Workshop #12
Culbertson / McCook
June 2-3, 2009

Elected officials and civic leaders from McCook, Culbertson, Imperial, Stratton, Trenton, Palisade, Ogallala, Hayes Center and Venango who attended the Nebraska Sustainability Leadership Workshop in Culbertson on June 2 and 3 talked about both the disconnection and the commonalities between the western and eastern parts of the state, and about what western Nebraska communities can do to become more self-sufficient and sustainable.

Richard Bernt, Vice President of McCook National Bank in Stratton, summarized the frustration of many participants: "There's a real disconnection between us and the 'centers of power' in Lincoln and Omaha," he said."They act like we don't exist. Even the Omaha World-Herald has abandoned this part of the state; they don't deliver west of Holdrege now and they don't cover this part of the state. It is the state's newspaper of record, the 'state' newspaper, and we may as well not exist anymore as far as they're concerned."

Connie Brott, a business owner in Hayes Center, agreed. "Even the state school officials don't take us into consideration when they're making their plans."

Bernt said the state has plans to drain Swanson Lake and end state maintenance of the nearly 10,000-acre lake and wildlife area on the Republican River near Trenton. The 56-year-old reservoir stores water to irrigate some 17,000 acres of land and provides recreation to 25,000–30,000 boaters, campers, fishermen, and hunters each year. The lake is a source of tourism revenue to the region and its loss would be keenly felt, Bernt said.

State Sen. Mark Christensen spoke up for self-reliance, regarding Swanson Lake. "We have to do things for ourselves," he said, "find our own answers. It takes thinking outside the box.

"We could take over the maintenance and ownership of the lake from the state, for example," he said. "That way we could both provide jobs and keep more of the revenue here in the area. This is something I've been thinking about working on. I think it could be some real economic development for our area. I've got a plan."

Population dynamics are also a concern in Southwestern Nebraska.

Russ McCorkle, a Southwest Public Power District Line Superintendent, said he is frequently hires young men to work for him, but is unable to keep them in the community because there are few young women in the area for these single men to marry and start families with. "I'd like to be able to hire young men with families," he said. "I am concerned about keeping our local schools, resources for youth, job opportunities for wives of men I might hire."

"There are too few young people staying in rural Nebraska towns," said Jason Weiss, Palisade Village Board Chairman. "Family farms are not supporting generations anymore."

Banker Richard Bernt agreed. "There's a certain loss of wealth from the area. When a farmer does well, his children move away—one kid lives in Omaha, one in Lincoln, and one in Denver. So when he dies, his wealth leaves the area and his farm goes to a corporation, which multiplies the loss."

Dennis Demmel, one of the speakers at the workshop, told them about Land Link, a program from the Center for Rural Affairs that provides for agribusiness succession. Demmel said he is participating in it and has a young farmer working side-by-side with him on his farm near Ogallala to learn all the aspects of how Demmel runs his agribusiness.

The Land Link program provides opportunities for beginning farmers while encouraging good stewardship. Computer database matching and consulting services bring beginning farmers and landowners together. Retirement planning, beginning farmer financing, farm business, and environmental assessment information is used to assist in transferring family operations to a new generation of farmers and ranchers, Demmel said.

Demmel, a certified organic farmer, is a member of the Center for Rural Affairs Advisory Board; President of the Perkins County Planning Commission; a board member of the High Plains Chapter, Organic Crop Improvement Association; and a member of the Advisory Committee for the University of Nebraska Organic Farming Research Program. Demmel talked with the group about community food systems and cooperatives as a form of economic development.

The need for locally-grown, safe, and fresh foods is increasing, Demmel said, noting that food safety concerns as well as health issues—nutrition and impact on healthcare costs—mean there's a burgeoning market for organically-grown meats and produce. He surprised several farmers among the participants when he noted his profits as an organic farmer are double what they were as a traditional farmer. Demmel said there is an increasing need among institutions like schools and retirement centers, as well as individuals, for safe, fresh, healthy foods.

Demmel also talked about water and energy use in growing crops like corn using traditional methods. Corn as livestock feed and bio fuel may serve an immediate need, but these are not sustainable uses for corn. "It takes 1700 gallons of irrigation water to produce one bushel of corn, which in turn produces a little more than two gallons of ethanol," he noted. "There's something about this that doesn't make any sense at all."

Public policy, he said, should include incentives for organic agriculture. Organic farming can be a great source of economic development in rural Nebraska, Demmel said, as can food cooperatives and community-based farms.

He also talked about Hometown Competitiveness, a comprehensive approach to long-term rural community sustainability. This approach, he said, goes beyond the traditional tunnel vision of economic development. Hometown Competitiveness, which calls itself a "Come-Back/Give-Back Approach to Rural Community Building", helps the community to focus on four interrelated strategies that depend on each other for ultimate success:
          Developing Leadership
          Energizing Entrepreneurs
          Engaging Youth
          Charitable Giving

"This is a great way of retaining and attracting young people," Demmel said.

Sue Shaner, Business Coach for the McCook Economic Development Corporation, said her office is part of the Home Town Competitiveness initiative in a 60-mile radius around McCook. "This is a great program, and is becoming more and more successful," she said. "We may be in a zeitgeist of young people being more attracted to smaller cities and towns, and we really need to take advantage of this."

Demmel noted that Gregg Christensen's place-based learning in schools is a dynamic way of engaging young people in their own communities. Christensen is an entrepreneurship education specialist with the Nebraska State Education Association.

Local entrepreneurs are the special focus of Janell Anderson Ehrke, founder of the enormously successful GROW Nebraska micro-enterprise program that engages and helps small entrepreneurial efforts throughout the state. "We have invisible factories in every community," she said. "From the FFA students' pickles and pumpkin patch to Katrina Fry's chokecherry jelly, from original art to wine and all-natural meats, t-shirts to bath products, Nebraska entrepreneurs are creating economic development in these 'invisible factories' every day. These are sustainable businesses that are the backbone of our communities. They are engines of growth—no tax incentives needed."

Ehrke's GROW Nebraska helps these entrepreneurs with business development, training, and marketing. The non-profit's more than 300 members sold more than $325,000 in goods through GROW Nebraska's two retail stores and website.

She said that cultivating ideas among high school students helps to attract other students, which helps them become more engaged in the community and provides a source of long-term economic development for Nebraska towns.

Danielle Hill, Executive Director of the Nebraska Housing Developers Association, talked about how young people, particularly industrial arts students, can be engaged in helping a community to "de-construct" blighted housing and commercial buildings. They not only learn how buildings are constructed, she noted, but can also sell salvaged building materials to create a small business.

Blighted structures and the lack of affordable housing are two of the most common and pressing issues in nearly all Nebraska communities, she said, and few communities have the money to demolish buildings. Her non-profit organization, she said, is engaged in helping people find about available resources and opportunities, providing resources for rehabilitation of housing for the disabled, and, most recently, policy advocacy.

Roger Hunt, energy efficiency expert with the Nebraska Public Power District, talked to the group about how energy efficiency can be an engine of economic development. He noted that alternative energy sources will be increasingly important as the United States and other oil-producing countries reach peak oil development in the foreseeable future. And, he noted, Nebraska is perfectly situated for the development of sustainable energy sources, like wind and solar, among others.

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Resources from the
Culbertson Workshop

Most of the workshop materials can be downloaded from our Resources and Documents pages. Below are some materials specifically from the consultants and speakers at the Culbertson workshop.

Dennis Demmel's PowerPoint presentation on Sustainable Community Food Systems, along with a number of helpful links can be downloaded.
Click here >

Roger Hunt's PowerPoint presentation, All Roads Lead to Energy Efficiency, can be downloaded.
Click here >

GROW Nebraska's website is full of information and resources for Nebraska's small entrepreneurs.

The Nebraska Housing Developers Association offers technical assistance and training to increase the impact of nonprofit developers and housing partners. The Association builds statewide support for affordable housing through awareness and policy work, and participates in collaborative housing initiatives that provide Nebraskans with quality, affordable housing choices. Visit their website:

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