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2019 Alumni Lifetime Achievement Awards

Eight University of Nebraska–Lincoln alumni received the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award Nov. 21, 2019.

Award recipients include George W. Beadle, William Wesley Burr, Steve A. Eberhart, Kimberly Erusha, Franklin D. Keim, A. Bruce Maunder, Monica Norby and Robert A. Olson.

This award is the highest honor bestowed upon graduates of the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture who have made significant contributions to their community, state and nation through professional service, public service and/or civic engagement. The award was founded in 2016 to recognize alumni who have enhanced the reputation of the department and the university by distinguishing themselves in their careers. Honorees are selected by the Agronomy and Horticulture Alumni Advisory Council (AHAAC).

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Alumni Advisory Council

The Agronomy and Horticulture Alumni Advisory Council is built on the voluntary participation of alumni with notable early and late career credentials. The mission of the AHAAC is to aid and counsel the head of the department in alumni engagement, financial stability, industry relations and student interaction with alumni. Members participate in a semiannual meeting with the department and throughout the year as needed.

Alumni Advisory Council

Ways to support

The Department of Agronomy and Horticulture works to find solutions to feed and enrich the lives a growing population as well as teach the next generation and all Nebraskans. Would you like to be a part of our mission? To find out how you can contribute, go to the University of Nebraska Foundation for more information.

Nathan Mueller

Alumni Spotlight 2018 Nebraska Extension: The intersection of agriculture and education – Nathan Mueller

Extension educator Nathan Mueller grew up on a 1,200-acre dairy farm near Winslow, Nebraska. His family also grew alfalfa, oats, corn and soybeans. “I usually helped out by fixing fence and hauling manure,” Mueller said. “But my parents prioritized education. For me, it was school, then sports, then the farm.”

With such an emphasis on education, it’s no surprise that Mueller left the family farm for college in Lincoln. Mueller earned two degrees from Nebraska: a bachelor’s in 2005 and a master’s in 2007. When it came to deciding on a major, Mueller opted for agronomy both times. He said he thought farming would give him more days off than his dad had milking cows.

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Ryan Pekarek

Alumni Spotlight 2017 Not your average Nebraska farmer – Ryan Pekarek

In 2004, while yet an undergrad at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Ryan Pekarek started Pekarek’s Produce and planted his first crop on the family farm near Dwight. “At about one-half acre, it was really an overzealous home garden,” he said. Despite this early foray into farming, when Pekarek finished his bachelor’s degree in horticulture at Nebraska in the spring of 2006, he didn’t plan on being a farmer.

Pekarek, who began farming full-time with only vegetable crops in 2009, currently grows row crops (corn and soybeans) in addition to about 50 varieties of vegetables. Among vegetable farmers in Nebraska, he said, “We’re probably one of the smallest of the larger veg operations.”

During the 2017 planting season, Pekarek’s Produce had about 15 acres in vegetable production along with another quarter-acre under plastic (a greenhouse and five high tunnels). That’s a 2,950 percent increase from the first crop just 13 years ago! Not bad for a first-generation vegetable farmer in his 30s.

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Jim Girardin Jr.

Alumni Spotlight 2016 ARROW SEED is firmly rooted in Girardin family – Jim Girardin Jr.

Leonard Girardin moved his family to Custer county in 1946 to manage the Broken Bow Division of a regional seed company he would rename Arrow Seed. Now, 70 years later, his son Jim Girardin Sr. has retired from the business; grandson Jim Girardin Jr. is the president of Arrow Seed; and great-grandson Logan Girardin, who joined the family business in March 2015, is a retail sales associate.

“The ultimate goal of our business is to provide the farmer/rancher with the best forage options for his or her herd.” To this end, Jim Girardin Jr. noted that “the University of Nebraska Extension has been a tremendous asset both to us and to the Nebraska cattle industry.”

He also credited the university’s breeding programs for their instrumental role in developing crops important to Arrow Seed: native grasses, small grains, soybeans and buffalograss.

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Heather Byers

Alumni Spotlight 2015 A head for business, a heart for trees – Heather Byers

Long before she could spell entrepreneur, Heather Byers (’06) wanted to be one.

“I always knew I wanted to own my own business.” Her great grandfather started a rural telephone exchange, her parents developed several businesses over the years, and numerous cousins are all in business for themselves. “Everybody started their own thing,” she said. With an entrepreneurial mindset, Byers wanted to do something with horticulture. She just had to figure out what.

While entrepreneurship is in Byers’ DNA, several professors at UNL’s Department of Agronomy and Horticulture pointed her in the right direction. “They were very positive instructors who were interested in me as a student.”

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Ray Ward

Alumni Spotlight 2015 The story of Ray Ward’s laboratory

Just 30 percent of family businesses make it to the next generation, and only 10 percent are passed to the third generation.* Ward Laboratories, Inc., is beating the odds, and the story of its success is closely tied to University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Department of Agronomy and Horticulture.

After graduating from Fairbury Junior College, Ray Ward, president of Ward Laboratories, Inc., continued his studies at Nebraska, earning a bachelor’s in 1959 and a master’s in 1961.

According to Ward, three soil instructors—R. A. Olson, 
H. F. Rhodes and Robert L. Fox—influenced a lot of what he 
does today. “Those guys were excellent instructors, and I 
learned an awful lot.”

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Marissa Grooms

Alumni Spotlight 2014Grooms rises to the top – Marissa Grooms

Marissa Grooms, a former University of Nebraska-Lincoln undergraduate from Valentine, Neb., won the second annual Engler Quick Pitch Competition last spring. Rising to the top in a field of nearly 80 applicants, Grooms pitched a business idea for a soil-sampling lab for area producers with a high level of customer service and won $1,000 for her efforts.

Shortly after winning, Grooms graduated with a B.S. in agronomy and started a job with agricultural giant Cargill. Cargill, one of the largest privately held corporations in the United States, provides food, agriculture, financial and industrial services, and products to 67 countries around the world.

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