September 23, 2013

Agribusiness Virtual Roundtable–Chris Kalkowski


*The Business Leaders "Virtual Roundtable" discussion was gathered for the Spring 2013 CornsTalk publication. The responses of these business associates were consolidated for the publication, but you can find the full responses through this blog series.

SONY DSCChris Kalkowski, Vice President, First National Bank of Omaha

How does Nebraska's strength in agriculture—and corn, livestock and ethanol specifically—influence your business/organization? How does the fact that you are located in Nebraska provide a competitive advantage or growth opportunities for you?

First National Bank of Omaha’s (FNBO) footprint mirrors very closely that of our nation’s food production. The fact that Nebraska is at the heart of both agricultural production and our bank network puts FNBO in a great place to support opportunities in agriculture far into the future.

A long-time ag lender once challenged me, “Show me a vibrant community and I will show you a strong community bank.” FNBO is a strong regional bank. Its strength is created by its location, its people, and its family ownership. Nebraska is the model of agricultural strength and productivity. As one of the nation’s largest livestock and ethanol lenders, FNBO plays an important role in Nebraska agriculture today and will continue to do so long into the future. We are proud to be born and raised in Nebraska.

What should Nebraska do to leverage its strength in agriculture to enhance economic vitality across the state—and position the state for long-term success in meeting global demand for food, feed and fuel?

Nebraska is in a unique and enviable position. If one were to map the primary production areas, each in its own unique color, for corn, livestock production, meat processing, irrigation, and ethanol production, he/she would find that they all overlap right over Nebraska. On top of that, the map would also show that we are right in the center of the United States. This may seem trivial, but it illustrates the leadership role that Nebraska plays in meeting the global demand for food, feed, and fuel. Nebraska is in the prime location to continue that leadership into the future. It is important for Nebraska to steward its resources, especially the strength of their common sense people, to lead by example, and to ensure that we feed a growing world.

What do you think Nebraska consumers—especially those in urban areas—need to better understand about Nebraska agriculture and your organization's relationship to agriculture?

Nebraska consumers need to understand that Nebraska farmers and ranchers work very hard to provide safe and nutritious food for people in the state and around the world. They do this every day, even when there is a blizzard, drought, or flood. They have a foundation of strong values and a great work ethic. They conserve the resources with which they are entrusted. Nebraska’s agricultural producers care.

It doesn’t matter where you work or live in the state; Nebraska’s agricultural producers have a positive effect on our state’s economy – and, as a result, the good life that we all enjoy.

How important is it that Nebraska corn farmers continue to invest in the future of their industry through their checkoff?

The diversity of Nebraska’s farmers increases the importance of the corn checkoff. A single farmer does not have the economy of scale to develop programs of research, education, market development and promotion to enhance profitability of corn production. By coming together, these farmers create a powerful stage from which to act. The checkoff helps develop the script from which the future will be viewed.

What concerns you most about the future of agriculture in Nebraska? And what will it take to address those concerns?

We as a society are becoming further and further removed from the farm. Each generation seems to understand less about where its food comes from. Children believe their milk comes directly from the store, or that chocolate milk comes from a chocolate cow. Adults don’t seem to understand that our state’s economy is driven by agriculture.

According to a study completed by the Nebraska Policy Institute, one of every three Nebraska jobs is derived from agriculture. Included in the one-third count is production agriculture, with backward linkages to farm suppliers and forward linkages to agricultural processors. Excluded from the selection are restaurants and grocery stores. The study shows that the overall contribution of agribusiness to the state’s economy is increasing. In 1990, twenty-five percent of the state’s total employment was directly or indirectly the result of agribusiness activity. In 2002, the same percentage grew to thirty-one percent. It seems to me if one industry provides one-third of our state’s jobs and is the largest economic activity that we need to make a concerted effort to provide the members of our society with a basic understanding of agriculture and its role in our lives.

With this belief, I am very concerned that only fifty percent of our state’s high schools offer agricultural education. It concerns me even more to note that only thirteen percent of Nebraska’s high school students are enrolled in an agricultural education class.

I am not promoting that we require every student to enroll in an agricultural education curriculum that teaches all about “cows and plows.” I do believe it is important that every student receive a foundation of knowledge about agriculture and its economic impact. Agriculture has a universal importance to every student. Everyone eats. Everyone wears clothing that comes from the toil of farmers’ hands.

Teaching agriculture is unique in that it can fit almost any subject matter. Math concepts can be taught and reinforced in many agricultural teachings. Accounting classes can use a multitude of agricultural case studies to learn basic principles. Science curriculums provide even greater opportunities to delve into agriculture. Agriculture is the most pure form of a perfect competition for those students learning economics. Agriculture can be used to teach leadership, entrepreneurship, business, English, and even music. With its universal importance to every one of us and its applicability to every curricular specialty, we need to strive to touch every child.

These students are our future voters who will elect the officials who will determine future policy. Many of these students will be the future leaders who will make those decisions. If we are concerned about policy created today, imagine what it will be like as we continue to develop young people with little understanding of agriculture. It is our obligation to ensure that the next generation be educated about the importance of agriculture in our state and nation. We need to stand up and play a role in establishing a foundation for our children’s future.

Any other comments or perspectives regarding Nebraska agriculture that you wish to share.

As I watched the election results reported on television in November, one map intrigued me. This map showed red and blue by each county of each state across our nation. The majority of the nation’s counties were highlighted bright red while the counties that are home to large cities were a shiny blue. Those blue counties covered much of the East Coast, West Coast, around the Great Lakes, etc. While contemplating the meaning of what was happening, I realized that we are not so much a nation of red versus blue as we are a nation of rural versus urban. I then realized that Nebraska is impacted by the same issue I was seeing in a map of our national election. Our forefathers saw this as an issue and thus we have a two-house system in which to enact our laws. Because of the differences between city and country, it is extremely important for the people in agriculture to tell their story. The urban dwellers of our country need to eat, they want to know more about their food and they want to know that their food is safe and wholesome. Nebraska agriculture will play a huge role in feeding the world and educating our customers.

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