SDSU's new dean of agriculture excited about 'incredible opportunity'Barry Dunn, the newly hired dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences at South Dakota State University, has a simple reason for wanting to return to South Dakota. It’s the weather.
By: Seth Tupper, The Daily Republic
Barry Dunn, the newly hired dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences at South Dakota State University, has a simple reason for wanting to return to South Dakota.
It’s the weather.
“It is really hot in Texas in the summer,” he said from the Lone Star State during a recent phone interview. “It is very, very hot. I’ve really loved it here, don’t get me wrong. But it is very different.”
On a more serious note, Dunn, 56, said he considers his new job “an incredible opportunity to put a lifetime of work together.”
“It’s a very good job,” he said, “and on the flipside, I think I’ll do a very good job for South Dakota.”
It’s difficult to imagine anyone being more qualified to be the ag and bio dean at SDSU. Dunn’s résumé reads like a preparatory syllabus for the job: manager of a ranch near Mission for 17 years; bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from SDSU; former member of SDSU’s animal and range sciences faculty; owner of a farm near Brookings; and, most recently, executive director of the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management at Texas A&M-Kingsville.
Following are selected portions of The Daily Republic’s recent phone conversation with Dunn, who will begin his new job in May.
TDR: What does SDSU’s College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences mean to South Dakota?
BD: It’s the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, so I think that means that it’s everyone’s college, in that the Wildlife Department of South Dakota State lies in that college, and so does the Economics Department. And right now Rural Sociology, and Range Science, for example. So it has a very, very broad mission for not only production agriculture, but also stewardship of natural resources and communities and economics. So I think everyone’s life in South Dakota is touched by the college.
TDR: You mentioned the college’s broad mission. How would you describe that mission?
BD: I’m a very strong believer in the land-grant mission of teaching, research and extension.
So I think from a teaching perspective, I think South Dakota State is just poised perfectly to be the land-grant university of choice for young people interested in agriculture and natural resources from all across the upper Midwest. Brookings is still a rural community, and the university farms are north of town, and teaching is done not on DVDs but with real laboratories and real animals and real situations. …
For research, I think the tie to the past is tremendous. I could go on and on about the great accomplishments of the experiment station at South Dakota State, but I think the future is coming quickly, and the problems are challenging — I’m not going to say enormous, because I think that everything’s doable — but they are large, like making biofuels from renewable resources. And the college is going to play a leadership role in helping farmers and ranchers understand those challenges and meet them head on.
From an extension perspective, I think the president of the university, Dr. (David) Chicoine, said it well: The Extension Service of the university is really the first arm of outreach from the whole university to the state. And it’s still in every county working hard, working with young people, working with people interested in all types of agriculture and horticulture and with youth at risk one minute, and then helping put on county fairs the next minute. And those county fairs really are part of the fiber of the state, so I think the Extension Service is just absolutely part of the fabric of South Dakota.
TDR: Do you think the Extension Service is as vital or relevant as it used to be?
BD: I think relevance is its biggest challenge. I mentioned that when I was interviewing for the job. I think that if we don’t have YouTube videos on topics, whether it’s 4-H or production agriculture or horticulture or animal production — I think we need to be relevant to a very changing society. And Extension will morph and grow and change just as it has in the past. It’s not the same thing as it was 30 years ago, and it’s not the same thing as it was 50 years ago, and it won’t be the same thing 20 years from now as it is today. …
I’m still on the outside — I’m not the dean yet. But relevance is the challenge. We didn’t know what YouTube was five years ago, and we won’t know what technology is coming down the line two years from now, and so the Extension Service needs to be very adaptable.
TDR: For those of us who are outside of academia, tell us: What does a dean do?
BD: Part of it is the buck stops there for administration, for promotion and tenure of faculty, for the administrative parts of salaries and the distribution of funds to different departments, so it’s very, very administrative.
But at the same time, and I think in South Dakota maybe more so than any state I know of, the dean is an ambassador for agriculture — to policymakers in Washington, for example — and I think needs to be a voice for agriculture. You know, I’d love to get in a debate with Michael Pollan (a high-profile critic of modern agribusiness) about modern agriculture versus agriculture from the 1950s and ’60s.
TDR: Did you grow up in South Dakota?
BD: I was born in Pennsylvania, and my parents moved around a lot, but my maternal grandparents had a ranch south of Mission, South Dakota, and that was kind of our family home. I spent many summers with my grandparents, my brothers and I did. As my parents moved around, the ranch served more and more as kind of our anchor.
I graduated from high school in Illinois, but I graduated halfway through my senior year and I immediately went to the ranch for the spring semester, and from there I went to South Dakota State. I got my bachelor’s degree in biology in 1975, and I stayed and got a master’s degree in animal science. I went out and ranched and worked, but I returned to Brookings in ’97 and started working on a Ph.D. (in animal science) at South Dakota State, which I received in 2000.
TDR: Did you teach at SDSU?
BD: I did. I had a teaching and Extension appointment. I taught beef production and range management, and I did Extension programs in cattle production and range management.
TDR: So when you ranched, was that back on your family’s place?
BD: It was. I managed the ranch for 17 years. I still have a farm in South Dakota near Brookings, and we rent it out right now.
TDR: What drew you from the ranch back into academia?
BD: My parents passed away, and several family members wanted to sell the ranch, and it just all worked out for the best. It was very hard, but it all worked out for the best.
TDR: You have both farming and ranching experience, right?
BD: Yes. Even on the ranch, we had center-pivot irrigation and we raised wheat and alfalfa and grain sorghum, and I’ve raised corn and soybeans and wheat.
TDR: What brought you to Texas?
BD: I was recruited and offered a position to start an institute in ranch management (known officially as the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management), and I accepted that a little over six years ago and came down and got it started.
TDR: What’s your impression of the growth that has occurred recently at South Dakota State?
BD: I think it’s absolutely fabulous. My son, Michael, is a senior at South Dakota State, and he had a chemistry lab in the same building that his grandmother did in the 1940s — in the same laboratory. The challenges that Michael will face as a young scientist, and that’s what he wants to become, are very different than the challenges his grandmother faced. So I think the renovation and building, some of it’s long overdue to really prepare young people for the future.
It’s also changing the face of the university and making us all a little uncomfortable with some of the changes. I used to love that green where they’re building a new dorm. But I think it’s been fabulous. I just really admire Dr. Chicoine’s leadership and (former president) Dr. (Peggy Gordon) Miller’s leadership, everything from taking us to Division I to having South Dakota reinvest in the structure of that university so we can do a better job.
TDR: You mentioned challenges facing agriculture, such as developing biofuels. Can you talk a little more about some of those challenges?
BD: I think we are in a very critical time where we are allowing agriculture and food production to be defined by people who are passionate about it, but don’t understand it. And we’re at the point where it’s dangerous. There are problems with modern agriculture, and I’m not naïve and I understand them, and we can fix them. But we cannot return to 1940s and ’50s and ’60s agriculture and have a stable food supply for a growing world. That’s just the facts.
There’s great new research about, for example, methane production per unit of milk produced by a milk cow in a modern dairy, like in the I-29 corridor, versus a 1960 dairy. And the modern dairy produces a fraction of those greenhouse gases per unit of food as did a dairy of my grandfather’s time. And that message isn’t out there, and we’re on the verge of having people legislate and develop policy that could dramatically restrict our ability to meet the demands for high-quality food in the United States and, as global as we are now, in the whole world.
TDR: What kind of legislation or policies should be avoided?
BD: I think that we can always improve animal care and handling. It’s our stewardship, and it’s our responsibility to do that. It’s an ethical and a moral thing to do, to take care of animals. But, I think decisions are being made in some battleground states like Michigan and Missouri that could impact South Dakotans’ ability to raise farm animals and do food-animal agriculture that aren’t reasonable and just basically are based on bad science, or no science at all.