Grain for Glory: Nebraska Athletics Calls on Farmers

By Nancy Ramsey

Sep 23, 2010 10:47am

ABC  News on Campus reporter Teresa Lostroh blogs:
There are two heavyweights in Nebraska: sports and agriculture.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Athletic Department has linked the two just in time for harvest, and it’s hoping to see dollar signs.
“Cornhusker Cooperative” is the latest – and perhaps one of the most ingenious – fundraising schemes from a department that last year hauled in almost $73.5 million in revenue.
The athletic department launched the campaign last month, asking farmers to give proceeds from their grain yields directly to the university’s sports arm.
The goal is to get farmers to donate the proceeds from 500,000 bushels of grain this year, which – if it works – could bring in millions of dollars for the Big Red.
“We don’t want just a few [farmers] giving a whole bunch [of grain],” said Doak Ostergard, outreach director for NU’s athletic department. “We’d like a whole bunch giving a little bit…. I’d like to think we have enough farmers who are Nebraska fans.”
Here’s how the whole thing is supposed to work: A farmer will take his corn, wheat or soybeans to a grain elevator to store or sell. If the elevator is run by one of the seven ag cooperatives that have so far partnered with the university, the farmer will simply say how many bushels’ worth of grain he wants donated to Husker sports. 
The elevator will then cut a check to the athletic department, instead of to the farmer, for the value of those bushels. As of Wednesday, soybeans and corn were selling for about $10 and $4.30 a bushel.
In return, the farmer gets Husker decals, hats, invitations to football team dinners and points used to determine who gets to buy limited tickets available for post-season and road games. 
If the athletic department reaches its 500,000-bushel goal, and assuming Wednesday’s prices will hold somewhat steady, NU could haul in anywhere from $2 million to $5 million this year.
Emphasize the could. Grain harvest and “Cornhusker Cooperative” are both in their infancies.  “It’s a new program,” Ostergard said. “If we get any, we’ll be happy.”
The program is the only one of its type in the country – partly because it’s a novel idea, at least in big-time athletics, and partly because Nebraska is one of only a handful of states where such an ag-focused program would be worthwhile. 
In terms of bushels of corn produced, Nebraska is third nationally (behind Iowa and Illinois), and the United States Department of Agriculture estimates farmers statewide will bring in more than 1.5 billion bushels of corn this harvest.  
Clearly, the initiative is niche marketing at its finest.
The concept is simple enough, and some Nebraska farmers are already familiar with grain donation because they do it for churches and youth sports teams. 
But will there be the same appeal when the beneficiary is a behemoth athletic program that’s already making millions? 
Farmers who spoke with ABC weren’t so sure, even though they’re Big Red fans.
Larry Minzel, a 53-year-old who farms near Lincoln, Neb., said he won’t donate this year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he never would.
“I just haven’t given to the athletic program before, so I’d have to think quite a bit about it,” Minzel said.
Brian Birkel, a 23-year-old senior ag business major at UNL who also raises corn and soybeans near his hometown of David City, Neb., said, “I’m not really affiliated with [the athletic department]. With the hard work I put into getting it, I would want to put that money into something I’m directly affiliated with and that needs it, like a church or school.” 
Brandon Hegeholz, a part-time farmer from Staplehurst, Neb., and business major at UNL, said he’d only consider donating if the athletic department “was in dire financial trouble” – which it doesn’t seem to be.  
“They probably don’t need the goodwill of farmers right now,” Hegeholz, 23, said.
Athletic department officials are using word-of-mouth, posters, launch parties and radio spots featuring Athletic Director Tom Osborne – a Nebraska legend and former coach who led the Huskers to three national football crowns in the ’90s – to rally support for Cornhusker Cooperative. 
"Anybody who contacts us, we’ll get ‘em signed up," Ostergard said.
 Photo by Charlie Litton

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