Steve Wellman has traveled from one end of the state to the other in his first three months leading the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.
He spoke at a crop clinic in Wilber and at Dry Edible Bean Day in Gering. Mingled with corn and soybean groups in Grand Island. Met with agribusiness firms in Omaha and young cattle producers in Lincoln.
But to best serve Nebraska’s diverse farming sector, Wellman said he will balance that in-state attention with significant time spent focused outside Nebraska, where foreign export partners play an increasingly important role in supporting the state’s economy.
Trade deals that Nebraska farmers rely on are on shaky ground in Washington, as President Donald Trump’s administration renegotiates the North American Free Trade Agreement, after withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Wellman said a priority for his office will be to reinforce existing trade relationships and lay the groundwork for new deals, picking up where former Ag Director Greg Ibach, who led the department for 12 years, left off.
Wellman expects a Nebraska contingent to visit Mexico this year. Mexican grain importers are lining up other suppliers outside the U.S. in case NAFTA talks don’t work out in their favor.
And he looks to participate in a USDA trip to Asia, with a group led by U.S. Undersecretary for Trade Ted McKinney, who is working to boost farm exports.
Wellman, appointed to the position in December by Gov. Pete Ricketts, said he’s on board with the governor’s push to expand Nebraska’s economy through agriculture.
“I’ve thought for years that the backbone of Nebraska — the state, the workforce, the economy — is agriculture,” said Wellman, a farmer who grows soybeans and corn and raises cattle near Syracuse. “At times it gets maybe overlooked a little bit.”
Low crop prices and several years of falling farm profits are weighing on farmers and dragging down the state economy. While Wellman said Nebraska farmers are resilient and optimistic, he also feels the urgency of finding new markets for the state’s commodities.
Nebraska’s location at the western edge of the corn and soy belts makes the state “the gateway to the West Coast for those products,” he said. “There is a lot of potential yet for Nebraska agriculture to be positioned to serve some of those markets better than some other states can.”
Growth opportunities in exports are what some agribusiness executives are looking for in an ag director.
“Director Wellman is a strong advocate for Nebraska agriculture and understands the critical issues for Nebraska farmers, including access to export markets and international trade,” said Steven Zehr, chief operating officer at Omaha commodities broker Gavilon, who met Wellman in January.
In addition to looking to export partners, Wellman said he will cooperate with economic development and transportation officials to recruit value-added agribusinesses to Nebraska and expand existing operators.
Those are the businesses like food manufacturers, livestock feed makers and ethanol plants that process Nebraska grain and meat into something more valuable before shipping it out of state.
Ricketts cited Wellman’s leadership in trade and policy in appointing him to the role after Ibach went to work in October for the USDA as undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs.
Wellman is a former chairman and president of the American Soybean Association.
Another former president of the soybean group, Indiana farmer Alan Kemper, said he’s seen Wellman in action on overseas trade missions to China, Brazil and Europe.
Some people might want the ag director job for the title, he said, but he expects Wellman to accomplish something for Nebraska.
“Steve is actually a doer,” Kemper said.
Wellman got to know Ricketts when the future governor tapped him to serve on an agricultural advisory committee to his campaign. He said he was impressed by the governor’s focus on agriculture.
And Wellman impressed Ricketts with his work as part of a 2015 delegation to Belgium, Italy and Denmark to discuss trade and ag policy with European Union officials. When the ag director Cabinet position came open, the governor chose Wellman from a field of applicants.
Running a bureaucracy like the Ag Department, with more than 150 employees and a $20 million budget, is new to Wellman.
In addition to promoting agriculture in the U.S. and abroad, the department has a regulatory side. It’s responsible for protecting livestock and crop health, consumer safety programs including restaurant inspections and farm data collection, among others. This summer it will have to keep close watch on problems that arise with the use of dicamba, a controversial weedkiller that tends to drift from farm to farm.
Wellman’s lack of bureaucratic experience is not a problem, said Jamie Karl, vice president for public affairs and policy at the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce & Industry. That’s what career Ag Department staff are for, said Karl, who served as Nebraska deputy ag director in 2005 and 2006.
Wellman said he is learning from Ag Department staff and is working with them and the governor to set goals.
Karl, who invited Wellman to speak to the state chamber on federal policy issues this winter, said Wellman’s trade experience, experience running a farm and engagement in policy will serve Nebraska. Karl said he saw that firsthand when, working for former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel and former U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, he observed Wellman working on behalf of the Soybean Association in Washington on federal farm program legislation.
And even though Wellman aligns with Ricketts, and also served on President-elect Donald Trump’s Agricultural Advisory Committee, Karl called him a good selection because he is “not overtly political.”
“You’re working for the taxpayer,” he said. “Steve will do that well.”