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Published January 09, 2012, 11:14 AM

Dynamic duo: NDSU Streeter station’s founding couple to retire

In just a few weeks now, the Central Grasslands Research and Extension Center will not have what it has had in its entire 30-year history — Paul Nyren.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

STREETER, N.D. — In just a few weeks now, the Central Grasslands Research and Extension Center will not have what it has had in its entire 30-year history — Paul Nyren.

Nyren, 68, will retire on Feb. 29, ending a career that launched a research station and its mission that he helped define. His wife, Anne, who is the only operations officer the station has ever had, will shift into half-time work after running the station’s operations since 1981.

Nyrens’ background

Nyren, an Iowa native, had served as a radio man in the U.S. Coast Guard and received a master’s degree in range management at Washington State University, Pullman. He met his wife, Anne, a native of Ireland, in Seattle while she was there working in the banking business. When Nyren first came to North Dakota State University he worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service laboratory in Mandan. The position was in mine land reclamation, and Nyren worked with the renowned researcher and soil scientist Armand Bauer, and others. Later that year, he worked at NDSU’s Dickinson research center.

In 1981, Nyren applied for a post at a brand new research site at Streeter, N.D.

Influential rancher-producers Jack Dahl of Gackle, N.D., and Delbert Moore of Forbes, N.D., former presidents of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, had urged the state to create a research station specific to the Coteau grasslands area, which wasn’t a priority for NDSU at the time.

Dahl and Moore thought that research work at Dickinson didn’t really represent the “Coteau” or pothole country issues sufficiently. The region goes from Saskatchewan into South Dakota and a bit into higher moisture areas of southwest Minnesota. In the eastern region, the Carrington, N.D., station had good cattle research for drylot producers, but not always for producers using grazing and range.

The Coteau is known for its glacial till soils that have more outwash, or sandy soils, mixed with sand and rock. It’s difficult to farm and rainfall is higher than in the western part of the state.

In 1977, the North Dakota Legislature passed a bill authorizing the purchase of a “Central North Dakota Beef Cattle Station.” The name later was changed to the Central Grassland Station. The 5,335 acres were purchased in 1979, primarily from some land that had been owned by rancher Harry Iszler, and came from the Gotlieb Iszler estate.

Initially, the university operated the station out of the animal science department in Fargo, N.D. In 1981 the Legislature provided operating funds. The original funding called for the hiring of one animal scientist and one technician.

Starting with cows

Much of the initial funding was spent acquiring a herd of cows — ultimately a 400-head cow herd.

“We had enough money to buy 150 bred heifers,” Nyren says. “Without funding to buy more cows, we entered an agreement with a private party for another 50 head. In the arrangement, they owned the cows; we got the female cut, and split the rest ‘gate cut.’ So we increased our herd and didn’t spend any more general fund money.”

When Nyren took the position, the university received funds from renting out the land, which initially financed research projects as well. “The budget started July 1. The deal was, nobody had put up any hay. We had no machinery, really, and not a whole lot of money because we had no equipment budget,” Nyren says.

There were a number of NDSU faculty who wanted to do rangeland research. The first projects were studies on the economics of the Coteau — a vegetative inventory; a grazing study and a tree belt reclamation project.

Range scientist Don Kirby, who had a doctorate from Texas, wanted to do a short-duration grazing study. This “holistic” style of grazing was often called the “Savory” system, after Alan Savory, a scientist who bought ideas from his home country of South Africa.

Kirby cross-fenced one of the half-sections at Streeter into eight pastures, where the cattle would be rotated through the mini-pastures every five days, compared with a season-long “control” system that required another half-section.

Bill Barker, another researcher, worked with a four-pasture “twice-over” system, where cattle would stay in each pasture for 25 to 28 days, all feeding on native grasses. Barker also had taken some of the original money and hired a graduate student, Chuck Lura, to finish research on the plant communities of the central grasslands.

Nyren ran a four-pasture “complementary trial.” The first pasture was crested wheat grass, then native range in the summer, Russian wild rye in the early fall and Altai wild rye in late fall. “We moved the cattle through in the same sequence each year, based on phenology and nutrient patterns of each of them,” Nyren says. “We had this big chunk of land and we could do large-pasture research, which was unique in the state.”

No staff, no office

Streeter’s station was bound to be different than the others, primarily because of its distance from any larger towns or cities. The Central Grasslands Station is 10 miles from Streeter, a town of about 125 residents.

Paul and Anne came there with the philosophy that they represented a region — not the town. With so many of the research centers, the land originally was donated by a city, or a group of producers. The Streeter station started with purchased land, and no office and no staff.

Initially, the Nyrens ran the station out of a room in the basement of a farmhouse. There were three houses — one they would occupy, another for an animal scientist, and another for a technician.

Soon, Anne, with her background in banking and bookkeeping, started working for the station — initially for nothing. In 1982, she was made a paid administrative assistant. In 1996, Anne was promoted to administrative/operations officer. She reported to the director of the experiment station so she wouldn’t be working directly for her husband.

“The job morphed into a lot more than the bookkeeping,” Paul says.

In early years, Anne would write articles about the station for the Jamestown (N.D.) Sun. Then they developed an annual report that was printed in the Jamestown Sun and eventually distributed to the Emmons County (N.D.) Record, the Minot (N.D.) Daily News and the Bismarck (N.D.) Tribune, in certain zip codes. The 12- to 32-page report comes out in January.

“We tried to adopt a kind of regional attitude — that we weren’t just Streeter, but were about the Central Grasslands,” Paul says. Initially, they took their annual meetings “on the road” to town halls in the North Dakota communities of Medina, Napoleon, Washburn and Garrison.

Because of the location, the staff has to be versatile and resourceful, much like the farms and ranches that operate a distance from larger communities.

If there’s a leaky roof, a faulty septic system or the cows are out, everyone and anyone can be pressed into service. Anne has taken on responsibility for computer software engineering and doing statistical analysis for scientists. Paul does the hiring, but Anne has done the paperwork, the security background checks and the equal opportunity work.

The staff has now grown to 11 full-time people.

In 1987, Bob Patton, an NDSU range scientist, came along, and Nyren started working on adding an office space, other than his family basement.

“There was a downturn in the oil boom — a mass exodus,” Paul says. “We started calling to banks in the communities in the oil area, looking for a trailer house.” They called the Bismarck Farmers Home Administration (then the “FmHA” whose lending duties later shifted to the Farm Service Agency) and heard about a repossessed structure north of McKenzie, N.D., about 70 miles away “We offered them $8,000 for it, and they took it,” he says

It was a 24-by-60-foot wide modular structure in two halves with metal beams. For another $2,000 they got it moved to Streeter, where it as placed on footings on the ground. A Mandan, N.D., construction company prebuilt wood basement walls that the house sits on, and the soil was later placed around the structure.

“Not counting sweat equity, we got out of that for $42,000,” Nyren says. “We did it with a little leftover equipment, a little leftover salary money,” Anne adds.

The office would suffice until 2007, when NDSU received an appropriation to add a laboratory and conference room. The total cost for the addition alone was about $350,000.

Notable researchers

There have been numerous milestones for the station.

In the early 2000s, the station hosted Guojie Wang as an exchange scholar. Wang worked on a master’s degree from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Wang came back the next summer and then back to NDSU to finish doctorate work in 2006, and then began work full-time as a forage agronomist at Streeter.

In 2001, Xue Jun, an ecophysiologist, came to the research station to study carbon sequestration — carbon exchange and respiration — in rangeland, and now is a full scientist at the station.

From 2004 to 2009, the station hosted a number of Chinese students — sometimes up to three at a time — for six-month periods. Often they were focused on learning English and American culture.

The biennial budget is now $2.8 million, compared to the $325,000 budget the first biennium. “It didn’t seem like we had that much, did it?” Paul asks Anne.

Besides Nyren, there are four full-time scientists, and three of those have doctorate degrees. Over time, the university culture has changed so that research station scientists now have resumes comparable with those on the main college campus, have published research in journals and become involved with national scientific associations. Most have adjunct appointments on campus.

“On campus, we have to have people who work at the basic research, or cellular level of matters, but the people at the research centers are primarily more ‘applied’ research. We need to make our work more readily applicable to producers — whether it’s a fertility regime, or number of cattle you might graze on a particular area for a particular length of time. In range, you’re fairly fortunate that the research is quickly applicable to producers.”

Nyren says it’s not always easy to find the right fit at the station for professionals.

Some, especially those who enjoy the rural lifestyle and its recreation or hunting and fishing, enjoy it. One permanent employee, a livestock specialist at the time, worked day and night at times. The employee had a camper trailer, and when the staffer’s sons were young, the employee “moved to the hay field and hayed until dark every night.”

Others didn’t fit well. He remembers one graduate student who “got there on Friday night and by the time I came to work on Monday, he’d gone back to Wyoming, or wherever,” he says. “Something didn’t fit.”

The Nyrens will retire in Garrison, N.D., where they bought some property near Indian Hills Resort. As they did with the Streeter station office, they moved into a modular home, and developed it themselves. Paul is hoping to do more fishing and sailing on Lake Sakakawea. Anne will carry on with data processing, but others in Streeter will do bookkeeping and personnel work, as well as coordination of field days.

Paul will continue on special projects for Ken Grafton, NDSU’s vice president for agriculture. Among other things, he will continue to screen national lists of “federal excess property,” available from federal research institutions and agencies, things that can be obtained for the ag experiment station, nearly free for the transportation costs.

The Nyrens disagree about which of them will be harder to replace — Paul or Anne.

Anne says Paul’s vision is what has made the Streeter station work.

Paul says Anne’s unique personality and talents in administrative work will be harder to put together in a single individual. Anne, who helped start a bank business in Pullman, and whose family in Ireland started several businesses, likened the process of starting the research station to starting a business. “There’s a lot of risk, a lot of difficulty, and you’ve got to sell it and sell it hard for the first five to seven years,” Anne says.

A national search will be conducted to find Paul’s replacement. A committee has been appointed, and they are in the process of drafting a job description.

As for the leaving the director’s position, Paul is philosophical.

There will be parts of the job that are hard to leave, he says. There are parts that will be a big relief — the budgeting, the vying for resources.

“All in all, though, it’s been a great joy to come to work and see people working and having a common purpose — all huddled, working on a grant or some other project,” he says.

“It’s time, I think, for a different person. The building phase is over. They need to get grants, and we have young PhDs, — brilliant scientists, who can write grants and form large coalitions among the topics of animals, plants and soils. I think the station is very well positioned to continue and prosper with the good people we have. You build a foundation.”

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