Nebraska Farmers Union

Working as one to promote the best interest of rural communities
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Dana Merk-Wynne

A state branch of the National Farmers Union, the Nebraska Farmers Union (NeFU) traces roots back to 1911 and has been serving producers in The Cornhusker State for more than a century. The grassroots organization is dedicated to protecting and enhancing the quality of life and economic well-being of family farmers, ranchers and rural communities. NeFU is not only one of the oldest grassroots organizations; it is also the second largest family farm and ranch organization in the state with more than 4,000 family farm members.

“We started out organizing - local ag-supply cooperatives. We estimate the total number we have organized at more than 445 cooperatives,” says John Hansen, president of NeFU. The organization was officially chartered Dec. 13, 1913.

Hansen has been president since 1990 and has a long history with NeFU. He was an elected official at age 23 and he started working on soil and water resource management as a local director of the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resource Districts. “Our state’s unique system of locally elected officials on a water basin basis have comprehensive resource-based responsibilities, including soil conservation and groundwater management; we’re the only state that spends more state dollars on conservation programs that we receive in federal cost-share resources.”

NeFU has been in the driver’s seat in tackling climate issues that really hit home. “At our annual conference last year we hosted Dr. Don Wilhite, who presented on the implications of climate change in Nebraska,” says Hansen. Long after this, NeFU is working on following through, working with the University of Nebraska to develop a state climate plan and actively promoting renewable energies.

Enhancing renewable energy in the Great Plains

Today, NeFU has many active county and district organizations and plays a huge role in shaping farm and rural policy both in Lincoln, Nebraska, and as far as Washington, D.C. Ran and governed by its members, NeFU’s true grassroots policy is approved each year by elected delegates at the state convention.

“We’ve been at the forefront of trying to fix existing dysfunctional ag-supply and ag-processing markets,” says Hansen. “The unique growth opportunity for us is that we’ve been able to use the natural resource base that we have and look at how to use it while also addressing concerns over carbon emissions.”

NeFU and partners have been working to grow renewable energy in the Great Plains. “It started with ethanol and statewide educational campaigns that led to the ethanol board being created in 1971. Now we’re doing more in wind energy,” says Hansen.

Producing 2 billion gallons of ethanol per year, Nebraska is the No. 2 ethanol producing state in the country and NeFU has been instrumental in making that happen, generating tax revenue and employment opportunities. “When you crunch the numbers, we have more than $5 billion of additional new tax base,” shares Hansen. “We have created 1,300 new full time permanent jobs and 3,000 indirect jobs that are tied to the industry. “

“We’re also the third-largest corn producing state in the country [about 1.6 billion bushels per year],” adds Hansen. “Studies show that that has reduced the amount of money that Nebraska consumers pay for fuel by about $100 million a year.”

One issue that’s been on NeFU’s hot-top agenda is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed production targets as part of the RFS (Renewable Fuels Standard). “We’ve rallied together to send a message to EPA that we want the original RFF [production standards] that were part of the law locked in place,” says Hansen. About 550 members have communicated with the EPA in an effort to make NeFU’s voice heard.

The winds beneath a strong local economy

In terms of wind energy, NeFU helped to get legislation passed to further development in 2007. “As a result of collaboration with the Nebraska Public Power District starting in the spring of 2004, we were able to bring forth legislation to create a public-private partnership to harness and use federal production tax credits,” says Hansen.

This opened up wind and wind development in the state. “We worked with the U.S. Department of Energy to do educational efforts sharing the latest and best information on renewable energy, including wind development. We’ve done about 600 outreach meetings throughout the state to date,” says Hansen.

“When we started these efforts we had about 14 megawatts of wind in the state and now we’ll have 1,324 megawatts in Nebraska by the end of next 2016 — that amounts to $2.3 billion of capital investment and about 130 new permanent jobs will come from this,” adds Hansen.

For NeFU it’s more than saving the planet, it’s also about keeping good jobs and the next generation in rural communities. “When you can earn a good living in a rural community, these kids can stay in their communities to work in the ethanol plants or as technicians for the wind projects, for example,” says Hansen.

NeFU has worked with the North East Community College, which now has a wind training program. “We work with many community colleges across the state to create the programs that help our kids stay in the state if they want to and find quality jobs,” says Hansen.

Last year, Hansen testified on 38 bills in the legislature from taxes to education to local control. “We are also the original sponsor and organizer of the Nebraska Wind and Solar Conference,” says Hansen.

Hansen serves as the co-chair and NeFU collaborates with public power as well as private sector organizations. “One of the new things we’ve been doing is to broaden the wind conference to include solar as well,” says Hansen.

Hansen says renewable energy is a huge part of building value-added agriculture. “This hits home for us and it’s clearly a way to reduce carbon, but also will lead to energy independence; something our members are concerned about,” he says.

One reason NeFU is so successful in taking action is due to member engagement. “It’s not because we hire the most lobbyists,” says Hansen. “It’s because we have a huge amount of member engagement and like-minded people who want to inspire real, positive change.” After more than 102 years, this mission remains as Nebraska Farmers Union leads as the state’s second largest and most influential agriculture organization.