Lincoln, Neb. —Two weeks after Christmas in 2007, Allan Vyhnalek received a call from the Platte County Sheriff’s Office about the suspicious machine gun ammunition box that he left near the secured boundary of the hydroelectric power plant in Columbus the previous summer. It was deemed a threat and blasted open by shotgun attached to a state patrol robot on Christmas Day. The sheriff’s office sought an explanation.
Vyhnalek, at the time an educator with Nebraska Extension in Platte County, begrudgingly explained that the box, which has been marked and placed with permission, was part of a 4-H geocaching program that taught students how to use compasses and electronic GPS devices to locate hidden stashes of knick-knacks like bouncy balls and pencils. In his next breath, he then offered to conduct his GPS training for the entire county sheriff’s department — a proposal he asked the deputy to pass along.
Vyhnalek will retire from Nebraska Extension on April 7 after spending the past six years as a statewide educator for farm and ranch transition and succession. Though the Platte County Sheriff never took up his training offer, the interaction demonstrated Vyhnalek’s unwavering passion for educating that has driven his entire career.
That was kindled at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where Vyhnalek, who grew up on a farm in Saline County, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural education, with a stint in between teaching high school ag in Elgin.
“After I graduated with my master’s in 1980, I was really looking for an opportunity in extension, but nothing was available, so I caught on at NCTA in Curtis,” Vyhnalek said about the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in the southwestern Nebraska community.
He spent the next seven years there teaching animal science, which he enjoyed before moving on when the school was facing the threat of closure during the farm crisis. Still wanting to pursue his goal of working in extension, he was hired as a 4-H educator with Iowa State University Extension in 1987, eventually directing the 4-H program in Grundy County, Iowa.
“The most important thing I think I did in Grundy County was help revitalize the fair board to be one that supports 4-H and the county fair, and we ended up with really nice things happening at the fairgrounds in terms of revitalizing buildings and overall support for the 4-H program.” he said.
In March 2001, Vyhnalek and his wife, Mindy, made the move back to Nebraska when he accepted an agricultural educator position in the Platte County Extension office in Columbus.
“I had several roles in Platte County, but I settled on farm management, teaching good farm lease practices and farm succession planning,” he said. “Those are the two things I think I made the most difference with.”
Vyhnalek’s knack for using his educational platform to make an impact across generations contributed to a positive and collaborative culture in the Platte County office, where success was celebrated among colleagues.
Lisa Kaslon, currently the professional development coordinator with Nebraska Extension, worked with Vyhnalek in the Platte County office as a 4-H youth development educator. “Allan had always wanted to work for Nebraska Extension, so when he got the chance to come to Platte County, he was committed to making the most of it,” she said.
It was there that Vyhnalek began his work to become an “expert and focused” educator in farm and ranch succession, which eventually led him to his current role, Kaslon added.
Vyhnalek said that he has always tried to work on the most important issue that he could have an impact on. He realized that keeping rural communities alive was at the top of the list and helping people through the estate planning or succession processes was vital to that effort.
“You look at Nebraska and agriculture, you realize it’s a very aging population, so I thought about what I could do on the farm succession side, because that’s an aspect of rural development,” Vyhnalek said. “For every handful of farms in an area you lose, you risk losing one business on main street. There’s a real consequence.”
In 2017, Vyhnalek moved to Lincoln when Nebraska Extension was looking for an educator who could focus on farm succession issues on a statewide basis. He accepted a position in the Department of Agricultural Economics, where has been based since. During his succession programs for producers and industry stakeholders, he often stresses that much of what he talks about does not come from a textbook but from his own experiences and from talking with Nebraskans.
“I receive lots of comments about the number of stories I tell when teaching,” he said. “I’m not trying to bore anyone, but I use them to illustrate the points I make in the lessons. Without grounding in real life, educational bullet points on slides can ring hollow.”
Larry Van Tassell, a professor and former head of the Department of Agricultural Economics, has observed how well Vyhnalek’s methods resonate with people. He praised Vyhnalek’s use of storytelling to connect with audiences and said that it helps them to better understand the concepts at a level that inspires them to act.
“Allan can connect with a new landowner or with the multi-generation farming family who wants to hand it down to the next generation. He knows the power of experience and emotion when teaching adults,” Van Tassell said.
Vyhnalek has continued to work on land management, leasing and farm bill education over the years, but his unique focus on succession has taught the lifelong educator a lot along the way.
“The most gratifying thing about teaching succession is also the most frustrating thing – there is always something new to learn, no matter how much I think I know. My teaching constantly changes and I have to adapt,” he said. “Every family is different and needs different help, and different advice for their situation.”
Vyhnalek and his wife, Mindy, who retired from a career in extension several years ago, are looking forward to spending more time with their two children and grandchildren, as well as the freedom to travel more. The couple have already planned some trips shortly after his last day of work. He said that he won’t miss some parts of his job, like stacking chairs and hauling meeting materials across the state. But for someone who has spent his entire career as an educator, realizing his goal of working in extension, some things will be more difficult to let go.
“I really enjoy talking to people and doing my lessons, and thinking about how I can make people do better for themselves for their future,” he said. “And I’ll really miss so many people at the university who have been awesome to work with.”
Vyhnalek’s passion for education has led him to affect the lives of everyone from elementary to high school students, beginning farmers or ranchers to retiring landowners, and many others. His lasting impact on agriculture in Nebraska and Nebraska Extension will be thanks to the many relationships built during his career, his ability to relate to almost anyone, his knack for distilling complicated information and his genuine respect for rural Nebraska and the well-being of its people.
A retirement reception for Vyhnalek will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. on April 7 in the Massengale Residential Center’s multipurpose room, 1710 Arbor Drive, on East Campus. It is open to everyone.