Ag professor helps others grow

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The seed of the Hoegemeyer tree took root in this soil long ago.

The seed of the Hoegemeyer tree took root in this soil long ago. It grew strong, against long odds.

It learned to thrive.

The seed was a teenager, the third son of German peasants, who stowed away on a ship bound for the United States around 1870. He was 17 years old.

Caspar Hoegemeyer.

The Prussians had grabbed his two older brothers and forced them to fight the French. They both died in the opening battle, and Caspar’s parents were afraid he’d be grabbed next. His father and an uncle rowed him out to sea and hid him in a lifeboat of a ship bound for Philadelphia. And a better life.

His parents gave Caspar as much as they could for the journey: an extra shirt, a bag of apples and, most likely, their prayers in German to survive.

Caspar spoke no English. He stepped foot on American soil penniless and wandered the streets until he heard some Pennsylvania Dutch people speaking his native tongue. One family took him in for the winter. Then he headed west.

He just started walking and didn’t stop until he arrived in the Iowa town of West Liberty. He took a job picking corn. It was all hand-picked back then. (Maybe this was the first time that Hoegemeyer hands touched corn, a crop that would come to mean so much to the family.)

A few years later Caspar left on foot again, this time for Nebraska. He carried a knife, a rifle, some clothes, a spade and a hoe. He homesteaded a piece of prairie along Logan Creek, north of Hooper, Neb. He dug a home in the side of a hill. And that’s where he’d sleep the next several winters, like a seed beneath the snow.

From there, the Hoegemeyer tree grew.

“It was virtually just a cave, with a sod front wall, that he dug into the side of the hill,” says Caspar’s great-grandson, Tom Hoegemeyer, Ph.D., a professor of plant breeding at UNL. “Every time it gets 20 below, I think, ‘Man, this guy was tough.'”

This story is supposed to be about Tom, who sits in his office in Plant Sciences Hall on East Campus, telling this story about Caspar. Tom was considered one of the most innovative self-employed plant breeders in the world. Tom is a source of pride for NU’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, where he now works as a part-time professor of practice after spending most of his life breeding corn and running the family business, Hoegemeyer Hybrids.

But Tom says you can’t tell his story without telling the story of his family tree – a narrative that’s like many family stories in Nebraska, of generations planting seeds for the next in the hope of making it stronger.

These towns of Nebraska, big and small, are populated with people with similar family stories, pioneers who thrived under harsh conditions.

You can’t tell the story of Hoegemeyer Hybrids, Tom says, without starting with the sacrifices each generation of the family made for the next.

H. Chris Hoegemeyer was Caspar’s son, and Tom’s grandfather. Chris was born in that sod house in 1878. He was smart. He was good with plants. He was interested in seeds. It was never enough to have just one wheat variety. He had to have six.

Chris attended school only until the third grade. But was far-sighted enough that he decided all of his children would graduate from the University of Nebraska.

“The university has made a huge difference to this family,” Tom says.

Tom’s dad, Leonard, was the oldest. He was close in age to his sister Lillian. They started their studies at the university during the Great Depression. After they’d been in school a few years, it became clear that they couldn’t both afford to stay.

So Leonard dropped out, worked on the farm and sent every nickel to his sister so she could finish her degree. Then she took a job teaching chemistry in Omaha, lived on nothing but raw grain and stuff she could get from the farm, and she sent every nickel she made to Leonard so he could finish his degree. Later, their sister Alice got her degree in nutrition.

In the 1930s, Tom says, it became apparent that hybrid corn was going to be a wonderful new technology. The vision at the time was that the land-grant universities would do the research, and because they didn’t have the facilities or ability to make enough seed to supply the farmers, the universities contracted to train farmers in different areas to produce hybrid seed to sell to their neighbors. Chris Hoegemeyer was one of those people asked to do it.

“Grandpa was a little bit entrepreneurial,” Tom says. “And he loved seeds and plants anyway, so he really took to doing this.

“And believe it or not, my dad was at the university when he brought the very first bags of parent seed – to grow the first hybrids – home with him on the train from Lincoln. He had one bag for the male and one bag for the female, and they planted 11 acres of seed that they would make the final cross to be a hybrid. That was their first crop of hybrid seed they produced to sell to their neighbors. That was 1937. And that’s how Hoegemeyer Hybrids got started.”

Last year marked the 75th year of Hoegemeyer Hybrids. Though the family no longer owns the company, some young men of the family’s next generation still help run it.

Now, Tom, who received his undergraduate degree in crop science from UNL, feels it’s the responsibility of his generation to give back to the university. That’s one reason he’s a professor now. He wants to pass on the real-world knowledge he acquired in the field, literally.

And that’s one reason he’s volunteering to lead the effort to raise money for scholarships and programs for IANR.

“I think we have a responsibility when we get to a point in our lives where we have something to give back – either knowledge or dollars – that we make sure that there are wells dug for the next generation, to make sure that if we don’t plant, we at least fertilize and make opportunities available for future generations.”

One day when Tom was a small boy, his grandfather took him by the hand and showed him the spot in the hillside where Caspar had dug out his home.

“I think it was important for him to show me the roots of our family, and where we had come from. I just really feel like the message I’d like to send now is this – how important it is to work for the future, not just for ourselves.”

There’s a 20-acre piece of prairie on that homestead north of Hooper. It’s on land the family still owns. That prairie has never been plowed.

Someday, he says, he’d like his family to scatter his ashes on that soil.

Support for agriculture is a top priority of the campaign. If you, like Tom Hoegemeyer, also would like to help the University of Nebraska’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR), please give online or call Ann Bruntz at the University of Nebraska Foundation, 800-432-3216.

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