up next Charles Stoltenow
Creating Positive Change with University Resources
By Jackie Ostrowicki and Ryan Rothman
With a hearty laugh, a firm handshake and an expressive demeanor, Charles Stoltenow is approachable. A veterinarian and epidemiologist by trade, he is equally at home discussing foaling and anthrax. As dean and director of Nebraska Extension, Stoltenow is responsible for overseeing 4-H youth development, agriculture and natural resources, and family and consumer sciences.
You might say Extension is in his blood. He grew up in rural North Dakota on a diversified farm with cattle; his father was a steward of 2,000 acres of cropland and relied heavily on their local Extension agent.
"Growing up on a farm was a great experience," Stoltenow said. "I have a deep affinity for agriculture and rural life."
He remembers long days on the farm:
"If you primarily focus on ranching, or primarily focus on crop production, there is a seasonality to it. But when you do both, you’re working 24 hours a day, every day of the year."
Stoltenow took that work ethic to private practice as a veterinarian, then to a job as a federal veterinarian and finally to North Dakota State, where he spent 25 years in Extension—17 as the Extension Veterinarian and eight years as the Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Leader.
"Extension exists to help people create a better tomorrow. It doesn't matter what area of Extension you work in. To create a better tomorrow, we help people in three ways: to develop critical thinking skills, leadership skills, and connections."
Now, he’s brought his personal and professional experience to Nebraska. He has a vision for Extension that he’s boiled down to what he calls "The Big Three:" to strengthen agriculture and food systems, inspire Nebraskans and their communities, and enhance the health and well-being of all.
The impact Extension makes spans these three areas—ranging from in-field training on corn production to a Latino small business program to suggesting healthier on-the-go eating choices. Geographically, Nebraska Extension touches each of the 93 counties in Nebraska.
"Working together across the state, we can make Nebraska even better for each and every resident," Stoltenow said.
How Extension Works
Extension specialists work on campus and at the Research, Extension & Education Centers across the state. Extension educators—of which there are over 185 in Nebraska—live and work in the communities they serve. Although these professionals rely on technology to distribute research-based knowledge, relationships and values are just as important. As residents of the communities in which they work, local Extension educators bring credibility and relevance to their roles.
"The beauty of Extension is that we're embedded; we're listening. We're doing continual needs assessment on what is going on in your community—as a member of that community," Stoltenow said.
"The beauty of Extension is that we're embedded; we're listening. We're doing continual needs assessment on what is going on in your community."
Although Extension comes from agricultural roots, it also spans economic and social conditions. From livestock systems to early childhood, rural prosperity to nutrition and health, Extension supports rural and urban communities as a whole.
Through Extension, land-grant institutions reach out to offer their resources to address public needs. By educating farmers on business operations and on modern agricultural science and technologies, Extension contributes to the success of countless farms, ranches, and rural business. Further, these services improve the lives of consumers and families through nutrition education, food safety training, and youth leadership development.
Impacting Youth Through 4-H
One of Extension’s most valuable programs is Nebraska 4-H, which helps youth across the state develop lifelong leadership skills.
Nebraska 4-H is part of the National 4-H Council, the United States’ largest youth development organization. At a national level, 4-H is delivered by Cooperative Extension—a nation-wide community of over 100 public universities like the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Collectively, the organization serves nearly six million children and teenagers.
In Nebraska, 4-H programs reach 140,000—or one in three—age-eligible young people. Nebraska 4-H is built around experiential learning and the concept of "positive youth development," an intentional process that promotes positive outcomes for young people by providing opportunities, relationships, and support.
"We do three things," Stoltenow said. "We help people develop critical thinking skills. We help people develop leadership skills. And we help people develop connections."
4-H programming in Nebraska focuses on science literacy and quality learning in six areas: career and college success, healthy living, STEM, agricultural literacy, leadership development and entrepreneurship. Students are exposed to these focus areas through a variety of experiences including camps, clubs, after school programs, school enrichment, and other special-interest programs like workshops and clinics.
The result of this programming is positive not only for young Nebraskans, but the state as well.
Participants gain valuable experience and discover new passions, talents and career opportunities. A 2019 national survey of over 6,000 4-H alumni suggested that significant benefits from their 4-H experiences were found over the course of their lives—socially, physically, emotionally and economically.
And the entire state benefits from generations of Nebraskans ready to fill critical workforce shortages and lead our communities, big and small.
Making a Difference in the State’s Economy
A 2020 report from the UNL Department of Agricultural Economics underscored just how critical agriculture is to Nebraska’s economy: It accounts for nearly 34% of business sales, 22% of gross state product ($25.7 billion) and nearly a quarter of the state’s jobs (321,000 workers). And in 2017 alone, agricultural workers earned an estimated $14.3 billion, including income, wages, salaries and benefits.
Extension has four priority areas that directly support Nebraska’s agricultural economy and workforce: livestock systems, environmental systems, agricultural profitability, and water and cropping systems. Each of these areas helps to extend university research and knowledge to the right people, at the right place and at the right time.
Over 5.1 million cattle are fed and marketed each year in Nebraska, with the beef industry making a $12.1 billion impact yearly on the state’s economy. To support the industry, Extension has a team of educators and specialists devoted solely to supporting every step of the beef industry—from pasture management and nutrition to disease prevention to developing innovative cuts of beef. Extension professionals partner with producers, backgrounding operations, feedlots and processors to help produce high-quality beef safely, responsibly and profitably, using university research and resources.
Extension also supports the work of those growing crops. From exploring the viability of diverse crops to managing the threats of pests, disease and weather extremes to protecting public lands and waterways, Extension has an imprint on millions of acres across the state.
For both cattle and crops, Extension does more than increase production—it also helps producers be more profitable. Extension professionals provide producers the knowledge they need to leverage everything from decisions about marketing and risk management to crop and livestock insurance, from land prices to federal farm programs—even navigating the transition of an operation from one generation to the next.
And Extension’s reach extends far beyond the field or feedlot. Programs like Rural Prosperity Nebraska help to ensure that rural citizens and their families aren’t only finding economic success, but also finding social success in in their communities.
Founded in 2020 and housed in UNL’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Rural Prosperity Nebraska brings together Nebraska Extension’s statewide team of Community Vitality Initiative educators to help rural communities grow and thrive.
"I get to lead an organization in which each employee’s primary mission when they get up each morning is, how do I serve somebody else? How do I make their life better?"
The initiative pulls communities together around four key areas: attracting and retaining young families, developing leaders, supporting businesses and entrepreneurs, and ensuring they have strong infrastructure and services—like places to buy affordable, healthy food. Stoltenow reflected on a past project that helped a small Nebraska community open a grocery store:
"Even in the third largest ag-producing state in the nation, we have food deserts," he said. "The whole community came together to make this happen. Not only does the store impact the economy, but it also keeps the community’s social fabric intact."
In Albion, city leaders realized that if they were going to grow or attract people to move to their community, they needed childcare—service and infrastructure that didn’t exist. Stoltenow is proud that a partnership between Rural Properity Nebraska and the community was able to make childcare infrastructure a reality.
"We were part of helping them plan and build a childcare center,” he said. “It’s phenomenal—second to none in Nebraska’s rural communities."
Stoltenow firmly believes that vibrant rural communities are essential to the economic health of the entire state.
"Achieving real economic impact requires pulling in the whole community."
Creating Value for All Nebraskans
Extension's economic impact is made project by project, location by location, initiative by initiative. But collectively, it underscores Nebraska's agricultural and rural success. Stoltenow believes that the key to success is making sure Extension adds value in every interaction. He compares “transactional” and “transformational” information to illustrate his point:
"When you ask Google how to grow roses, it gives you a transactional response: 'Here’s how you grow roses.' When you ask Extension, you get a conversation: 'What type of roses?' 'Where are you growing them?' We sit at the table and look at the problem together—we add transformational value."
Being a transformational force requires a deeply-rooted desire to serve—something that Stoltenow believes he and all Extension employees share.
"I would say most of the people who work for Extension live to serve others. I get to lead an organization in which each employee’s primary mission when they get up each morning is, how do I serve somebody else? How do I make their life better?"
As Extension continues to serve Nebraska, improve lives and grow its impact across the state, Stoltenow has a simple goal:
"I want Nebraska Extension to be recognized as the best Extension system in the country—and therefore the world. And I’ll know we’re successful when other systems come to us and ask how we do it."
Discover our Podcast Series
“Leading Nebraska” tells the stories of researchers, students and staff who are making a real impact. Join us in January as we follow NU System President Ted Carter. He discusses how the University of Nebraska was one of the only university systems in the country to grow during the pandemic—and how that growth impacts the state’s economy and success.