Bringing the university to the people

In January, Nebraska Extension formed 11 engagement zones to make connections between the university and the state’s residents. Bayard native Bob Eirich was named engagement zone coordinator for the Panhandle. Until his new office is completed he’s been working out of a small space at the University of Nebraska Panhandle Rearch and Extension Center in Scottsbluff.

Rob Eirich grew up in a farming and ranching family south of Bayard. While his brothers stayed on the farm just east of Chimney Rock, Eirich expanded his agricultural career to help other producers make the most of their own operations.

Currently, Eirich works with the University of Nebraska Extension as an engagement zone coordinator for the Panhandle region.

“I’ve always had a strong passion for going into the livestock industry,” said the 1986 Bayard graduate. “After I graduated from the University of Wyoming with a degree in agricultural economics, I went to work at a feed yard in Colorado for a few years.”

While he liked getting hands-on experience in the industry, Eirich had an opportunity to return to western Nebraska as a 4-H assistant in Scotts Bluff County. He also did some work with Morrill and Box Butte counties at the time.

“I really enjoyed working with 4-H and helping young people develop skills,” he said. “It also helped me to promote myself through the system. 4-H and Extension is a way to help people.”

He added that 4-H has expanded greatly beyond its original focus on livestock and home economics. Today, 4-H educators work with robotics, hydroponics, GPS and a lot more beyond the livestock shows and county fairs that are still strong across the state.

Eirich went back to the farm for a few years to help his brothers with the operation transition after their father passed away. But before long, Extension colleagues encouraged him to apply for an open position in Kimball, Banner and Cheyenne counties.

“I spent some years there helping mentor 4-H youth,” he said. “At the time, our dean of extension was Chuck Hibbard and he encouraged me to go back to school for my master’s degree and continue working from Lincoln for a year.”

With a new master’s degree in ag leadership education, Eirich was sent back west as an Extension Educator for Garden and Deuel counties.

“A lot of ag teachers go through the leadership program for their bachelor’s degrees,” he said. “My master’s program revolved around administration and leadership development with a strong connection to animal science.”

A lot of his time was spent with the livestock quality assurance program for youth. The field covers animal husbandry, care and handling, and developing effective heath and feeding plans for animals. 4-H youth use those plans as they care for their animals and prepare them for the county fairs.

Eirich’s next stop took him back to Wyoming, where he was an animal science instructor and livestock judge coach at Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington.

After five years as a college instructor, another opportunity presented itself. The position of beef quality assurance director for Nebraska came open. It was a partnership between Nebraska Cattlemen and Nebraska Extension.

“That was my job for the next six years,” he said. “I teach producers and cow-calf feed yard operators the best animal management practices to assure a safe food supply.”

Quality assurance has become more important as consumers ask for more information on their food — topics on how animals are raised, what antibiotic or hormone treatments they’ve received and other factors.

“The livestock industry has become very consumer driven,” Eirich said. “If we’re going assure consumer confidence, we have to make sure we maintain healthy animals without antibiotic use. We don’t want to use antibiotics unless we have to.”

He said consumer education is another important factor so consumers understand what producers are doing to assure the meat offered in the supermarket is as healthful as possible.

Eirich was promoted again in January 2020 when he became Nebraska’s zone 1 engagement zone coordinator for the Panhandle. It’s one of 11 coordinator districts across the state.

Part of his job entails fostering the development of Extension educators and assistants in the zone’s 11 counties. He will also network with stakeholders and clientele in the ag industry to link them with those educators.

The third piece has him involved in university engagement — connecting the needs of people in the engagement zone to the university system.

“It’s not just for extension or the Institute of Ag and Natural Resources,” Eirich said. “It might be linking someone to our engineering and architectural programs.”

An example he gave was Extension educators working with the community of Valentine to bring a class in landscape architecture to town. Class members from the community helped develop a design to re-imagine their downtown area and the nearby highway bypass to make the area more visually appealing.

“We want to see the university’s instructors, specialists and classes coming out here to engage with Nebraskans,” Eirich said. “I grew up in rural Bayard, so I see a great opportunity for growth in the future.”

He added his colleague engagement zone coordinators want to connect with young people who have moved elsewhere in a way that encourages them to come back home.

“That’s going to be the key to our rural development,” Eirich said. “Bringing our young people back and keeping them here is one of the university’s top priorities. That’s why engagement is so important.”

He said Nebraska will continue to be an ag-based state, but its residents can play a bigger role in developing entrepreneurship opportunities from that agricultural foundation. Because they have such diverse resources, it’s an area where Nebraska extension can play a big role.

Jerry Purvis is a reporter with the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9046 or emailed at jpurvis@starherald.com.

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