Water for Food

Student field trip sheds light on Nebraska’s farm communities

July 12, 2017

Wood River grower Colby Spiehs (far right) gives interns a tour of a center pivot irrigated cornfield he farms with his father near Cairo, Nebraska on June 7.

By Morgan Spiehs, program associate

After three weeks of research, student interns working with the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute ventured into the field: a field in Hall County, Nebraska, to be exact.

The June 7 outing was part of the institute’s summer internship program, designed to foster future leaders in water and food security. The seven interns from the University of Nebraska aim to complete half a dozen case studies for an upcoming report examining water security and entrepreneurship. Report topics range from innovative efforts among growers to the adoption and effectiveness of drone use in agriculture — all through the lens of practitioners addressing water use efficiency. Practitioners include a range of players with a stake in the water and agriculture sectors, such as investors, technology companies and social entrepreneurs. The students are encouraged to consider each topic from a grower’s point of view.

“We want to know how growers decide on which technologies to invest in and whether practitioners are addressing their everyday needs,” program associate Morgan Spiehs said. “The field trip was meant to take the students away from their screens and allow them to experience a specific Nebraska farming community firsthand: how people communicate, who they trust and why. “I hope the students walked away with more questions than answers as we continue our research in Lincoln,” she said.

Interns met Spiehs’ brother Colby, a seventh generation grower near Wood River. Spiehs answered questions about personal and area-specific farm methods on a tour of his family farm and a center-pivot irrigated field. As a 20-year old, some may assume that Spiehs learns about new farming techniques through Twitter or other online channels. However, the students were surprised to learn that Spiehs gains information about up-and-coming technology through the same traditional methods as his father: locals. Slow internet speeds in rural Nebraska are an impediment to using online resources, but chiefly, small communities incentivize loyalty, Spiehs said. The people you work with are often your friends, too.

Cooperative Producers, Inc. Sales Agronomist Nick Rennau agreed with Spiehs when students asked about online social networks. “Local will always prevail,” Rennau said. CPI is a grower-owned co-op based in Hastings with a presence in more than 30 local communities. Wood River growers like CPI’s location, which is a few miles from the high school where both Rennau and Spiehs graduated. CPI branch manager Ryan Nickerson expressed the benefit of Rennau’s ability to jump in his pickup truck and meet with growers like Spiehs on a regular basis.

Nick Lammers, a former Future Farmers of America instructor at Rennau and Spiehs’ alma mater, is now the chief product officer at CropMetrics, a North Bend-based precision agriculture company specializing in irrigation management. Lammers told the interns that local connections alone were not enough when it comes to adopting soil moisture probes in the area. Lammers compared the information probes give growers about the need to add water to their fields to how a fuel gauge indicates when to add gas to a truck tank.

After installing the probes, CropMetics provides data analysis and customized information delivery for growers. Weekly recommendations help curb overwatering. Lammers said there’s still a lot to be done when it comes to getting the word out about the benefits of probes. Spiehs exemplified this sentiment when he voiced that he didn’t know enough about probes to consider using them for the family operation.

The students appreciated the opportunity to interact with people in real-world settings.

“One of the main things I couldn’t have learned from working in the office was getting a sense of the social structure in local farming communities,” said Alexander Stejskal, a senior natural resources and environmental economics major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Stejskal was surprised to learn a company like CropMetrics would operate in an area of the state without a water allocation established by the local Natural Resources District and questioned how sales might differ between NRDs.

“The field trip was most helpful for gathering information beyond straight facts,” said Ellen Emanuel, a UNL biological systems engineering graduate student.

“We were able to see their nonverbal communication as they expressed confidence or caution in the advancement of agricultural technology, the pride they have for their work and the importance of the face-to-face conversations,” Emanuel said. “These are things we can’t fully grasp from office reading.”

The summer internship program, led by DWFI Program Associates Morgan Spiehs and Kate Gibson, includes students Blanche Butera, Ellen Emanuel, Jasmine Mausbach, Caleb Milliken, Vivian Nguyen, William Ruffalo and Alexander Stejskal.

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