Panhandle farmer Robert Busch tried college, he really did. But when it was time for the fall dry bean harvest, he cut class: “Somehow I thought I was the only one who could run the combine,” he said recently, from the farm on County Road J 11 miles west of Scottsbluff that has been his home for all of his 75 years.
All of Robert’s grandparents were Germans from Russia. One grandfather took the German Train from Lincoln to Scottsbluff in 1914 to work sugar beets and his family settled there in 1915 when Robert’s dad was six weeks old. Robert’s Dad started farming on his own on 160 rented acres in 1947 and Baby Robert would sleep in the car while his mother thinned beets.
Robert helped with irrigation as soon as he was old enough to carry a shovel to repair furrows and when he was older he got up early to feed cotton cake to the family’s sheep before school—even though his Dad told him he didn’t have to. He was driving a tractor at age 12 and cultivating potatoes at 14.
“Basically I’ve been a farm kid all my life – still am. God put me on this earth first of all to worship Him and secondly to work. I’m very fortunate at my age to be able to work,” he says, expressing admiration for an 89-year-old farmer-neighbor who’s still going strong.
The Busch farm grows some alfalfa but the major enterprise is sugar beets, corn and dry edible beans, grown in a three-year rotation in equal-sized fields watered with furrow irrigation. The rotation helps maintain the soil and control sugar beet cyst nematodes. It also keeps the weeds down, but Robert notes that Roundup Ready sugar beets and corn have been a blessing for weed control, too. Another blessing is the researchers at the nearby University of Nebraska Panhandle and Research Center who’ve done much to improve sugar beet and dry bean varieties over the years.
Robert is well-known in Nebraska agriculture for his interest and expertise on water issues. In 1989, as chairman of the Scottsbluff Chamber of Commerce Agribusiness Committee, he brought together the presidents of three irrigation districts in the area for a one-hour meeting that lasted twice as long. “I realized how naïve I was about water issues,” he recalls.
Three weeks later, Robert organized a bus tour of Bureau of Reclamation projects that supplied irrigation for the region. “I got my taste of water issues and just kept on doing it.” Today the annual two-day, 500-mile tour travels to sites in eastern Wyoming, including the Wayland Diversion Dam west of Ft. Laramie, Wyo., where the North Platte water project starts. Speakers on the bus, such as Wyoming state water engineers, provide additional information and perspective.
Robert served on former Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns’ Platte River Council and worked on the Platte River Cooperative Agreement with Colorado, Wyoming and the federal government, and has served on other water-related task forces. He’s currently a member of the Gering-Ft. Laramie Irrigation District board.
And while serving as president of the Nebraska Sugar Beet Growers, he was a key force in forming the Western Sugar Cooperative, which purchased the Western Sugar Company, to preserve a buyer for western Nebraska’s sugar growers and growers in three neighboring states. The cooperative raised $170,000,000 for the purchase. For these achievements and others, he received Nebraska Farm Bureau’s Silver Eagle Award in 2008.
Robert and his wife Norma have been married 34 years. Oldest son Robert Jr. works for Aon insurance brokerage in Charlotte, N.C. Middle son Jay Johnson is a flight-certified paramedic for Guardian Air ambulance company in Gillette, Wyo., and youngest son Kendall runs the Busch farm. “I work for him now,” Robert says of Kendall.
Robert would like consumers to know that farmers like him produce a safe food supply. “Our food is safe – that’s the first thing.
“The second thing is, farming is very high-risk. It has changed so much over the years. The (profit) margins have stayed relatively stable, but your chance for losses is much greater today. You hear in the news media about high prices for corn, soybeans and sugar these days. But the cost of production is also horrendous.”
Back to the first thing: “I can pick a pan full of dry beans in the field, rinse ‘em, boil ‘em, throw in a ham hock and you’ve got some great bean soup. The chemicals we use on our beans are all totally safe.”
Continue to check back to the blog each Thursday to get to know more farmers and ranchers from across Nebraska as they share their everyday stories. And to read past farmer and rancher profiles, click here.