Educators can be as bad as farmers when it comes to actually retiring: they keep on going and going.
Case in point: Ellen Hellerich, who retired last year as the state coordinator for Nebraska’s Agriculture in the Classroom program. She’s still helping students understand the importance of agriculture to their daily lives as a consultant for the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture.
For 27 years, Ellen helped teachers and their students to learn about and appreciate agriculture, by conducting
workshops and ag tours for teachers; working with education majors at colleges and universities; supervising the Ag Pen Pal program in which students exchange letters with farmers and ranchers; leading student activities at festivals and expos; and planning and conducting many other activities to increase awareness of the importance of agriculture.
She encountered firsthand the lack of knowledge many people have about agriculture. Once, Ellen and a farmer showed a class a bushel container to explain the size of a bushel of corn. The teacher wanted to know what the farmer did with all of those containers when his grain truck returned from the elevator, not realizing that grain is carried in bulk.
Another time, a young boy wriggled with eagerness to answer Ellen’s question: “What do we use corn for?” His answer: “It’s food for squirrels!” She explained that corn is also used in food for people and as feed for livestock and in ethanol and in many other non-food products people use every day.
She remembers a future teacher, a vegan, who was upset after learning from Ellen that there is stearic acid from beef animals in car tires. “I can’t drive my car!” the student said: “What am I supposed to do?” Ellen pointed out that not using animal products is a lifestyle choice.
Both Ellen and her husband Gary come from families that have farmed near Valparaiso in southeast Nebraska for many years. They lived less than three miles apart, but the future couple attended different schools until both enrolled at Valparaiso Public High School. They started dating right before their senior year and were married four years later, after Ellen completed an elementary education degree from Wayne State College and Gary was in his senior year at the University of Nebraska majoring in mechanized agriculture.
Ellen taught at the elementary level until 1968, when the Hellerichs’ twin girls, Koren and Terri, were born. A son, Vaden, was born seven years later. Ellen was a stay-at-home mom until 1984, when the new Nebraska Agriculture in the Classroom program was looking for a coordinator. “They were looking for someone with a background in elementary education and agriculture – someone with practical firsthand knowledge of what happens in agriculture.” That someone was Ellen, for the next 27 years.
Ellen and Gary bought the land where their farm is located in 1970. They grow corn and soybeans in rotation and about a fourth of their crop ground is irrigated. They have a Black Angus cattle herd and for a while they had pigs while their son raised them for an FFA project. Gary has served in leadership roles with the local, state and national Soybean Associations and has been president of Lancaster County Farm Bureau and a member of Nebraska Farm Bureau’s State Legislative Policy Committee.
The Hellerich children have stayed connected to agriculture. Koren and her husband Scott Vancil are both veterinarians – she has a small animal clinic and Scott has a large animal clinic on a ranch in Texas where they raise cattle. Their son Brayden just started middle school.
Terri earned her degree in food science and technology from UNL and is currently staying home with Trevor, a high school senior; Brianna, a sophomore; and Sierra, who also just started middle school. Terri’s husband, Ryan Sander, is a national salesperson for a meat distribution company and works with national restaurant CEOs to provide specialty cuts of meat. The Sander family lives near Davey, Neb.
Son Vaden owns Professional Environmental Solutions, which works with livestock producers to help them maintain environmental compliance. He also farms with his Dad, has some of his own land and rents additional farm ground. His wife Marsha works for Farm Credit Services in Omaha. Their children are Mitchell, 2, and Lauren, 5 months. Vaden’s family lives near Ellen and Gary, so the senior Hellerichs often have opportunities to babysit.
Ellen’s current work for the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture includes developing curriculum materials for teachers to use with the Agriculture Book of the Year, which she helps to select, and working with teachers who attend the annual National Agriculture in the Classroom conference.
Since retiring, Ellen’s caught up on her reading and taken Olli classes on history and computer skills. She wants to resume the piano lessons she last took at age 10, but that will need to mesh with attending her grandchildren’s sporting events and band concerts, and being the farm’s “go-fer.”
She’s always educating and wants people to know that there are many ways to farm. “My concern is with people who don’t use traditional farming methods who represent our products as less nutritious or less healthy or less desirable than theirs.
“As farmers, we are concerned about the safety and quality of the food we grow because we eat it, too.”
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.