Nebraska’s Agricultural Innovation
By Governor Pete Ricketts
August 26, 2022
Governor’s official photo here.
Nebraska is a land of pioneers. Our state was settled by hardy homesteaders who ventured across windswept prairies in search of opportunity. While we often celebrate the grit and determination of these early Nebraskans, they deserve equal credit for their ingenuity. Their inventiveness helped transform the Great Plains into some of the most productive agricultural land in the world.
This spirit of innovation remains a driving force behind our state’s global leadership in agriculture. Nebraskans are continuously coming up with new and improved ways of caring for their land and animals. They’re designing machines, creating software, and applying technology to optimize the use of natural resources. They’re pioneering new techniques to address labor shortages and safety issues.
State agencies are working to encourage this innovation in agriculture. 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. In May 2021, the Combine won a competitive $50,000 award from the U.S. Department of Energy for its demonstrated impact as an innovation center.
Startups at the Combine incubator have earned national recognition. In January, the American Farm Bureau Federation announced the winners of its Ag Innovation Challenge, a competition open to entrepreneurs across the country. Nebraska startups in the Combine incubator program took home three of the top four spots.
- Grain Weevil won the top prize. The Aurora-based company is tackling the problem of grain bin safety. It has developed 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.
- Birds Eye Robotics in Waterloo was named the runner-up. The company has engineered a robotics system to provide upkeep and maintenance in chicken barns, performing time-consuming tasks that would otherwise require a farmer to walk through a broiler house.
- Marble Technologies also received recognition as a finalist of the Ag Innovation Challenge. It has designed technologies to automate many of the labor-intensive, repetitive tasks in beef and pork processing facilities. Its products are helping to address the labor shortages that sometimes serve as a bottleneck in meat processing.
Investors are looking to support more entrepreneurs in agriculture. Last year, Nebraska attracted an all-time high of $317.6 million in venture capital. That more than doubled the previous high of $153 million in 2018. For example, Burlington Capital and Invest Nebraska announced a partnership in September 2021 to raise $11 million in seed funds for ag tech innovators. This July, they helped Sentinel Fertigation raise $1.2 in seed funds for software development. The company, founded by UNL graduate student Jackson Stansell, uses satellite imagery to assess the nitrogen needs of crops. It then uses innovative software to analyze the imagery and provide farmers with data-driven recommendations on when to apply fertilizer and how much to use. Given record-high nitrogen fertilizer costs, Sentinel Fertigation is saving growers money by helping them to avoid over-applying fertilizer, while still making sure crops get the nitrogen they need to grow.
The ongoing creation of new technologies in agriculture has helped our state wisely manage its natural resources. For example, Nebraska has responsibly maintained its portion of the Ogallala Aquifer. Water levels today remain within a foot of 1950s levels (in contrast, neighboring states like Colorado have depleted theirs). The Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute estimates that crop water productivity for corn and soybeans in Nebraska increased 75% from 1990 to 2014. In other words, our farmers are continuously growing more crops with less water. Since the 1960s, our ranchers have contributed to a 66% increase in national beef production, while helping the U.S. beef industry reduce its carbon footprint by 40%.
Advancements in agriculture have also made it possible for farmers and ranchers to increase productivity. Nebraska set records for both corn and soybean production in Nebraska for 2021 with 1.85 billion bushels of corn and 351 million bushels of soybeans. Each crop had record-high yields in 2021 as well, with corn at 194 bushels/acre and soybeans at 63 bushels/acre. Our ranchers, feeders, and processers have likewise harnessed new technologies to boost productivity. Even with nearly 30% fewer cattle now than in 1975, the United States is producing more beef.
We’re committed to keeping Nebraska at the forefront of ag tech innovation. In April, I signed legislation to invest $25 million into a $50 million public-private partnership to build an ag innovation facility at Nebraska Innovation Campus. It will be located alongside a $140 million research center the United States Department of Agriculture is planning to construct. The facilities will bring together researchers, engineers, and ag entrepreneurs to turn scientific discoveries into products our farmers and ranchers can use to enhance their operations.
While there are exciting technologies on the horizon, many recent innovations have already made their way into fields and pastures. Next month, leaders in agriculture from around the world will gather in Wood River to see the latest technological advances in agriculture at Husker Harvest Days. Visitors will be able to watch live field demonstrations, see autonomous farm machines in action, and take part in educational sessions to expand their knowledge. To see what’s in store at our state’s biggest farm show, visit the Husker Harvest Days website at www.huskerharvestdays.com.
You can explore the creative ag entrepreneurship happening at the Combine incubator on Nebraska Innovation Campus by going to www.nebraskacombine.com.
To learn more about how the State of Nebraska is supporting innovation in agriculture, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 402-471-2244.