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SF Blog: My First Boss, Barry

Roots with SDSU president go back over 35 years.

I was a scared college freshman back in 1980 when I made my way to the L7 Ranch in western South Dakota near Mission. I had answered an ad in Ag Hall at South Dakota State University (SDSU) about a summer ranch job.

To this day, I don’t know why I did so. Maybe because there wasn’t much going on at my northeastern South Dakota home. Maybe it sparked a sense of adventure in going to an area of the state to which I had never traveled.  

Then again, as a college student, maybe I just needed the money.

No matter the reason, the experience forged a relationship that continues to this day. My boss at the time, Barry Dunn, was named president of SDSU last year and is featured in our May issue in “The Successful Interview” on page 8.

Barry is one of the few college presidents who can also change leathers on a windmill or rope a calf. I still remember his laser-like focus when directing a team that roped and wrestled a cow that needed some fixing on a prolapsed uterus. My task was to hold onto one of the cow’s front forelegs really, really tight and not let go!

An Interesting Path

I followed Barry’s career as a rancher and then later as an SDSU animal scientist and head of the King Ranch Institute for Range Management in Texas from 2004 to 2010. He notes the King Ranch experience laid some of the groundwork for his current job as SDSU president. 

“It was just an amazing experience, just as powerful a learning experience as was (managing the L7 Ranch) through the farm crisis. I got to see successful farming operations all over the United States. It also was a creative time for me. It was a skeleton of a program there, and I got the chance to build it into a successful program. I also got to work with some great students, and also gained experience with fund-raising and donor relations.”

Seven years ago, Barry returned to SDSU as dean of the college of agricultural and biological sciences. Those were difficult days, with orders from the state legislature to cut 10% of the college’s budget on the heels of two previous years of budget cuts. 

Eventually, though, this led a transition from county-based offices to eight regional ones staffed by personnel with more training. Much agricultural information to the state’s farmers is now relayed through the website, iGrow.org. Described as an iTunes for agriculture, iGrow moved at a gallop, reaching 600,000 users for 1 million pages by 2014. 

The restructuring was difficult. “We looked at this as a team, and I think we did it right,” he says. “We knew we were and still are strong on the agronomy side. But the yield curve for major grain crops is so powerful that we thought it best to invest on the demand side and in value-added agriculture. We haven’t opened up a new ethanol plant in South Dakota for 10 years. But our corn for production from 2005 to 2015 increased 70%.

“A good example is one project we did last year with General Mills and oat production in South Dakota,” he says. “We invested in oats because we collectively thought it had a great deal of upside. We knew it was healthy for crop rotations and soil health and also healthy for consumers. We also are looking to build demand for soybean meal by working to make it more digestible for livestock.”

Industry and Extension  

When I started back in agricultural journalism in 1983, county and state Extension agents formed the bulk of my story sources. I still work closely with state Extension scientists, but they’re fewer in number than they were. Industry sources now fill some of this role; they’re knowledgeable and great sources. 

Unbiased research and recommendations provided by Extension scientists, though, are still needed. 

“When capitalism works as perfectly as Adam Smith described it almost 250 years ago, private industry can provide almost perfect answers and support for production agriculture,” Dunn says. “I would say that in the majority of instances, private industry responds appropriately. But industry can act in its own self-interest, and the land-grant system can act as a check and balance and provide truly unbiased science-based information. It is still needed.”

At SDSU, industry support bumps around the 5% to 7% range (of the total ag college research budget), he says. The rest comes from commodity groups, USDA, or the National Science Foundation. 

“We want to work with industry,” he says. “We are excited about our relationship with General Mills, which as an extremely reputable partner. We have a relationship with Bayer CropScience for developing wheat varieties. We work with breed associations on the livestock side. But we do not sacrifice our integrity.”

Transparency

One area that challenges modern agriculture is transparency. Last year, I locked horns with the head of an agricultural industry group who didn’t like me covering the group’s meeting.  

“It’s a private meeting,” the executive director sternly said.

“Public.”
“Private!”
“Public!”

“Private!”
“Public!” 

Looking back, our tiff must have been quite a spectacle to onlookers, akin to a baseball manager arguing with an umpire. The funny thing is the information presented was good solid agronomic knowledge that would benefit farmers. Even though the executive director’s argument was that it was a private meeting, its agenda featured mainly speakers paid for by state and federal taxpayers.  

On the other hand, agriculture is under siege from undercover activists, too, so I can see that person’s point. Still, I wonder if closed-door strategies like these work in the long run.  

“We can’t lock food production behind a closed door and say ‘trust us,’ ” says Dunn. “We have to be transparent. We have made swine production a mystery in that we would not let anyone in to look. Last October, we dedicated our new swine facility that allows parties like consumers and policy makers a window into swine production, without shower-in and shower-out policies. 

“Water quality is another issue,” he adds. “We have a hypoxic zone (in the Gulf of Mexico) that causes people to look upstream and wonder what is going on. There are a tremendous amount of nutrients coming down that (Mississippi) river. You have cases in Iowa with the Des Moines River where the nitrate level is unacceptably high. Until we solve the water quality issue, I think we will be hard-pressed to gain consumer trust.

“We have farming systems that can help prevent that, but not everyone uses them,” he adds. “At SDSU, we’ve designed our new swine and cow-calf research units so no animal waste will enter the Missouri or Mississippi River watersheds. Both are designed to show how animal agriculture can have minimal impact on the environment and be part of a sustainable food system.”

It’s Home 

I grew up in northeastern South Dakota and lived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for a number of years before settling in Des Moines, Iowa. All are great places to live. 

For me, though, there’s always a feeling that I’m “home” when I step on the SDSU campus. It’s the people, folks like the late Everett White. http://www.agriculture.com/news/sf-blog/sf-blog-well-done-dr-white

I’ve been fortunate to work with great SDSU scientists like Dwayne Beck who form the base of a number of my stories. http://http://www.agriculture.com/agronomy-insider/how-to-weatherproof-your-farm

That homey feeling, though, was best illustrated by the inaugural address that Barry gave on a gorgeous sun-drenched day last September at SDSU. He pointed out that the sons and daughters of toil for whom the land-grant universities were formed to serve look a lot different than they did over 150 years ago. http://www.agriculture.com/news/sf-blog/diversity-is-coming-to-agriculture-and-rural-america

That’s why SDSU is stepping up efforts to meet the racial diversity that’s increasing even in seemingly lily-white states like South Dakota. In my home state’s largest city of Sioux Falls, about one third of its students are minorities speaking over 80 languages. 

Given the impact that SDSU and Barry Dunn have had on me, they’ll be welcomed with open arms. 

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