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SDSU’s Pete Bauman – Embracing Ecology with Humanity and Flexibility

by Cassidy Spencer


Pete Bauman, SDSU Extension Natural Resources Field Specialist, often emphasizes Aldo Leopold’s approach that “the key to intelligent tinkering is saving all the parts.” Nature has provided the parts: the nutrients, soil aggregation, interconnectedness of organisms, and weather factors to make up diverse, rich landscapes and strong, resilient soils. Pete heeds farmers: in the most dire landscape situations, we currently run the risk of losing some of nature’s parts.


Pete Bauman
Pete Bauman

Shapeshifting Landscapes


Pete grew up on a small family beef farm in Delano, Minnesota. His father worked at a creamery and would come home and get to work on the land; life at home revolved around work. Pete fell in love with the land– with the cattle, with the wildlife. He was aware of the world of conservation beyond his home life, but it was not much of a topic of interest at home. It didn’t take long for Pete to see the ways the land was being affected by his family’s practices.


“Now I make the joke– we plowed downhill cause it was faster. And these things shape the land in a way; looking back now that I’m almost 50, you can see the changes. And they’re not random changes.”


Pete grew up playing in a creek on their land. He recalls rich diversity; egrets, migratory waterfowl, a gravel-bottom creek with leeches and prairie fishes, frogs and toads and snakes.

Now it is depleted. The swamp is filled in, now at best a cattail marsh. The creek is mud-bottom with drainage off the crop fields. The landscape of his childhood does not exist anymore. Though he began his studies in park management, he gravitated toward wildlife and fisheries with this little swamp in mind.


When considering how humans can constructively shape land, Pete considers: what shaped the great plains, what shaped the grasslands? The three major factors prior to modern agriculture were grazing, fire, and climate. Farmers can holistically return to a focus on all three. Intensive and rotational grazing that mimics herd behavior. Planned burns as indigenous cultures are speculated to have engaged in. And farmers have an impact on climate– as half of the globe is black at any given time of the year because of worldwide tillage. Pete describes fire as a great truthteller– “If I can rest and burn a site,” he explains, “I can get a much better understanding of what the potential for that site is.” Diversity is key, and prescribed fire offers an opportunity for regeneration of seed viability and can lay refreshed groundwork for diversity to be expressed. The land must be rested prior to a planned burn in order to build fuel load– timing is ideally in late spring. Too early in the spring, and you can offer an opportunity for invasive species to take hold. Pete urges intentionality in the timing of these imperative tools.



Humility and Context


Pete’s experience uniquely brings a focus and background in South Dakota’s remaining grasslands, but through the SDSU Extension program, he was encouraged to expand his focus and furthermore expand what it means to work in Extension.


“Ten years later, I’m trying to take all things learned in my early career and really help be part of the solution to preserving long term relationships with landowners– not only how they understand the ecology on their own ranches but how they can better partner as neighbors with the federal and state lands in SD.”


He now specializes in rangeland pasture and grassland management with emphasis on educating producers on how profitability and ecological balance are complimentary. Pete participates in planning and instruction at the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition’s Grazing Schools that are held every year, typically in three locations across the state (East, Central and West). His secondary focus is alternative grassland management tools like fire, biological control, controlled grazing and reduction of inputs for system health.


In the past, the County Extension Agent has been a person that has access to information to assist the common populace. But what does the role look like in the modern world? Do we need the traditional Extension Agent now? While the resource of the internet has allowed all farmers to access a wealth of information, Pete explains that his job is now to help farmers to place themselves within that world of information. He likes to say that the ‘sixth principle of soil health’ is context– how do the tenets fit and work with your land, weather factors, landscape?


“The truths of sound ecology are not a laundry list– it’s just a few things. It kind of starts with doing the next right thing– but do you know what the next right thing is?... I don’t have to go look at every habitat project to tell them how to burn it; but as complexity rises, I’m part of usually a team and each person in the team can bring a piece of the puzzle in that context. It’s dangerous for any producer to only get their advice from one person– that can create problems.”


Pete wants to embody academic humility. You can have a wealth of knowledge, but if you are limited or prescriptive with the knowledge, it can work against you. He has heard people say that we know all we need to know about soil health now– but without a growth mindset, farmers inhibit themselves.



Humanity and Flexibility


Though we have an ever-rich pool of knowledge to draw from concerning soil health, Pete emphasizes that there is more to the picture to treat land right. Communal collaboration is important to the extent that regional producers learn how to contribute to the regenerative health of public lands. Central also is a sense of flexibility, the creativity and humility necessary to try out new tactics, the ability to admit when something is not working, and the patience that it takes to allow land to slowly heal.


Pete sees public land as an opportunity: for large-scale soil healing and for farmers and ranchers to develop productive collaboration with the government. He witnessed South Dakota overgrazing their properties, and Minnesota underutilizing grazing. Though the tenets of soil health remain constant, he had to employ different focuses in these two areas. “This is all about site-specific management-- what do we need at this site at this time? I took a page out of the Matador Ranch in Montana where they were offering grazing opportunities in exchange for ecological services.”


Pete is aware that it’s a rare producer that is intentionally doing harm.

“Most producers truly believe that they’re doing the right thing or at least the best thing that they’re able. We are not dealing with personality issues in this larger landscape effort for ecological integrity: we’re dealing primarily with knowledge, experience and teaching issues.” Pete wants to respect the human behind the farm: their financial situation, their family history of farming, their current resources. Even just a minor shift in the right direction from all farmers can make an incredible difference. He wants to respect the slow process of education, the slow work of gaining regenerative experience with one’s land.


“We can take this message and share it, we can work with people; but we have to be mindful of their situation.”





Find Pete’s written work at https://muckrack.com/pete-bauman/articles


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Visit these “Growing Resilience Through Our Soils” information pages:

1. Podcast page for drought planning fact sheets, Q&As, news, podcasts and more.

2. Video page to watch videos of other ranchers’ journeys toward improved rangeland/pasture.

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