Nebraska life

HYTREK: Center for Rural Affairs director rooted in small towns

2013-09-22T22:00:00Z 2014-04-16T08:41:04Z HYTREK: Center for Rural Affairs director rooted in small townsNICK HYTREK Sioux City Journal
September 22, 2013 10:00 pm  • 

LYONS, Neb. | Never underestimate the power of dinner table talk.

Growing up on a farm near Laurens, Iowa, Brian Depew remembers sitting at the table with his parents, hearing them stress the importance of being involved and working for change.

"My parents were always really engaged and worked with advocacy agencies," Depew said. "It was always a topic at the dinner table."

Those talks sowed the seeds of Depew's future calling.

On Sept. 1, Depew became the executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, succeeding longtime director Chuck Hassebrook, who is running for Nebraska governor. Since 1973, the center has been an advocate for agricultural and rural issues.

The funny thing is, Depew wasn't born into the farming life. He came from Pennsylvania and didn't live on a farm there. He was 10 years old when his family relocated to the 320-acre farm in Laurens that belonged to his father's family.

Perhaps foreshadowing his future, Depew lobbied his parents to make the move. He even began saving money from his paper route so he could buy his own chickens once he was a farm boy.

"I'm not sure where that interest in agriculture came from," he said.

Once transplanted to Iowa, Depew's ag interests sprouted faster than corn kernels in the warm, moist spring soil. He bought those chickens, then put up a sign along Highway 10 to sell the eggs. By the time he was in high school, he was heavily involved in the family's hog operation and realized that people like him needed to protect rural America and its way of life.

"In high school, I cut my teeth on issues around the consolidation of the hog industry. I saw the effects that had on family hog operations. I saw the effect that had on communities as well," he said.

While other teenagers played video games, Depew researched farm issues.

Depew read his father's copies of the Center for Rural Affairs newsletter. While in college, Depew sent the center a donation so he could receive it, too. About seven years ago, the newsletter contained an item about a job opening at the center. Depew couldn't have found a better fit. He was hired as a policy organizer to work on the run-up to the 2008 Farm Bill.

Since then, he's been involved in the issues that affect the future of towns like Lyons and Laurens, whether it be farm bills, financial support for small Main Street business start-ups or agriculture entrepreneurship.

"My passion for small towns is a life's work and a life's mission," Depew said. "I could not imagine a job or an organization that would align more fully with what my values are, what my interests are."

At age 32, Depew lives many of the values for which he fights. He owns 12 acres outside of town, a small patch of land he calls Thistle Root Farm, where he raises sheep, chickens, garlic and a large garden.

"I still get to have my hands in the dirt," Depew said.

Getting his hands dirty in the production side of agriculture, even on a small scale, helps give him perspective when fighting for issues that affect the way of life he loves and being an active member of the community.

Just like Mom and Dad talked about at dinner.

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