Lincoln, Neb. —Larry Van Tassell’s reluctance to apply in 2010 for the department head position in agricultural economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln turned to enthusiasm after he interviewed on campus and realized the opportunities that came with being part of such a visible institution in a state that shared many of his values.
“The main thing that attracted me to Nebraska is that it’s an ag state and I love agriculture,” he said. “There aren’t too many states that revolve around ag and Nebraska is one.”
Van Tassell chose to step down as head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Nebraska on March 31, after nearly 13 years of overseeing teaching, research and extension in the department. He will remain part of the department’s faculty after fostering a culture during his tenure that encouraged preparing students for the real world, celebrating faculty and staff and addressing the concerns of Nebraska agriculture.
Before joining Nebraska in 2010, Van Tassell served as agricultural economics department head at the University of Idaho and held research and teaching appointments at the University of Tennessee and the University of Wyoming. He grew up in Utah's Kamas Valley with a love for agriculture, particularly livestock, and pursued undergraduate and graduate studies at Brigham Young University, where he served as the university’s herdsman and discovered a love for teaching after leading two undergraduate courses. After a short period managing a 500-head beef cattle operation in Utah, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in agricultural economics at Texas A&M University in 1987.
“When I first went to A&M, it was with the intent to gain more expertise, to eventually manage big operations, but I really developed a love for applied research,” Van Tassell said. “And, from my time at BYU, I always enjoyed being with students, so I thought I would give the university a try.”
Since he arrived at Nebraska, Van Tassell has encouraged students to get involved in clubs and internships to develop social capital and connections within the agricultural community. He emphasized the relevance of degree programs offered in agricultural economics, agribusiness, and natural resources and environmental economics.
“Ag is a big business, getting bigger, and it has to be operated like a business. There is a lot of capital involved now, and markets are worldwide, so I think education in agricultural economics is going to become more and more important in the future,” he said.
Always working to grow the department during his tenure, Van Tassell played a key role in raising $750,000 from private industry in the state to open a commodity trading classroom in 2016, complete with state-of-the art technology, including software used in real-world trading firms and a ticker board that lines the room with scrolling real-time market information.
“We went out to visit with businesses, discussing what our vision was for students to be more involved in commodity markets,” he said. “Now I believe our commodity marketing curriculum is one of the best in the country.”
Reaching outside of campus also led to many new scholarships supported by businesses and alumni who were interested in agricultural economics. And Van Tassell created annual awards to recognize outstanding alumni and outstanding service to ag business.
“It quickly became very appealing to me in my position to make those connections. People out there were so interested and genuine, so to go out and ask, how can we help you, that was really exciting,” he said.
Kaylene Sorensen, administrative associate in agricultural economics from 2008-2022, said that Van Tassell’s commitment to growing the department through recognition of others can be seen when walking through its home in Filley Hall. “Larry has contributed significantly to the success of the department as seen by the marketing classroom, donor recognition wall and yearly awards that are displayed in the hallway,” she said.
“The department will be happy if they can be half as efficient, half as creative and half as amazing as under Larry’s leadership,” Sorensen added.
In addition to connecting the department with industry and alumni in the state, Van Tassell sought to ensure that agricultural economics extension programs did their part to address the needs of producers in Nebraska.
“When Larry came, the ag econ extension staff was running on fumes,” said Dave Aiken, a professor and extension agricultural and water law specialist who has been with the department since 1975. “Under Larry’s leadership, several faculty and educator positions were filled and new educator positions created.”
Aiken praised Van Tassell’s vision to establish the Center for Agricultural Profitability as instrumental in improving the visibility and cohesion of the department’s ag extension work in areas like land management, leasing, financial management, ag policy, commodity marketing.
“It was through all the talking with people across the state and getting a sense for what’s going on that the idea for the Center for Ag Profitability came together,” he said. “We’ve been able to do more and do it more effectively through the center, and it’s just been amazing what we’ve been able to do for the good of the state.”
Matt Stockton, who works with the center as an agricultural economist at the West Central Research, Extension and Education Center in North Platte, attended graduate school with Van Tassell and encouraged him to apply for the department head position in 2010 because he saw Van Tassell’s belief in building people up and truly caring about and supporting them.
“He is trustworthy, a straight shooter and respects people where they are at, while encouraging them to move forward in their career and life,” Stockton said. “Being department head is a difficult job. The faculty need to trust you and so do the deans. Larry is the kind of person that both have trusted.
Simanti Banerjee, associate professor in agricultural economics, also commended Van Tassell’s approach. “Larry has always been honest, direct and fair with me and worked with me to ensure that I can be a productive colleague,” she said. “He has empathy, is kind and I appreciate his leadership tremendously.”
That appreciation ran two ways with Van Tassell. Stockton noted that many of the awards and honors that faculty and staff received over the last 13 years have come because Van Tassell personally nominated them.
“If you’re going to be an administrator, you have to enjoy seeing the faculty and staff succeed,” he said. “If you don’t, there’s not a lot of joy to be found in being a department head.”
As he steps back into a faculty role, Van Tassell and his wife, Debra, look forward to spending more time with their six children and 19 grandchildren, as well as doing missionary work through their church. Although he does not have a retirement date in mind yet, they are exploring where to relocate to when that day comes. It will surely be closer to family.
“I hope to be able to enjoy them and enjoy a life that I gave up many years ago when I went into academia,” he said.
Despite the rigor of his position, Van Tassell has clearly enjoyed serving as a department head. That’s evidenced by his enduring tenure in the position, despite his original plans to occupy it for only five years. His leadership colleagues played a role as well, including other department heads in IANR and administration.
“One of thing that made this position so enjoyable is the support from the vice chancellor’s office and deans offices,” he said. Without their support and belief in what we can do, we would not have been successful and this job not as enjoyable. Any successes we have had would not have occurred if not for them.”