Travel to Asia gives area farmer new perspective on life at home

When Paul “Sam” Krueger has imagined himself getting more involved in world affairs through the years, the world he’s had in mind looks a lot like the fertile fields and small communities he knows so well in south central Nebraska.

Two years ago, the Webster County farmer applied for the Nebraska LEAD Program, hoping to acquire skills and experiences to help improve his potential as an effective leader on the local level.

Now, as he nears the end of his Nebraska LEAD experience, he has indelible memories of faraway ports, teeming cities, bustling fresh markets, gilded temples and mountainous rice paddies to enrich his understanding of public issues whether they’re close to home or on the other side of the globe.

Krueger is a member of Nebraska LEAD Group 35, which recently returned from a two-week study and travel adventure in China, Laos and Thailand.

In China, where the Nebraskans’ itinerary included time in the capital of Beijing (metropolitan population of 29 million), Shanghai (34 million) and Guangzhou (25 million), Krueger got a glimpse of city life in three of the world’s six largest urban areas. He also saw daily, farm-to-market agriculture in action, led by small, free-enterprise farmers in a nation that still is Communist but makes economic room for hard work and personal initiative.

In Laos, he witnessed the hardships of a small, impoverished nation still staggering under the devastating effects of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, when the United States bombed Laos heavily, trying to to disrupt North Vietnamese supply movements through the country.  

“Farmers are still finding unexploded ordnance out in their fields,” he said.

Finally, the Nebraska group visited the Thai capital city of Bangkok, where residents were mourning the death of their beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadeh, who died at age 88 in October 2016 after more than 70 years on the throne.

It was an interesting time to be abroad, Krueger said — in the final two weeks before Donald Trump was inaugurated as U.S. president, as American diplomats and other governments braced for change in U.S. foreign policy with all its intended and unintended consequences.

The group flew back to the United States on Jan. 20, the very day Trump took the oath of office in Washington, D.C., succeeding Barack Obama.

“To watch our president shake hands with the incoming president, that was a really cool thing to see,” Krueger said. “In none of the countries we visited are there peaceful transfers of power. And when it came to the protests, that’s our right as Americans to do that. That kind of solidified how good I feel about where I’m from.”

Comfort zone left behind

Krueger, 28, raises corn and soybeans with his father, Paul, and brother, Jared, in a farming operation headquartered between Blue Hill and Bladen. He is the third generation of his family to tend the operation founded by his grandparents, Paul and the late Donna Krueger.

After graduating from Blue Hill High School in 2007, Krueger headed for Hastings College just in time to join its first wrestling team. Then in 2012, with HC agribusiness degree in hand, he returned to the family farm just as he had hoped to do.

“There was an opoortunity for me to be back here, which is what I wanted to do, so it worked out real well for me,” he said.

He and his wife, Megan, were married about two years ago.

Krueger said he learned about the leadership development program from a seed salesman and it sounded like an experience that would be to his benefit.

Each Nebraska LEAD group gathers up to 30 ag producers and agribusiness workers from around the state for study, discussion and fellowship aimed at building participants’ leadership capacity. The acronnym LEAD stands for “Leadership Education Action Development.”

The program includes 12, three-day seminars around the state focused on such topics as water policy, education and urban affairs. The seminars also seek to portray the diversity of the state’s agricultural enterprises.

Krueger said he was particularly fascinated to learn about western Nebraska’s sugarbeet growers, who are fighting for market share with producers of non-genetically modified sugarcane in the southern United States.

“Probably one of the biggest things that interested me in Nebraska was the sugarbeet industry in the Panhandle,” he said. “That was probably one of the most eye-opening things as far as the state level goes.”

Krueger and his classmates learned in fall 2016 that they would be traveling to Southeast Asia. The prospect was both exciting and daunting to him.

“When we found out where we were going, I was kind of nervous,” Krueger said. “I’d never flown internationally before, so I didn’t know quite what to expect.”

All went smoothly, however — at least until they got to the airport. A canceled flight out of Omaha’s Eppley Airfield on Jan. 6 due to a frozen water line on an airplane caused the Nebraskans to miss their connecting flight from San Francisco to Beijing.

Ready for anything, the Nebraskans made the best of the situation, touring San Francisco while they waited for another flight there and dropping the first day of their schedule of planned activities in the Chinese capital.

Krueger called the travel hiccup learning experience unto itself, and said he and his fellow travelers were able to accept the schedule changes in stride.

In fact, he said, the change was just one more way the Nebraska LEAD experience helped him to move beyond his comfort zone and condition his mind for the possibiity of change.

“That’s one of the things I really like about the LEAD program,” he said. “It gets you thinking about different ways of lfe — different anything, really — and it lets you broaden your horizons as a person. That’s very beneficial going forward.”

Once the group finally reached Beijing, Krueger said, he was amazed by the sight of construction cranes and all the huge apartment buildings where so many of the city’s residents live.

“It’s a town of 29 million people, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised,” Krueger said, noting that whereas many American cities grow by spreading out, Beijing grows vertically to accommodate more of humanity.

Perhaps because of a change in the weather, the Nebraskans apparently just missed out on witnessing Beijing’s legendary air pollution problems, which are among the many environmental challenges China is contending with as it continues to pursue economic growth.

“We missed the smog,” Krueger said. “Others said, ‘You guys just missed it.’ They hadn’t seen the sky in four days. You see a lot of people wearing dust masks, so that’s not an uncommon thing.”

The visit to Beijing also gave Krueger and his colleagues a chance to climb on the world-famous Great Wall of China — a series of fortifications dating back as far as the 7th century B.C.,  which leaders had built to protect Chinese states and empires from roaming invaders.

“That’s something everyone should see,” Krueger said.

The Nebraskans traveled from Beijing to Shanghai, where one notable experience was visiting in the homes of ordinary Chinese citizens and familiarizing themselves with the custom of multigenerational households, with all family members doing their part and young people helping to care for their elders.

Typically there are four generations under one roof,” Krueger said. “Family is a high priority to them. It’s maybe a two- or three-bedroom apartment. It’s very tight quarters, but they seem to make it work.”

Krueger said the group had discussed China’s controversial former “one-child policy,” in place from 1979-2015, in which the Communist government restricted many couples from having more than one baby under pain of onerous fines.

The policy, conceived by central planners, was intended to bring China’s exploding population down to a sustainable level over time. It was associated with high abortion rates and with mandatory invasive birth control and sterilization for women.

Krueger said the policy now has been modified to allow for two children — perhaps not so much for moral reasons as for pragmatic ones related to the lopsided number of men compared to women in the Chinese population, by now creating workforce stresses.

“Their work structure was starting to get off balance a little bit,” he said.

Agriculture is promoted all over China, Krueger said, with the challenge of trying to feed all of the country’s people and the desire to be self-sufficient in the future. Poultry, pork and fish are the main sources of protein in the Chinese diet, but meat portions tend to be skimpy.

China is the world’s largest agricultural producer, but just 15 percent of the country’s land reportedly is suitable for cultivation.

The Nebraskans visited a huge market operated by the government, where private-sector farmers can rent a booth and bring their wares each day to sell.

Unlike in the United States, where shoppers may make an expensive trip to the supermarket once a week or so, in China a visit to the fresh market is a daily ritual.

“In China, they’ll go to the market and get food for the day,” Krueger said. they really like fresh food. That part of the culture is definitely way different from ours.”

Although the government is Communist, it moved away many years ago from state-run collective farms and gave citizens latitude to grow crops as a private enterprise on their own tiny farms. Many farmers do just that, utilizing whatever small space they can find.

“Any ditch inside Shanghai or open piece of ground, there’s something growing on it,” Krueger said.

The Nebraskans’ exposure to agriculture during their visit to China was entirely on the level of individuals and families manually cultivating their own plots of land.

“We didn’t see any big production ag,” he said. “All the ag we saw was all done by hand.”

Other Chinese societal issues the Nebraskans studied through their travel include concern for environmental pollution. In Shanghai, they visited SUS Environment, a waste disposal company that now incinerates garbage instead of burying it in the ground, then collecting the fly ash for use as fertilizer.

“They had 220,000 tons of waste per day (to handle),” Krueger said.

Overall, he said, China is a country that for many years subordinated environmental concerns to the demands of a growing economy. The results today include undrinkable tap water, “terrible” air quality and too much garbage — and now the government is attempting to get its arms around the situation.

“It’d be a tough environment to live in every single day,” Krueger said. “They’re still pushing for industry, but it’s getting to be such a problem that they have to take a step back.”

He said he believes the Chinese government has the wherewithal to redeem the situation, but that doing so will take tremendous commitment.

“When they truly want to make that problem go away, I think they could,” he said.

At Guilin, China, the Nebraskans visited a small water buffalo dairy farm where the owner is converting to the production of porcupines, rat-like animals and raccoons — all for meat. They also visited rice paddies high in the Longji mountains, which are tended by farm families who live in a nearby village. In that community, Krueger said, young people choosing not to return to the “family farm” is a big concern — just as it is in rural Nebraska.

After visiting with a monk fruit farmer, the Nebraskans rode the high-speed train from Guilin to the port and transporation center of Guangzhou in southern China.

Laos and Thailand

From China, which has the world’s second-largest economy, the Nebraska LEAD group flew to the small, impoverished country of Laos on Jan. 14.

Besides visiting cultural sites related to Buddhism in the capital city of Vientiane, the group visited a government-run “project farm” at Ban Nayang where ag producers come in for training in best practices related to agricultural enterprises including hog farming and production of corn, trees, green beans, fish and rice.

Much of Laos is forested, Krueger said, and the country is trying to rejuvenate its timber stands by replanting. On Jan. 16, the group visited the Agriculture and Forestry Office and the Northern Agriculture and Forestry College at Luang Prabang.

On Jan. 17, the group spent time at a cultural center to learn about the diverse ethnic groups that make up the Lao population, plus a living crafts center where the focus was on the Hmong mountain culture. The Nebraskans also visited a silk factory and an elephant sanctuary.

Laos was devastated by U.S. bombing during the Vietnam War and still is trying to recover, Krueger said. One of the Nebraskans’ stops in the country was to the COPE Center, a facility set up to help survivors of waste ordnance explosions by outfitting them with orthotic and prosthetic devices.

Krueger said he sensed “no ill will at all toward us” despite the U.S. role in destruction within Laos, and that all in all he found the people there to have an indomitable spirit.

“One of the things we think of is ‘wealth equals happiness,’ Krueger said. “Laos is probably one of the poorest countries in the world, and these are some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. They don’t have much, and they’re extremely grateful for what they do have. Laos was my favorite country by far. I really enjoyed my time there.”

The Nebraskans spent their final two days in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, visiting Buddhist cultural and historical sites.

Tourism is a leading industry in Thailand, but part of the country’s appeal to visitors is that prostitution is legal, Krueger said. As a result, parts of Bangkok can be dangerous for visitors at night.

He was struck by the Thai people’s devotion to their recently deceased king and their lack of enthusiasm for the dead king’s son, Maha Vajiralongkorn, who took his father’s place. The yearlong period of mourning is taken seriously, with many people wearing black or white as a sign of respect. Still, because Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, the country remains fully functional.

Part of the Nebraskans’ final full day abroad was spent at the Thai Red Cross Snake Farm, where people are educated on how to handle snakes and take care of snake bites.

Nothing personal

In the weeks and months prior to the Nebraskans’ travel, Donald Trump, the presidential candidate and then president-elect, had been making waves in Southeast Asia as well as around the world, praising Russian President Vladimir Putin; accusing China’s government of currency manipulation and other alleged misdeeds; and promising to dump United States participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a new international trade treaty President Obama had been promoting.

Further complicating matters, Trump had talked by telephone on Dec. 2, 2016, with Tsai Ing-wen, president of Taiwan, in an apparent breach of protocol since the United States does not officially recognize the government of Taiwan — an island off the Chinese mainland that the China government considers a renegade province. China launched a formal diplomatic complaint with the U.S. government over the call.

Krueger said that when he and his fellow Nebraskans reached China, they found a level of unease about the change of administration at that point set to occur within days.

“At the embassy they were kind of on red alert,” he said. “They didn’t know what to expect at that time, and they didn’t expect things to go smoothly.”

China is a challenging place to be a U.S. government official under any circumstances, Krueger said, since it’s tough to help U.S. businesses take advantage of opportunities in a country that is technically Communist but simultaneously promotes private enterprise, and where lack of respect for intellectual property rights makes it hard to forge mutually beneficial relationships.

Still, Krueger said, whatever diplomatic heartburn had been caused in recent days did not change the welcome he and his companions received from their Chinese hosts.

“As far as the Chinese people go, they didn’t hold any ill will toward us,” he said. “I didn’t ever feel like there was any hatred that way.”

Getting involved

As a farmer, Krueger said, he is disappointed to see the Trans-Pacific Partnership fall by the wayside since export markets are important to U.S. agriculture’s prosperity.

As he nears the end of his Nebraska LEAD experience, he’s already settled on one way to get more involved in the community while also addressing such issues, joining the board of the Adams-Webster County chapter of the Nebraska Corn Growers Association.

He is grateful for the information and insights he has gained through Nebraska LEAD and happy to have made new friends and contacts around the state.

“With the people the LEAD program puts you in front of, it really opens the window to questions and answers you wouldn’t get normally,” Krueger said.

He’s also learned to pay closer attention to what others are saying.

“To know and understand people, you have to listen to them,” he said. “You have to know what they want.”

He highly recommends the program to anyone who wants to further his or her leadership skills. And, asked if the time commitment was a problem, he said planning ahead for absences and making sure his support system was in place were just two more ways to learn.

“One of the things the LEAD program teaches you your farm operation will go on whether you’re there or not,” Krueger said. “You need to have those steps set into place to be sure it can.”

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