Envisioning the future: Hettinger Extension Center scientists try to determine what’s important to producers
HETTINGER -- Started as a small dairy operation built in 1909, the North Dakota State University Hettinger Research Extension Center in far south North Dakota, has grown to include four different research areas, several additional buildings and s...
HETTINGER - Started as a small dairy operation built in 1909, the North Dakota State University Hettinger Research Extension Center in far south North Dakota, has grown to include four different research areas, several additional buildings and sheep.
Dozens upon dozens of sheep.
Now, having recently passed its latest five-year strategic plan, the extension center is looking forward to the next few years of growth - whatever they may bring.
Research is just part of picture at the 1,165-acre extension center.
Director Chris Schauer said he and his team of scientists - representing the areas of weed science, wildlife and range research, animal science and agronomy - must, with input a 15-member advisory board, craft a vision of what they think the future needs of southwest and south-central North Dakota will be.
“Our job, as scientists, is to vision,” Schauer said. “What do we need 10 years from now? And I think that’s where we’ve done a great job of visioning. We actually have the scientists in place today because of what we did 10 years ago.”
Since 2011, the center has added two new Ph.D-level scientists - one in weed science, the other in the wildlife and range research program - something Schauer says is “exciting” as the center nears its 150-year anniversary.
“We’ve more than doubled our Ph.D-level scientists,” he said. “We’re doubling our potential research output.”
The center’s work is primarily targeted toward the region south of Interstate 94 and west of the Missouri River to “keep everything at a state level,” Schauer said.
But the visioning process takes a look not only at local concerns from landowners, farmers and cattle ranchers, but what trends are making their way across the country.
“We hope we’re hiring people that this is what they want their career to be, to be a visionary scientist,” Schauer said, adding that the team goes to national meetings that producers aren’t able to in order to be the ears for region.
“We can bring that back to our advisory board, and they may not have known it was going to be a problem,” he said.
From there, the process “starts with a project,” Schauer said. “One project saying, ‘We think this is important to this region. We think it’s going to be important down the road.’”
The big strategic question at the heart of the next five years is how we will feed the world in 50 years as population continues to grow exponentially, Schauer said.
One major focus of the agronomy department has been to develop wheat that’s better adapted to the climate in the western half of the state, as opposed to the east.
Wheat yields have gone up, said research agronomist John Rickertsen, but they’re not at the levels as those in the wet Red River Valley climate.
“We can have a very droughty year,” he said, “so we have varieties that can adapt to that.”
Rickertsen, who joined the team about two years ago - all four scientists have been hired in the last three years, Schauer said - is also researching the viability of carinata, a crop that could be used for jet fuel and biodiesel.
There has been some work done on the crop in Canada, but its presence is fairly new in the U.S., where the military is interested in using it for renewable fuels.
“I think there’s some real potential,” Rickertsen said. “From an agronomy side, it’s a very good fit for this region.”
One benefit of being on the fringe of the oil boom is that researchers can continue to focus on more classical disciplines, Schauer said. The team doesn’t have to deal with the relatively new issues related to the energy industry that research centers in Williston and Minot do.
But the center is continuing to modernize as it looks ahead, most notably with its new under-construction lab.
The $1.8 million facility was approved in the last legislative biennium and will include storage space, lab space and new digital equipment for the growing team as it works to keep up with a steady demand of research projects.
“Right now we don’t have any of that,” Schauer said. “We did not have the correct facilities.”
The new lab, he said, is a “space for a modern scientists to function.”