Panhandle Center team hopes visit to Washington opens doors

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension
The Chinese Embassy was one of many visited by the delegation from the Panhandle Research and Extension Center. Nebraskans include Zin Qiao, left, irrigation and water management specialist at the Panhandle Center, and Jack Whittier, (second from left, Panhandle Center director. Chinese ag officials are Wei Zhenglin, next to Whittier, ag counsellor at Chinese Embassy; and Weng Xinyu, right, First Secretary at the Chinese Embassy.
Photo courtesy Nebraska Extension

Administrators and faculty from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Panhandle Research and Extension Center hope good things will come out of a mission to Washington, D.C., to meet with agricultural representatives from more than a dozen other countries.

The potential results include several initiatives in international collaboration that would benefit both the university and the Panhandle ag sector.

A team of six people from the Panhandle spent several days in December in Washington, meeting with foreign ag attaches who visited Scottsbluff in September. The foreign guests were part of a tour of Nebraska and Colorado sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service.

In Washington, the Nebraska group met with foreign ag representatives at 13 embassies. In addition, they met with State Department and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials.

The Panhandle delegation included Panhandle Research and Extension Director Jack Whittier; Associate Director-Intern Jeff Bradshaw; Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel, community vitality specialist; Dipak Santra, alternative crops breeding specialist; Bijesh Maharjan, soils and nutrient management specialist; and Xin Qiao, irrigation and water management specialist. They visited the embassies of France, Spain, China, Japan, Belgium, Ireland, Madagascar, Canada, Kenya, Mexico, Malaysia, Lithuania and Germany.

“The goal was to build on contacts that we made when the foreign ag attaches came to Scottsbluff,” Whittier said. “These connections might help the Panhandle Center reach its goal of becoming an internationally renowned center for research into ways of producing crops and livestock that use less water.” This was the first strategic goal that emerged from the most recent five-year review conducted for the Panhandle Center and Panhandle Extension District, completed in 2015.

The Panhandle made a favorable impression when the international ag attaches toured the area in September, Whittier said. Stan Garbacz of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, who accompanied the FAS tour in September, told him that the visitors really enjoyed the day in Scottsbluff and considered it a high point of their 2½ days in Nebraska.

In Washington, the Nebraskans were able to reconnect with some of the people they met on the tour. The mission hopefully will lead to several concrete results, Whittier said.

First, Whittier and the faculty envision creating an “internship prospectus” to help attract interns to the Panhandle. Scientists at the center hire help every year to help implement research protocols.

An internship prospectus would consist of a funded internship program with a listing of available internships at the Panhandle Center, with dates needed, salaries and an application process. Foreign ag attaches might serve as “match makers” who could direct students from their countries to the internship openings.

Such an internship program could lead to long-term, broader benefits. For example, if interns have positive experiences in western Nebraska, their supervising professors at home might be more likely to come here as visiting scholars to work alongside Panhandle faculty, learning good management and research practices to help their ag sectors at home. This might also open the doors to developing greater trade relationships.

The second potential opportunity from the Washington mission is creation of a short course to explain and demonstrate Nebraska’s Extension model of education to international academics, agriculture ministries, and others who work with farmers in various countries. When they visited in September, the foreign attaches were interested in how Nebraska Extension effectively helps its clientele, Whittier said, especially Extension’s connection to regional stakeholders and its close collaboration with UNL researchers under the same roof.

A short course of several days’ length would allow a “deeper dig” into the why and how of the extension process in Nebraska. Maharjan and Qiao plan to further develop the idea into a more formal proposal, he said.

The third opportunity is for the Panhandle to become more involved in an existing program, the International Visitor Leadership Program. The IVLP is the U.S. Department of State’s premier professional exchange program. According to a description on the State Department website, current and emerging foreign leaders in a variety of fields experience this country firsthand and cultivate lasting relationships with their American counterparts through short-term visits to the United States. Professional meetings reflect the participants’ professional interests and support the foreign policy goals of the United States. Each year nearly 5,000 international visitors come to the U.S. on the IVLP.

Whittier said USDA officials and foreign ag attaches who visited this fall were impressed with western Nebraska and indicated they would refer foreign people in the IVLP to western Nebraska in the future.

The fourth opportunity created by the Washington trip is opening more doors to academic collaboration and foreign trade in commodities produced in western Nebraska, such as beef and dry edible beans.

Some might question the benefit of the pursuing international connections. Whittier’s response: “We think we’re better if the university is connected internationally from an academic standpoint.” The benefits run both ways, he said; the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has knowledge and discoveries to share, but so do institutions in other countries.

And some may ask whether international cooperation benefits producers in other parts of the world who might be competitors to Nebraska farmers and ranchers. “We know that we’re in a global economy,” Whittier said, and international collaboration brings people to get a first-hand look at dry bean, beef and other ag commodity sectors in the Panhandle. This could open doors to further trade because often these people have connections with their nation’s trade representatives.

The attaches that the Panhandle delegation visited knew the University of Nebraska-Lincoln well and had a high awareness and respect for the university and state, he said, partly because they have visited here in September.

“The mission to Washington wasn’t solely for trade, but to open eyes, open communication, and open networks that could lead to further trade opportunities,” Whittier said. ❖