Panhandle on My Mind

Nebraska Notebook

Don't forget farmers, ranches in the Panhandle and Pine Ridge

Published on: January 3, 2013

One of my favorite extended trips with Nebraska Farmer is to the Nebraska Panhandle, especially during summer. I make Scottsbluff my home base and venture north and south of there to meet with farmers and ranchers. I keep up, or at least try to, with the region's crop and livestock research by visiting with experts at the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center.

The Panhandle attracts me, I guess, because of its diversity of crops—sugar beets, dry beans and proso millet—in addition to corn. And since I've always enjoyed Nebraska history, a significant amount exists here, including the Oregon Trail route south of the North Platte River and through Mitchell Pass beside the Scottsbluff Monument. Wagon ruts remain there today. And for natural beauty, it's hard to beat the Wildcat Hills south of Scottsbluff and Gering and the Pine Ridge of northwest Nebraska  

Folks out in the Nebraska Panhandle are always a friendly lot, as are all Nebraskans, but they've got a lingering pet peeve. The capital city of Lincoln is more than 400 miles away. The region's residents like to remind the rest of us they are closer to at least three other state capitals than they are to Lincoln. Seceding to Wyoming has more than once been bought up. That may be just tongue-in-cheek, but they do feel ignored in state policy.

I hear Nebraskans refer to North Platte as western Nebraska, when in fact it's nearer the mid-point of the state. At a high school football playoff game several years ago in Omaha, I listed as the public address announcer listed the coming schedule: "And in the Panhandle, it will be McCook against Holdrege." Obviously, he needed to get out more in Greater Nebraska.

We're all dealing with drought. But the combination of drought and wildfires in 2012 dealt northwest Nebraska a devastating blow. Not only has rangeland been reduced by drought in the Pine Ridge area, the fire burned up what was left. Field Editor Curt Arens heard some sobering words from UNL county Extension Scott Cotton: "A lot of producers have sold off between 40% and 100% of their cowherds." Referring to that sell off, Cotton said, "If you do not have our factory, you lose your capability to pay the bills."

Some ranch families with agritourism ventures, including guest ranches and campgrounds, also lost those businesses, at least temporarily as a result of fire damage to both trees and grass.

The big problem right now—let alone what to expect next spring—is replacing down fencelines. Some 2,000 miles of fence was lost, much of it in rough terrain, and it will be a monumental task for replace it. Even if ranch owners get some grass recovery, they still must deal with the fence issue.

It will be a tough road, but Cotton said it best: "Farmers and ranchers in the Pine Ridge region are some of the most adept at coping with and overcoming diversity. They are determined to survive and flourish for generations to come."