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Published April 20, 2010, 03:18 PM

U of Nebraska gets $50 million gift for water research

LINCOLN, Neb. — An irrigation pioneer will give the University of Nebraska one of the largest donations in its history to create what officials say could be the world’s premiere institute for studying the use of water for agriculture.

By: Nate Jenkins, Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. — An irrigation pioneer will give the University of Nebraska one of the largest donations in its history to create what officials say could be the world’s premiere institute for studying the use of water for agriculture.

The $50 million gift from the Robert B. Daugherty Charitable Foundation, announced Tuesday, will help the university be a global resource for developing solutions to challenges including poverty, hunger, agricultural productivity and water management, said NU President J.B. Milliken.

“By 2050 the world’s population will increase by 40 percent and demand for food, produced with finite amounts of land and water, will double,” Milliken said. “We have the experience and opportunity to build a global center in Nebraska ... to help alleviate human suffering and food insecurity.”

The institute will focus on research, education and policy analysis relating to the use of water for agriculture.

Daugherty, a Nebraska native, is the founder of Omaha-based Valmont Industries. Valmont is perhaps best known for being a worldwide leader in irrigation systems, but it also makes equipment for urban infrastructure.

Nebraska native Frank Zybach is credited with inventing the center-pivot irrigation system that has been called the most significant invention in agriculture since tractors re-placed horses on farms.

In 1954, Zybach agreed to license his patent to Daugherty, who owned a farm equipment company, Valley Manufacturing. It later became Valmont, and engineers with the company perfected Zybach’s invention and sold center pivots to farmers around the world.

Now 88 years old, Daugherty is interested in how to grow food for an ever-growing population with finite resources, said Mogens Bay, CEO of Valmont and chairman of the Robert B. Daugherty Foundation Board of Trustees.

“He does not think about it in a business sense, he thinks about it in a humanitarian sense,” Bay said during a news conference. Daugherty did not attend but said in a statement that the university is in the right place, at the right time, to provide global leadership.

Nebraska sits atop the thickest part of the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest aquifer system in the world, and has more acres of irrigated farmland than any other state.

The $50 million gift, which will be spread out over 15 years, gives the university the chance “to make a lasting impact on global poverty and hunger,” Jeff Raikes, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said in a statement. The Gates’ foundation is the world’s largest charitable foundation.

An official with the University of Nebraska Foundation said the gift from the Daugherty Foundation is among the five largest donations ever to the university.

University officials have been plotting a water-for-food institute for a couple years, feeling they were well-positioned because of existing expertise on water issues at the university. Also, water centers across the country tend to focus on state and regional, but not interna-tional, issues.

“There’s no one occupying this space in a leading role,” Milliken said.

Officials want to hire a director for the institute within the next year and establish an ad-visory board. After that, faculty will be hired, a strategic plan developed, and educational programs established. Fellowships, professorships and scholarships are expected to be offered by the institute.

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