By Phil Rooney

The Associated Press

OMAHA, NE(AP)--Nebraska always has been known as simply a farm state, but that label seems less fitting as the state enters the 21st century--especially if you live in Lincoln or Omaha.

The trademark farms and ranches still dot Nebraska's landscape, but fewer of the state's residents live in rural areas than 100 years ago and more of the state's identity is being shaped by its metropolitan areas.

Rows of office cubicles in the state's telemarketing centers and other white-collar businesses are now as common as the rows of fences that hold cattle in Nebraska feedlots and stockyards.

Nebraska's corn farmers are now overshadowed by Nebraska's Cornhuskers--as in the football team.

And while Wall Street is 1,200 miles away, investors worldwide look to Omaha before making their next trade, either with the help of the nation's largest Internet brokerage firm, Ameritrade, or upon the advice of the nation's most successful investor, Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway.

As more people move from the state's countryside to its cities, Nebraska appears to be in the midst of an identity crisis.

"It's a transition period, really," said Ernie Goss, an economics professor at Creighton University in Omaha. "We're now an urban state."

The Georgia native has observed a tug-of war between Nebraskans who want their state to have a more cosmopolitan feel in order to attract major businesses and those who cherish the one-room school houses and other down-home traits of the state's rural side.

Nebraska's population has continued to grow, but 80 of the state's 93 counties hit their population peaks during the 1930s. The number of farms has dropped by more than half from 121,500 in 1900 to an estimated 55,000 today.

"I think Nebraska, to this day, suffers from a blank spot mentality to the rest of the world," said John Potter with the Nebraska State Historical Society. "A person on the East Coast might still think of Nebraska as a farm state."

Ron Naugle, a Nebraska Wesleyan history professor who attends history conferences around the nation, said he meets many people who cannot even find Nebraska on a map of the United States.

"For most of them, Nebraska is some place 'out there'," he said.

But there is one strong image that has emerged.

"They know about Big Red football," he said.

With several of Nebraska football games televised nationally each season, most sports fans across the country believe the state got its Cornhusker nickname from the football team, and not vice versa.

The University of Nebraska football team officially adopted the Cornhusker nickname in 1900 after the team went 1-7-1 in its final season as the Bugeaters. NU went 6-1-1 in its first "Husker" season and put together a 24-game winning streak that started the following season.

The state also has made a name for itself by hosting the College World Series, the NCAA's baseball championship tournament, for 50 years in Omaha.

Outside of sports, the state--especially Omaha--has become a business center. Many more Nebraskans go to work today in shirts and ties rather than pairs of bib overalls and cowboy boots.

Five Fortune 500 companies--Union Pacific, ConAgra, Inacom, Berkshire Hathaway and Mutual of Omaha--call the state's largest city home as well as other major employers including Ameritrade, InfoUSA and Fun Express, formerly known as Oriental Trading Company.

A total of 7,228 corporations were operating in the state in 1950, compared to an estimated 55,400 by 1997.

Fewer people working on family farms has helped generate growth in manufacturing, which is unusually high in Nebraska, Goss said.

"It's allowed the state to grow by freeing up labor from the farm," he said.

Nebraska hosts 0.6% of the nation's manufacturing, which roughly equals the percentage of the U.S. population that lives here.

Value-added food products like those produced by Vlassic pickles and Swanson TV dinners are major manufacturing contributors to the state, Goss said.

Many other products are also agriculture related.

The Union Pacific Railroad moves a large portion of the nation's grain to coastal ports each year. Valmont is the nation's largest producer of center pivot irrigation systems. Buffalo Manufacturing in Columbus makes farm implements. Behlen Manufacturing also of Columbus creates farm storage facilities. The list of other agribusinesses in the state goes on and on.

Despite its shift away from the farm, Nebraska's image may still be summed up by that bubbly mascot that jumps along the sidelines of Husker football games dressed in bib overalls.

"You've got Herbie Husker out there on national TV," Goss said. "Those are powerful messages."

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