Statistics show that the populations in rural counties of Nebraska are not just decreasing, but also aging. The median age of farmers in the majority of western and central Nebraska counties is 54 years old according to USDA statistics. That is an age closer to retirement than that of beginning an agricultural operation. Add to that the fact that many rural youth leave, and do not return to their hometown. That equals fewer people, fewer kids, smaller classes, team minimum sports rosters, consolidated schools, and the list goes on. The University of Nebraska-Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture (NCTA) in Curtis, Neb., is setting out to reverse that trend.
Dr. Weldon Sleight and the staff at NCTA have a unified goal in educating students who attend there to be proficient in academic knowledge and skills, prepared for business management and aware of the need to be upcoming leaders in their communities. The programs offered in Veterinary Technology, Agribusiness Management, Agriculture Production Systems, and Horticulture Systems give students many options to put together a 2-year program that suits their interests, abilities and leadership goals. Instruction at NCTA is designed for the student to be actively engaged in the knowledge and skills through hands-on application and practice. There are internships available through some area businesses that can provide even more work experience. Each of these programs can also become the stepping stone for an academic transfer to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
The biggest challenge and question for many young people seeking a start in agri-business is having the money to get started. NCTA has several entrepreneurial programs that provide a guided mentoring process that can begin to lay the financial foundations for purchase of equipment, supplies and eventually the real estate to carry out their own farming or ranching operation. These programs depend of the resourcefulness of retiring farmers or ranchers in providing an opportunity for a young person to become established in agriculture.
NCTA has developed entrepreneurial programs to match up retiring farmers, ranchers or business people with enterprising students in a mentoring capacity to guide the student through the process of making a business plan, borrowing money and gaining the experience of managing and working an agricultural operation. There are presently four entrepreneurial programs through NCTA: The 100 Beef Cow Ownership Advantage program, 100 acre Farm Advantage program, Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots, and the NCTA Business Builder program. Cooperating farmers and ranchers can be eligible for certain tax credits. Twenty students have been involved in these programs through NCTA.
The biggest challenge and question for many small towns it how to keep their town thriving and growing. Dr. Sleight notes that once the high school closes or consolidates, the community loses its hub of activity that keeps that town viable. He encourages present town leaders to look ahead to find ways to keep young adults living and working in their hometowns. A recent poll of young people in a rural western Nebraska town showed that over half would like to return to their hometown to work and raise a family.
"Farmers, ranchers and business people in small towns need to ask themselves, 'When I retire, who will take my place?' "said Sleight. He believes that these people can be mentors that provide opportunities for young people to become established in business, therefore preserving rural populations.
Dr. Sleight has worked with community leaders through seminars that provide information on preserving rural America by keeping young people employed in their hometowns. Information about the entrepreneurial programs for students, farmers, ranchers or town leaders is available from NCTA.
For many farmers and ranchers, the attachment between self and property is a bond akin to family. They depend on the land or livestock as much as it depends on them. The chance to choose the next person to work that operation could give a great sense of relief, especially if there is the chance to guide them to be good stewards of the operation. NCTA students are preparing to be the next progressive agri-businessmen and women, as well as the upcoming leaders for towns in rural Nebraska.
For more information about NCTA, contact them at 1-800-3CURTIS or view their website at: ncta.unl.edu.