NORFOLK, Neb. – Northeast Community College faculty, staff, students, volunteers, donors and other guests gathered Thursday for an event that is literally and figuratively groundbreaking for the institution’s agriculture program.
A ceremony marked construction that is presently underway on the Nexus project which consists of a new veterinary technology building and a combination farm operations building and large animal handling facility at the new Acklie Family College Farm. The site is located near Northeast’s Chuck M. Pohlman Agriculture Complex at the intersection of Highway 35 and E. Benjamin Ave. in Norfolk.
Dr. Leah Barrett, president, said Northeast embarked on the project five-years ago to ensure the next generation of rural Americans have an opportunity to be educated and trained in 21st-century facilities and on a 500-acre college farm. She described Nexus as more than just new buildings.
“This is an innovative collection of facilities that are, in themselves, tools of the trade that will allow our students to learn through experiences as well as theory,” Barrett said. “They will instill a pride among our students as they prepare to enter the workforce and, for many of them, return to their hometowns and farms to ensure the region has opportunities to be prosperous and grow through either their own operation or by being employed by the myriad of businesses that are vital to the industry.”
Nexus began with a vision and a plan that can trace back to the beginning of the ag program at the College in 1973. Dr. Tracy Kruse, associate vice president of development and external affairs and executive director of the Northeast Foundation, said the program has grown from just three students 47-years ago to over 350 today. She said Northeast has invested in its current facilities that were constructed over 100-years ago, but it has been no match for time and modern technology and machinery.
“Ultimately, the facilities were undersized and inadequate for the large numbers of students and the size of today’s equipment and animals,” Kruse said.
As a result of strategic planning and visioning in 2015, Northeast began to prioritize capital funds for the project and invested in new faculty and programming. Once word was out, many people stepped forward to ask how they could help.
This included the Acklie Charitable Foundation (ACF), which provided a $5 million lead gift to the project. ACF was founded by the late Duane Acklie and Phyllis Acklie, both Madison County natives and graduates of Norfolk Junior College, a predecessor institution of Northeast Community College.
“With the lead gift from ACF, we were off and running. Collectively, we have raised over $10 million to fund this project, in addition to the College’s funds,” Kruse said. “While we are still a few million dollars short of our $22.3 million goal, we didn’t want to let COVID-19 slow us down. The Board of Governors approved the bids, and in April, site work began. Although we have secured enough funds to complete construction of the facilities, additional dollars are still needed for equipment, technology and furnishings inside the facility.”
In addition to several other major gifts over the past year, including a collective pledge of $132,000 from Northeast employees, two other large donations were announced at Thursday’s groundbreaking.
Kruse said the estate of the late Norman Ochsner, of Norfolk, a draftsman at Nucor Steel for many years, allocated a $2.4 million gift to Northeast. Half of the gift has been placed into an endowment for scholarships for agriculture students with the remainder put into an endowment for ag construction and maintenance.
“This will help us attract additional ag students to Northeast and it will provide us funds into perpetuity for ongoing care and maintenance of the facilities,” Kruse said. “What a lasting legacy and tribute to Norm Ochsner! I think he’d be proud of what we are accomplishing in his name!”
Also, a representative from TC Energy and the TC Energy Foundation announced a $500,000 gift to the Nexus Campaign.
“Projects like this underscore not only the importance, but the vitality of community colleges in Nebraska and the vital role they play in building a skilled and highly trained workforce needed to ensure a strong future for all Nebraskans, including those who have yet to start kindergarten or take an ACT,” said Trevor Jones, government and community relations advisor for TC Energy. “Northeast Community College and this Nexus project are helping to develop the next generation of workers giving them the skills and the training needed to build strong and sustainable local economies throughout Nebraska and rural America.”
Furthermore, two fundraisers held in conjunction with the groundbreaking continue. One encourages donors to text “ag” to (402) 383-FARM (3276) to contribute. The other involves the sale of animal silhouettes to be engraved and displayed on a farm-scape plaque in one of the new buildings. Three sizes of horses, chickens, pigs and cattle are available for donations of $50, $100 and $250. These animals may be ordered from students or online at agwaternexus.com.
Jeanne Reigle, of Madison, and Russ Vering, of Scribner, serve as co-chairs of the Nexus Campaign. Both stressed the importance of the investment in new facilities at Northeast and their impact on training the next generation workforce.
“My husband, John, and I have watched Northeast Community College respond to workforce needs over the years and know firsthand the impact of the education and training they provide,” Reigle said. “As owners of a feedlot, we recognize skilled employees can be hard to come by and we want to make sure that as a local educational institution, Northeast continues to invest in technology advancements and develops a technology-savvy workforce.”
Vering said, “I was pleased to not only be a part of my business’s support to the project, but also for Jeanne and I and other volunteers to help secure the support of other commodity organizations throughout the state of Nebraska, from the pork producers, to the cattlemen associations to the corn board. The support of these major statewide organizations indicated just how important this project is to the state and this region specifically, where one out of every two jobs is directly related to agriculture.”
Although Dara Ness, a sophomore veterinary technology student from Kennebec, S.D., won’t take classes in the new facilities after she graduates next spring, she said Thursday, they are one part of obtaining an education from Northeast.
“These past two-years at Northeast have been very impactful on my education as well as my life. It wasn’t the facilities that taught me how to be a good vet tech, it was the teachers,” Ness said. “Having instructors that devote their time and energy to bettering our education is what pushes us to try harder and think critically. As we move forward, the current vet tech building will always be extraordinary given the history behind it - how a once dairy farm was turned into a clinic with the help of devoted teachers…”
Jeff Scherer, a member of the Northeast board of governors from Beemer, said the Nexus project demonstrates the College’s mission of dedicating itself to the success of students and the region it serves.
“I see and hear firsthand the impact of our agriculture graduates in our local communities working as agronomists, vet techs and veterinarians, conservationists, precision ag technicians, sales managers and more. They are working at the local implement dealers, the cooperatives, banks, and are the local seed sales representatives. Our success as an institution is rooted in what we give back to our local communities. That is what this project is all about.”
Wilkins Architecture Design & Planning, of Kearney, led the team that designed the first phase of the Nexus project collaborating with firms such as Olsson Associates, Morrissey Engineering, Flad Architects and Settje Engineering and AgriServices in order to create a working veterinary technology clinic and farm. Kingery Construction, of Lincoln, is providing construction management services. Construction on the new facilities is scheduled to be completed in Fall 2021.
Donations to the Nexus project may still be made online at agwaternexus.com, by texting “ag” to (402) 383-FARM (3276), or by sending a check to Northeast Community College Foundation, 801 East Benjamin Ave., Norfolk, NE 68701.
The ceremony, as well as video comments from donors, volunteers, staff and students, may be viewed at agwaternexus.com.
Dr. Michael Cooper, instructor and director of the veterinary technician program at Northeast Community College, points out the program’s new building to sophomore vet tech students Megan Olson, Omaha (center), and Mary Carroll of Elk Horn, Ia., Thursday prior to a groundbreaking ceremony to celebrate construction of new ag facilities at the College. In addition to the vet tech building, the project also consists of a combination farm operations building and large animal handling facility at the new Acklie Family College Farm, near Northeast’s Chuck M. Pohlman Agriculture Complex at the intersection of Highway 35 and E. Benjamin Ave. in Norfolk.