tax relief," Ricketts said.

Wellman said he will work to raise Nebraska's profile nationally and internationally.

"My administration's vision is to grow Nebraska, and our state's No. 1 industry is absolutely critical to realizing this goal," Ricketts said.

Trade missions have been a key component of the governor's efforts to expand markets for Nebraska agriculture.

In response to a question, Ricketts said the North American Free Trade Agreement has been "very, very successful" for the United States, Mexico and Canada.

NAFTA has been under attack by President Donald Trump, whose administration is attempting to renegotiate the treaty.

Ricketts led a trade mission to Canada last August to cement trade ties with Nebraska. Canada is Nebraska's largest export market.

Wellman has been president and chairman of the American Soybean Association and has served on agricultural advisory committees for both Ricketts and President Trump.

As state agricultural director, he will be salaried at $115,000 annually and begin work on Tuesday.

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