Gov. Pete Ricketts told several hundred people at the Rural Futures Institute conference Friday about the importance of rural communities in Nebraska's economic growth."Agriculture is our largest industry," Ricketts said. "We grow things and we make things. That's what we do."
According to Ricketts, 25 percent of Nebraska's economy is agriculture.
"If you look at the last recession in 2008, Nebraska weathered that quite well compared to other states," he said. "That was in large part because agriculture had done so well."
Ricketts said agriculture will drive future economic growth in Nebraska. People are demanding a higher standard of living, he said, Nebraska's agriculture industry is experiencing growth.
"We are ideally situated, right here in Nebraska, to be able to take advantage of that trend," he said.
There is a growing focus on quality of life, Ricketts said, involving access to healthcare, shopping, restaurants and well-paying jobs.
He said the challenge of providing those things requires local communities to work with the state to develop local solutions.
The focus on higher quality of life means there is a need to create more jobs in rural communities, Ricketts said. With manufacturing the second largest industry in Nebraska, he said there needs to be a focus on how to develop that workforce.
"Manufacturing allows us to create jobs all across our state, not just in Lincoln and Omaha," Ricketts said. "Great Nebraska companies are creating jobs in our small towns and rural communities."
Ricketts said the economic growth of the state is drawing young people, but there needs to be more education throughout the state about the importance of agriculture.
"We've got to do a better job of educating our urban consumers about where food comes from," he said. "Even here in Lincoln, we've got a lot of people that take it for granted."
Ricketts said humanizing the face of agriculture is not only important on a local level, but on a national and international level as well.
"In Europe, the perception is we're all big corporate farms," he said. However, 97-99 percent of Nebraska farms are family owned, he said.
To expand opportunities and grow Nebraska's economy, Ricketts said we have to shift our eyes abroad.
"Ninety-nine percent of the world's consumers lie outside our borders," he said.
Today, Japan is the third largest trading partner and largest direct foreign investor in the state, Ricketts said. Approximately 20 percent of Nebraska's beef exports and 50 percent of pork exports go to Japan, he said.
"Japanese diets are changing," he said. "The opportunity to expand is huge."
Ricketts said China currently blocks beef exports from Nebraska.
Building a relationship with China would mean helping with China's food security and opening doors for Nebraska manufacturers to sell in Chinese markets and to Chinese producers, he said.
"If you think about those rising standards of living, those are going to be in Asia," Ricketts said.
Ricketts said looking at Nebraska's future means looking at the rest of the world.
"We've got to do a better job of presenting ourselves to the rest of the world. We've got to continue to be innovative, because the world will change," he said. "but the opportunities are limitless.”