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Nebraska's ag tech leadership

Nebraska's ag tech leadership

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Governor Pete Ricketts

Agricultural technology has come a long way since farmers used oxen and horse-drawn plows to break the prairie sod. Huge advancements are being made each year in ag tech, and Nebraska’s companies and universities are leading the way. The technologies they’re developing run the gamut from pioneering livestock management techniques, to innovations in the way crops are grown, to advancements in equipment.

Our growing expertise in agricultural technology brings a number of benefits to our state. It makes Nebraska a very attractive place for agricultural manufacturers to invest, grow, and create jobs. It gives our ag community a competitive advantage in a global economy by making them more productive. And it helps ag producers wisely care for their animals and steward our natural resources.

Nebraska has long been a powerhouse in agricultural machinery production. One significant example of this: Nebraska is home to the vast majority of center pivot manufacturing in the world. From McCook to Hastings to Omaha, companies like Lindsay, Reinke, T&L, and Valmont are at the forefront of innovation, finding new ways to use digital technologies to efficiently apply water to crops. For example, Lindsay’s Smart Pivot gathers data from high-resolution images and sensors to gauge the presence of weeds or pests and to detect nutrient deficiencies. Its FieldNET management platform then analyzes the data to recommend when and where to irrigate or apply pesticide. Additionally, the smart pivot’s machine health capabilities can report low tire pressure or a worn gearbox. Based on this information, growers can schedule repairs with a technician or adjust the timing of irrigation—all from a smartphone.

Technologies like these are one of the reasons Nebraska has been able to manage our water resources well. Nebraska is located atop one of the largest aquifers in the world. Because of this, Nebraska has more groundwater than any other state in the United States. Making use of innovative technologies has helped Nebraska maintain water levels within one foot of 1950s levels, while other states have drastically drawn down their water resources.

In addition to private industry, our state’s research institutions are doing tremendous work in ag tech and related fields. Nebraska ranks #7 nationally in academic bioscience R&D expenditures per capita. In 2020, for the fourth straight year, the University of Nebraska system was among the top 100 academic institutions in the world for earning United States patents. A team of researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL)—made up of animal scientists, computer engineers, and electrical engineers—won an ag tech patent for its video monitoring system that helps pork producers to evaluate the health of individual pigs. The system tracks the animals’ eating, drinking, and mobility habits and reports abnormal behavior that may indicate a health problem. By detecting illness early, the technology allows producers to identify and care for an unhealthy pig even before symptoms of an illness become evident to the naked eye.

Technologies created by University alums are helping farmers to increase productivity and make the most of natural resources. UNL graduate Nick Emanuel founded CropMetrics in North Bend in 2009 with a desire to bring data-driven recommendations to farmers. The company quickly became a pioneer in precision agriculture, helping farmers to irrigate at the ideal time and place by using in-field sensors to collect data and statistical analysis to aid decision-making. This reduces growers’ cost of water and boosts production by optimizing the water intake of crops. CropMetrics now serves over a half-million acres across America.

The University continues to build on its strength in ag tech. In December 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded over $11 million in funding for an ag research center at UNL. This summer, Congress approved an additional $20 million for the center.

State agencies are also working to encourage ag tech innovation. The Nebraska Department of Economic Development (DED), in partnership with Invest Nebraska, launched the Combine incubator at Innovation Campus in October 2019. The Combine supports high-growth entrepreneurs in food and agriculture. The Combine received a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce in September 2020 to help businesses test out and commercialize their ideas. Terrace Ag, the first graduate of the Combine incubator, has created software to help appraisers complete farmland valuations 40% more efficiently. Grain Weevil, another Nebraska ag tech startup, is tackling the problem of grain bin safety. The company is developing an agile robot—resembling a weevil—that can walk across the surface of a grain bin to perform tasks that would otherwise require a farmer to physically crawl inside the bin. This makes grain bin management more efficient and keeps farmers out of harm’s way.

In 2017, I signed the Bioscience Innovation Act into law to incentivize investment by innovative startups here in Nebraska. Administered through DED, the Bioscience Innovation Act provides 1:1 matching grants to early-stage, high-growth biotech companies. This helps to spur innovation in the state’s backbone industry, agriculture. For example, DED awarded a prototyping grant to Grain Weevil to collaborate with a number of small businesses in the state to create a functional robot.

This week, people from around the world are descending on Wood River to learn about the latest in ag tech innovations. If you’d like to learn more about ag tech in Nebraska, visit the Husker Harvest Days website at www.huskerharvestdays.com. Each year, Husker Harvest Days celebrates and showcases the latest in agricultural technology during their three-day farm show in Wood River. You can also explore the ag entrepreneurship happening at the Combine incubator on Nebraska Innovation Campus by going to www.nebraskacombine.com.

If you have ideas for how to spur innovation in ag tech in Nebraska, I’d enjoy hearing from you. Please contact me at pete.ricketts@nebraska.gov or by calling 402-471-2244. Together, we can build a bright future for agriculture and the next generation of farm and ranch families.

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