Terri Licking | Thedford, Neb.

Home Is Where the Heart Is: LEAD program helps Custer County native return home to the ranch

These hills of grass and sand grasp the heartstrings of her residents like the mountains and the shores do others.

It has driven many to return, helping Nebraska realize for the first time in decades, the increased influx of the next generation back on the farm or ranch (of course the higher profit margins has been an added reason to that statistic as well).

For Mackenzie Johnston, Milburn, Neb., the tug of her roots in the sand did indeed call her to return to her folk’s ranch in Custer County.

“I have always helped my dad, Jim, outside. We raise commercial Red Angus. Mom, Patty, teaches sixth grade at Halsey Elementary. My sister, Courtney, lives in North Platte. I admire my dad, as he has done the work with very little help.”

Certainly not easy, when your cowherd is 450 head.

“I graduated from Sandhills High in 2007, and then UNL in December of 2011, with degrees in animal science and business. I then went to Denton, Texas, and was special projects manager of the Red Angus Association for a short time.

“But here is where I was meant to be.”

Her dad is glad to have his “hired man” back, even though he has had to share her since her return with first, the Nebraska LEAD program, and more recently to her new role as south central member services representative of the Nebraska Cattlemen.

Mackenzie graduated this March from the LEAD (Leadership, Education/Action Development) program — class No. 32.

“LEAD is a two-year program with seminars on monthly basis from October to April. The seminars traverse the state so a lot of traveling and packing is needed.”

The Nebraska LEAD Program began 32 years ago to develop agricultural leaders from Nebraska’s future generations. The constant changes that occur in agricultural policy, marketing, economics and technology point to the need for strong leaders to advocate for the heart of Nebraska’s economy — agriculture.

“The first year, the class takes a national study travel to Kansas City, Chicago and Washington D.C. to learn about the national policies, marketing concepts and so much more. Then this year my class traveled to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland to gain knowledge in the world economics, policies and marketing.”

Of course seeing the sights and enjoying the cuisines of all the places they went, both here and abroad, are added bonuses.

They became LEAD alumni at a graduation ceremony held in Lincoln in March, joining some 900 other LEAD alumni.

“Without LEAD, I would never have even applied for the position with the Nebraska Cattlemen. Prior to LEAD, I was in my own small world, the daily goings on of helping dad with our ranch. LEAD got me out of my shell. I wasn’t outgoing, nor politically inclined and I did not worry about issues outside our fences. Now I follow the news, and have better awareness of the policies and politics in the nation and the world. I step up and take on new challenges off the ranch.”

Becoming the south central region representative for the NC has certainly been one of those for her.

“Dad has been understanding, for the most part. The position is part-time, 20 hours per week. My area covers south to the Kansas border, north to Blaine County, and west to Gothenburg, so it is a large land mass to travel. I am a conduit between the NC members and staff. I help NC affiliates with their meetings, attend board meetings, and discuss issues and policies affecting our industry at every opportunity. I recruit members when and where I can.”

When asked if her dad was an NC member, she replied, “Not yet.”

She will attend the mid-year NC meeting and help in the Beef Pit at the State Fair as well. Mackenzie is unsure if she will get to attend the National Cattlemen’s convention, but would certainly like to.

Along with her NC duties, Mackenzie is the one receiving the 2014-2015 scholarship applications until July for the Nebraska Junior Red Angus association.

When she isn’t working on the ranch or with the cattle industry, Mackenzie likes to cook and bake — “not at branding time though, that is strictly mom’s department.” She is an avid concert goer, or just likes to hang out working with her BFF — her Dad.

For Mackenzie Johnston, her ranch and home in Custer County will always be where her heart is. ❖

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The Fence Post Updated Jun 16, 2014 11:36AM Published Jun 6, 2014 02:03PM Copyright 2014 The Fence Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.