VIDEO: SDSU president is ag scientist

BROOKINGS, S.D. -- South Dakota State University's new president, Barry Dunn, plans to ensure the institution's commitment to agriculture stays strong. He carries on a tradition of strong agricultural production and academic credentials, in a lan...

Barry Dunn, new president at South Dakota State University in Brookings, took his post May 23. Photo by Mikkel Pates, Agweek

BROOKINGS, S.D. - South Dakota State University’s new president, Barry Dunn, plans to ensure the institution’s commitment to agriculture stays strong. He carries on a tradition of strong agricultural production and academic credentials, in a land grant university where agriculture is still the economic backbone.

Dunn, who began his new position on May 23, takes over for David Chicoine, who served in that position for nine years. The new president had been dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, with the largest of the university’s six colleges.

The new president’s father grew up in the Mission, S.D., area, but pursued academics in Iowa and a career in Pennsylvania. Dunn and his two brothers would spend time on their father’s parents’ large ranch, living in a bunkhouse, and working with cattle and haying. “It kept us focused, and we learned a lot about hard work,” he says.

Dunn loved science and earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree at SDSU, intending to enter the beef cattle industry. He spent two years at the Carrington (N.D.) Research Extension Center, working with then-superintendent Howard Olson, in the 1970s. He then went to South Dakota to run the family ranch at Mission, before returning to academia.

Academic shift Both of his parents died in 1993 and he sold the ranch, using the proceeds to buy his wife’s farm near Brookings, and pursue a doctorate. He became the first executive director of the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management, Texas A&M Kingsville.


In 2010, Dunn returned to SDSU as dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences. From the start, he faced a “structural deficit,” with inadequate funding to pay everybody in extension and research. He reorganized the Extension Service from a county program and focused lots of effort into the iGrow website, a virtual office and online learning portal. “It’s been highly effective, over a million page views last year - over 600,000 users,” Dunn says.

One breakthrough experience was the Atlas Blizzard of October 2013 that killed more than 50,000 cattle in the state. iGrow “became, almost serendipitously, where people got information about the blizzard, how to deal with the losses.”

During Dunn’s time as dean, the agriculture college continued to grow in student numbers. SDSU serves all of South Dakota, but also gets many of its students from southern Minnesota, northwest Iowa and northeast Nebraska.

Dunn entered into an aging infrastructure at the college and implemented a new seed technology laboratory, new facilities at McCrory Gardens and a new dairy processing plant, for student experience, as well as dairy, cow-calf and swine research and teaching facilities, and a new greenhouse. During his six years, the college raised $42 million. And most was privately raised.

State support With freezes in tuition, South Dakota is picking up a large portion of the cost of higher education. “I think that’s a great trend,” Dunn says. But on the research and extension side, state funding will continue to be a challenge, so partnering with private industry is necessary. “We certainly don’t want to give up our unbiased, scientific-based high ground that we hold,” he says, but connections such as those with commodity groups and state game and fish sources will likely grow.

Regardless of public perceptions, less than 6 percent of the research dollars come from private industry and the rest is from sources such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, commodity groups or other agency funding.

Looking ahead for agriculture, Dunn says demand for commodities is elastic - sensitive to oversupply and changes in policies. “Value-added agriculture has been the drumbeat for years,” he says. “We need a renewed effort to add value to raw commodities.” He points to a beef processing plant in Aberdeen, S.D., a turkey processing plant in Huron, S.D., the establishment of a premium cheese processor in Brookings, and reinvestment in the Morrell plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., as major pluses.

Dairies are getting larger, different than what the state is used to, but they are well capitalized and well managed. “I have a lot of confidence in the future of agriculture, but you have to add value to commodities or we will really suffer,” he says.


He says crop yields continue to grow. He predicts the state will have a 1-billion-bushel corn crop in the state. “That march toward that crop will come because we’re increasing yields by 5 bushels (per acre) per year,” he says. Cattle numbers are higher, even after the last downturn. “I think we’re going to be viewed as a place to invest in value-added agriculture,” he says.

Room big, small At the same time, SDSU is building a two-acre local foods education center on campus. That market is serious and there is a place for it. “Agriculture is a big tent and there’s lots of room for people of all sizes and interests,” he says. States like Michigan have 100 commodities and South Dakota has only five or six. “With diversity comes strength,” he says. SDSU Extension had helped develop a food hub in southeast South Dakota so farmers with tomatoes or cucumbers can gather as a cooperative to supply restaurants.

One challenge for agriculture is the rise of consumer concerns over genetically modified crops. There are only 10 to 12 genetically modified crops, he says. Most cattle, sheep and swine aren’t genetically modified, but much of their feed is.

The latest scientific conclusions are that GMO crops are safe. The breakthrough was the mapping of the human genome about 16 years ago, revolutionizing science. “The molecular genetics that are controversial on the food production side are going to improve the quality of life (on the medicine and nutrition front),” he says. “And it’s the same science.”

Dunn says his major concern is that farmers will be under enormous scrutiny for their impact on the environment. “Everything they can do to do it well, to join programs like Habitat Pays, to farm the best and conserve the rest ... showing that we do care about water quality and about soil erosion and soil health.”

A warning sign The interest from the Environmental Protection Agency on topics such as the Waters of the U.S. or dust from soybeans on air quality can be viewed by farmers as intrusions, but farmers need to be good stewards and getting that message out. Still, the public understanding that the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico is getting worse - not better - and the “flushing of the Missouri and Mississippi drainage system” leads to “more nitrogen, phosphorous potassium and silt coming down those big rivers every year.”

“We will take the initiative and meet the challenge ahead of regulations: that’s my challenge for agriculture,” he says.


David Chicoine, outgoing president at South Dakota State University in Brookings, plans to continue as a professor of economics. Photo by Mikkel Pates, Agweek

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