Nebraska wheat farmer leads by example
By Jennifer M. Latzke
It’s wheat harvest in southwest Nebraska and Dan Hughes is a bit concerned.
The winter wheat on his family’s farm near Venango, Nebraska, is some of the best he’s seen in years. But, with a hard rainstorm the night before, he may not be able to get equipment into the field this morning. And he knows every second of delay piles up at the scales.
“Half of our wheat is cut and we still have another half to cut,” Hughes said. “The weeds are starting to come on because of the extreme rains we’ve had.”
But Hughes has been farming long enough that he knows the sun will come out, the ground will dry up and harvest will be completed when Mother Nature chooses to cooperate. You just have to have patience and a Plan B.
Plan B means checking in on the phone with his son Tyler Hughes and daughter Ashley Colglazier to see what needs to be done around the farm during this rain delay.
Of all the hats Hughes wears—husband, father, brother, farmer, leader, political candidate—he takes pride in his emerging role as advisor to his grown children who returned to the family farm, and they are taking on more and more responsibilities. And he hopes, like his father before him, he’s set a good example for them to follow.
“Tyler and Ashley both went to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln,” Hughes said. “In high school they both knew that they wanted to come back and farm on the family farm.” Dan and his wife Josie promised if that’s what their children wanted, then they would have all the support they would need.
Hughes is a second-generation farmer. His parents came out to this spot in the southwest corner of Nebraska in the 1920s with his grandparents.
“My dad lived to be 90 but he passed the management of the farm on to me fairly early,” Hughes said. The ability to make critical farming decisions while his father was around to collaborate with really eased the transition, he said. It’s how he and his wife are choosing to bring along the next generation to Hughes Land Company.
Wheat is as vital today to the Hughes farm as it was back in his father’s day. The elevation and the climate, Hughes said, are just perfect for winter wheat. And, while there is more dryland corn acreage coming along in the area every year, wheat is still that critical rotation crop for farmers in southwest Nebraska, he added.
“We raise both hard red and hard white winter wheat,” Hughes said. “Hard white wheat works for us because of the premium at ConAgra.” With the ability to keep their hard white wheat segregated from their hard red wheat, there’s very little else that needs to change in production methods. And, the market is hungry for hard white wheat, he said.
This year was just a phenomenal year for the wheat crop, Hughes said. “We had a little over seven inches of rain in June,” he said. “The cool, wet June was good for those spots in our fields that in April were just burning up. We had little subsoil moisture to help the crop, but Mother Nature responded and that wheat grew when the rains came.”
The Hughes family uses crop inputs to protect their yields, and they don’t mind experimenting to see if certain inputs work better than others on their own crops.
“We have a couple of fields where we applied micronutrients and fungicide treatments with yield checks to see if they were cost effective,” Hughes said. “Typically we target 60- to 80-bushel yields, 60 to 65 test weights, with protein in the 12 and 13 percent range. This wheat this year is just gorgeous wheat. And, I credit our kids with really trying to help us try new things.”
Bringing back education and new ideas to the farm is something Dan and Josie have stressed to their children. Whether they find it in a college course, a 4-H project or through service on local, state and national organizations.
Service to others has been a Hughes family tradition since Dan’s uncle joined other Nebraska wheat farmers in founding the Nebraska Wheat Growers Association (NWGA). The Nebraska Wheat Growers has been almost like another branch of the family tree for many years, and Hughes became involved in the organization as early as he could as a young farmer.
Participation in a grassroots organization like the NWGA brought Hughes continuing education opportunities and the chance to discuss farming practices with colleagues from around the country. He eventually served as president of the association and had the opportunity to travel and see what other farmers in other areas were doing on their farms and consider how those could translate to the family farm near Venango.
Then, former Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman appointed Hughes to the Nebraska Wheat Board, the entity in charge of marketing, education and promotion of wheat in the state. And through that organization, he rose to become chairman of the U.S. Wheat Associates. He just wrapped up his term this July and is now the past chairman of USW. It was a year of challenges for the industry, from the discovery of GM wheat plants in an Oregon field, to a government shutdown that disrupted essential Foreign Market Development and Market Access Program funding for USW’s efforts to market American wheat overseas.
Steve Mercer, vice president of communications for USW, said Hughes really showed leadership during the government shutdown.
“The biggest issue that affected the most farmers during his term was the funding for the Market Access Program and the Foreign Market Development,” Mercer said. “We were short because the farm bill was delayed and Congress didn’t appropriate those funds. Dan talked with the state organization to ask for any additional support they could send if they were able. He worked with the National Association of Wheat Growers, too, to tell our story on the Hill.
“I think he’s been one of the most effective communicators about what we do and why we do it, not only with our customers, but with other farmers in the U.S. and not just in Nebraska,” Mercer said. “Here he lives in Venango, Nebraska, in the middle of the country. Why get engaged with U.S. Wheat? Why focus on exports? He could have just stayed home, but he chose to look outside his specific farm, his county, his state, and he’s chosen to serve.”
There were some truly awe-inspiring moments for the southwestern Nebraska farmer serving on the global stage as well.
“As chairman I was invited to Abu Dhabi to address a convention of Arab millers and buyers of U.S. wheat,” Hughes said. “So, there I was, in front of about 700 people, and I’m representing the millions of American wheat growers who rely on exports for their wheat markets.” It was a moment that caused him to pause to be sure.
Throughout his leadership at the local, state and national levels, though, Hughes said the support of his family was critical to his ability to serve.
“The reason I’m able to do all of these things is because Josie stayed home and kept things going here,” Hughes said. “The kids have stepped up around the farm too.”
“As a family, we knew that Dan taking on more leadership roles to help his neighbors and our family means that he’s had to spend a lot of time away from the farm,” Josie said. “But, this has been a great opportunity for our own children to step up and take on more responsibility when he’s not here.” They saw that what their dad was doing was important not only to the Hughes’ farm, but to the neighbors’ farms as well, she said.
As Tyler and Ashley married their spouses, came back to Venango, started to grow their families and slowly moved into bigger roles around the farm, Dan started to look to see what the next service opportunity might be. The answer? A run to be elected as a senator in the unicameral Nebraska Legislature.
“Whether it was my time with Nebraska Wheat or U.S. Wheat Associates, or my service on the local school board, each opportunity was a chance for personal growth,” Hughes said. “I learned to grow and build consensuses.”
He saw as a member of the Grant/Perkins County School Board, in the midst of a school merger, the need to look at the bigger picture of issues that affect communities beyond the city border.
“I look at the big picture, at the region as a whole and not just a county or a town, and see how the issues affect us all, not just as individuals,” Hughes said. “If we all pull together, we can invest in ourselves and in our region.” So whether it’s finding solutions to limited water resources, fair taxation for landowners, or creating educational opportunities for Nebraska youth, he said, the key is in finding compromises that help his neighbors in his region and in the state.
“Looking at our own farm, my dad always preached slow and steady growth,” Hughes said. “And that model I think we could follow in the Nebraska Legislature.”
It’s also a philosophy Hughes hopes his children pass along to the next generation as the farm grows with their families.
“There is a future for agriculture because the demand for food in the world continues to increase,” Hughes said. “And I think there are opportunities for our children on the farm, and for young people to expand in agriculture, if they have the tools available to them and the drive to succeed.”
To keep rural communities vital, Hughes sees there is a need to show the next generation there are jobs and housing available for young couples starting their families. Rural economic development and citizen involvement will be keys to the health of rural Nebraska. It’s going to take the older generation helping the next generation find their fit into the community, he explained.
“Get off of the farm and get involved,” Hughes said. “If only for your own personal growth. But look toward the horizon and take the opportunity to be more involved in whatever organizations you choose.
“Together, we are always going to be better than we are individually,” he added. That goes for his family and their farm and for his neighbors around the state.
“We looked at my individual leadership positions as a team effort,” Hughes emphasized. “I’m only here because of them. It’s not ‘I did all these things,’ it’s ‘we did all these things.’” And that’s not going to change no matter if Hughes is advising from the farm in Venango or from the capitol in Lincoln.
It’s later in the morning and the sun has broken out and started to dry the ground, and Hughes smiles. He, Josie, Tyler and Ashley talk over the day’s schedule and it looks as if wheat harvest is back on.
Hughes knew it would be, after all, like he tells his kids, you just have to be patient when you’re a southwestern Nebraska farmer.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached by phone at 620-227-1807 or by email at email@example.com.