Local View: Investing in ag's future

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the American Rescue Plan is providing resources to our state government to invest in infrastructure, and the University of Nebraska has bold ideas with big impact for Nebraskans.

On Oct. 5, University of Nebraska System President Ted Carter presented to Nebraska legislators a series of university proposals focused on workforce development, healthcare and research and innovation to consider for  funding.

As Ted said, these are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to change the trajectory for Nebraska for years to come – solutions our university is uniquely positioned to deliver.

I strongly support them all because of what they offer in terms of meaningful and long-lasting impact. The multiplier potential of two specific proposals offered by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is particularly important and meaningful to our Lincoln community and to our entire state.

One — we propose a $50 million investment at the Nebraska Innovation Campus to dramatically increase our Holland Computer Center capacity, in a new data center, for enhanced high-speed computing, new cutting-edge research and company growth. Over a 10-year period, this initial $50 million investment could conservatively enable more than $1 billion in capital investment and R&D spending in Nebraska. That would be a return on investment of 20 to one.

An expanded Holland Center would have capacity to serve 20 to 30 companies annually, a boon for employing highly skilled knowledge workers – including our graduates – and creating more opportunities for product development in the state.

This expansion will include infrastructure targeted at AI computing and cyber security, particularly in ag and food bio- and cyber-security, and will provide differentiating capacity for research and development, engineering design, operations and logistics. Key participating partners will include agricultural and food industries, logistics, finance, defense, space, cyber security, medical and life sciences, as well as education and human services institutions.

The state will benefit from increased workforce development, including jobs for highly skilled graduates, and research and development. Increased capacity also will enable the center to leverage nationally funded efforts to strengthen the nation’s cybersecurity resources, a growing area of national strength for the university.

Two — we propose a $25 million investment to match $25 million in private funding for the construction of a public-private partnership facility as a companion to the new USDA National Center for Regenerative and Resilient Precision Agriculture at UNL’s Nebraska Innovation Campus. This funding will enhance our ability to take cutting-edge research from our UNL and USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists based in the center and make it commercially viable more quickly.

It will get the incredible tools and impacts made available through our research more quickly to Nebraska’s crop and livestock producers, allowing them to harness data and make real-time decisions. Coupled with the expansion of the Holland Computing Center, we have the potential to transform precision agriculture, enhancing the product quality and productivity for Nebraska farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses.

Again, the projected return on investment here is 20 to one — over a 10-year period this initial $25 million investment would conservatively enable more than $500 million in capital investment and R&D spending in Nebraska, directly in the increasingly important ag tech sector.

Nebraska has the third largest agricultural economy in the United States, and one in four jobs here is tied to agriculture, the highest in the U.S. This proposed companion facility, and the USDA National Center together, will ensure Nebraska’s ag economy continues to thrive by fostering the creation of new businesses and products, helping both Nebraskan and American producers enhance efficiency, increase profits and improve the resilience of their land stewardship and long-term sustainability of their operations.

Our two UNL proposals for American Rescue Plan funding will directly support the future of agriculture in Nebraska by boosting cutting-edge research to advance precision agriculture and crops that are more resilient. We will also provide additional high-speed computing resources to Nebraska businesses and our UNL researchers, focusing specifically on the growing opportunities in the use of artificial intelligence and critical cybersecurity needs.

With American Rescue Plan funding, our state has an opportunity not only to navigate toward economic recovery but to advance to an even stronger position. This is Nebraska’s chance to grow its leadership in agriculture and to open doors wider to new growth industries and capabilities for the state.

Our state has a grand opportunity. Our university has a plan to turn that opportunity into reality. We’re ready and excited to make it happen.

This is our chance not only to recover, but to grow and improve. Let’s take it.

Ronnie D. Green is chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.