Questions about what will happen regarding Nebraska’s leading industry moving forward continues taking local and state leaders down the problem-solving path.

The need to outsource agricultural products like beef, corn and beans isn’t likely to diminish -- that's a virtual certainty.

But the way products are produced, financed and traded domestically and abroad will likely continue evolving at a rapid rate, outgoing District 22 Sen. Paul Schumacher said during a Friday morning Columbus Agribusiness Committee meeting held at Stack ‘N Steak, 3208 23rd St.

Although no real committee business took place, Schumacher, an eight-year veteran in the Unicameral who's stepping away because of term limits, spoke to a dozen people for approximately half an hour about the current and future state of the agricultural environment in Nebraska. Former Columbus mayor Mike Moser will take over the district seat in January.

The current state of farming being seen throughout Nebraska and other ag-dominant states is something producers of old wouldn’t really be able to fathom, he said.

“I think the state is in the process of a long-term transformation and it’s going to probably be a bigger transformation for agriculture than we have seen in the last 50 years,” Schumacher said.

The overall operation of most producers has shifted, he said, noting the days of manning a family operation consisting of some chickens, pigs, cattle and planting on a small plot of land are now in the rearview for many.

“If you would have come in the 1960s and told the farmers, ‘you are going to sell your cows, get rid of your pigs and bulldoze your homestead so you can run a pivot around in circles, that the chickens are going to be raised in (these huge barns) controlled by an out-of-state company who is getting big subsidies,' you’d have said, ‘no, I’m going to shoot you, that's not going to happen.’ And no government could have made it happen,” Schumacher said.

The shift being seen – and what Schumacher said he anticipates continually happening – is a move that’s incorporating vertically integrated agriculture. Vertical integration consists of large corporate entities controlling all levels of the value chain from feed milling to delivery at the retail level. In terms of producing hybrid strains of oats, corn and other products, Schumacher said producers are largely dependent on the corporate world.

And though vertically integrated operations don’t operate in the same manner as a smaller or medium-sized family operation, it still requires a sustainable and thriving workforce. This, however, is becoming more challenging with rural communities losing population.

Sixty or more counties in the state are consistently losing population, something the senator said that no course of action will really prevent.

“As agriculture becomes bigger and more efficient, the need for a community under a thousand population just evaporates,” he said. “There will be a few that do OK, but that will be because of special circumstances or geographic location. By and large of Nebraska’s 535 communities, most of them will continue on a path of a rather significant population loss.”

The median-sized Nebraska community, Schumacher said, is about 313 people, with half the people in the state living in communities smaller. Lancaster, Sarpy and Douglas counties comprise about two-thirds of the state’s population, he added.

“So the towns that we consider big towns – those about 20,000 (people), or so, are going to really have to paddle hard in that canoe to grow,” he said.

Other issues discussed by the senator included state property tax woes, diversifying the state’s ag workforce, providing quality educational services to rural populations and concerns over international trade negotiations.

K.C. Belitz, president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, said he appreciated Schumacher taking time out of his morning to speak before the Agribusiness Committee.

“I would never argue for a second that Paul doesn’t have a great understanding of the issues,” Belitz said. “From day one, you (people) have trusted what he’s had to say. So I have no doubt that all the challenges that he laid out are real, and that we have to find solutions to them, and frankly, I believe we will.”

It will continue being a team effort involving businesses, the community and legislature as a whole to continue propelling the ag industry forward, he added.

“As a state, I don’t think we are going to allow a future that isn’t what we want it to be,” Belitz said. “I think Nebraskans are resourceful enough and smart enough to address these challenges."

Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at sam.pimper@lee.net.

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