Armand Bauer: German-Russian 'Roots' in Agriculture

Hanson, Nancy Edmonds. "Armand Bauer: German-Russian 'Roots' in Agriculture." Bismarck & Mandan’s City Guide, June 1980, 3-5, 14.

The Bauer family roots have been sunk firmly in agriculture for countless generations. But the harvests they've brought in have changed over the years.

Less than 200 years ago Armand Bauer's forebears were packing up in overcrowded, troubled southwestern Germany and heading for homesteads in the Black Sea region in Alexander the First's Russia. They came to set an example of wise farming for the natives, and to settle the broad, wild expanses of prairie-like wilderness.

Another hundred years later, Bauer's great-grandparents were among the German-Russians on the move again, uprooting their families for a better life on the American "steppes" in south central North Dakota. Still known as exemplary farmers, they set about to bring their traditions and their grasp of dry land farming to the semi-arid stretches of central and western North Dakota.

Enter Armand Bauer. A product of that heritage and a Space Age descendant of those tenacious farmers, he is engaged today in the same pursuit that his family has grappled with for generations on end: How to make the best of farming, using the soil that Nature's left there and the amount of precipitation she sees fit to drop down in the short, hot growing season at the center of the continent.

Armand Bauer's scientific career has been taken up by wheat.

But Bauer serves agriculture in a way that's new in his family tree. He doesn't farm. He studies wheat, not raises it. He measures, not only its yield at the peak of harvest, but its growth day by day from the moment of germination to the time its destiny is certain, and when it's ripe.

He's a soil scientist now associated with the Great Plains Research Center south of Mandan. There Dr. Armand Bauer is one of the research scientists actively engaged in making the best of North Dakota agriculture - a pursuit his forebears might have found incredibly technical, but which has changed countless North Dakota farming practices in his own generation.

"I've spent my entire professional career working on problems of water and wheat and soil fertility." he says. "Here at the research center, we're all engaged in furthering dry land agriculture - the kind that's practiced here in North Dakota."

His office at the center, located on a hill just south of the Heart River as it rolls through Mandan, seems remote from the dust and weather demons that bedevil farmers in the field. It's quiet, air conditioned, tiny...neatly packed with the austere tools of a researcher's trade, including walls of files and reference notebooks and a calculator close at hand. Only a well-worn pair of boots tucked under a chair attests to Bauer's practical links to the soil he has sampled, studied and experimented with since graduating from North Dakota State University with his first degree just thirty years ago.

Yet the fruit of his labors, along with those of colleagues engaged in unlocking the same agricultural puzzles, have changed the face of North Dakota farming. In 1950, several years before his projects helped develop tests to measure crops' response to specific nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, twenty thousand tons of fertilizer were sold to state farmers. In 1978, they purchased and used over 718,000 tons.

Farmers today use the cropping techniques designed by Bauer and all his colleagues in experimental agriculture to increase yields and cope with drought years. Economists base their predictions of coming crop across the Great Plains on research results they've amassed in years of studying the most minute of influences on growing grains, and the international trade picture brightens and darkens accordingly - influenced, it seems, by sometimes-tedious digging and measuring and testing accomplished by scientists back tilling their test plots in places like North Dakota.

"We're into the third and fourth generation research today, down the line from the work I took part in my early career," Bauer says. A soft-spoken man, he fits the image of the careful scientist logging precise results. "My first work was on the effect of water supply on wheat's response to fertilizer. The next time around, we were interested in the amounts of water needed and their effect on quality factors. But we need to know even more - how the plant responds to shortages at different times in its life. We're always looking for more detail. Next we'll probably study the effects of temperature at each stage of the wheat plant's life."

Why ascertain, beyond the shadow of a doubt, how a shower on a hot day in the second week of June will change what pours into the combine's hopper on noon in early August? "Our number one user of agricultural research is always the farmer. Everything we do has an application to his farm, and the economic rewards he get from it," Bauer says.

"But wheat yield predictions influence much more. Since wheat is a commodity on the world's market, we need to be able to accurately predict the global supply - as food for billions of people, as speculation and investment, as a product for international trade that has great implications in world politics.

"Everything we learn makes those vital predictions more accurate. But we never lose sight of the farmer himself, either."

Bauer is one of eighteen scientists, with a support staff of over fifty, who work at the Great Plains Research Center. Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the center occupies campus-like grounds well-known to Bismarck-Mandan residents, who circle them on Sunday drives and admire the shady arboretum just west of the buildings and main grounds.

Established in 1912, the center was first engaged in breeding fruit trees and other horticultural crops. Much of the development of the new variety of apple called "Hazen" took place there earlier in the century. But these days three primary areas of research occupy the scientists, Bauer says, all related to farming the semiarid lands of the upper Great Plains.

One is soil, crop and water management; that's Bauer's area. They focus on "tillage, fertility, water storage and residue management," he says - finding the most advantageous combination for farmers' benefit.

Another concentrates on range management and grass breeding. They're developing new varieties of grasses for rangelands, studying methods of range management and investigating the benefits of fertilizers.

The third works on hydrology and drainage. They studied potential irrigation in the Oakes area, for example, to prepare it for Garrison Diversion (which may never come). They're now involved in reclamation of strip mined farmland, a subject far more certain of use in the field; some of their studies have already had effect in North Dakota's new laws on reclamation.

Besides these three units, a tree breeder is also studying climate and growth at the research center. His aim: to develop trees that are more disease-resistant for farmsteads and shelter belts, as well as bring new light to the area of plant pathology.

Bauer joined the Great Plains Research Center in 1976 after 25 years with the NDSU Agricultural Experiment Station. "But if it wasn't for the GI Bill of Rights and later Sputnik, I wouldn't be here today," he claims.

That goes back to his roots. Raised on a farm near Zeeland, Bauer and his family watched the dust storms and the depression threaten their livelihood. "That's where I learned to work - back on the farm," he says. "The farm experience stays with you all your life...and you never forget how to milk a cow."

Nevertheless, the young Bauer always had planned to go to college despite the financial problems that made that dream unlikely. But he was drafted and served in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1944 to 1946, including tours aboard ships in the Pacific.

After the war, his GI benefits enabled him to enroll at the School of Forestry at Bottineau for two years, then wrap up his bachelor's degree with two more at NDSU in Fargo. "I started out in chemistry, and can't really say why I switched my studies to agriculture," he says. "I had friends in the Department of Soils, and I suppose I was influenced by them. At any rate, I switched." And graduated in 1950.

Now, Bauer's first objective was to get a job. "I wanted to start earning some money, a commodity I'd never had," he says. But science and employment dovetailed neatly with a position with the Soil Conservation Service. When he was offered a graduate assistantship under Dr. E.B. Norum several years later that included supervising soil testing, he moved into the Experiment Station, where he helped develop tests for phosphorus. He was later involved in similar tests for nitrogen, plus studies on the effects of water stored in the soil at seeding time. With NDSU, he eventually held the title of professor, taught several classes and was active in professional groups.

He came west as part of an Experiment Station team working at Mandan on soil-bank reclamation, for which he was research coordinator. The move became permanent two years later when he joined the research center's staff.

So what about Sputnik? "When it increased the nation's interest in upgrading the sciences, it led to funding that permitted me to do graduate studies that led to my doctorate." That was awarded by Colorado State University in the early 1960s during a two-year leave from NDSU. Not that it was easy - "We just made it, between my fellowship and my wife Elaine's working as a registered nurse with our three daughters at home," he admits. But with characteristic German-Russian tenacity, they dug in and accomplished what they'd set out to do.

That German-Russian heritage, however, wasn't high on their list of familiar topics. It wasn't until a new interest in their family tree ten or fifteen years ago that the Bauers became fascinated with the heritage they'd taken for granted, along with most of their fellow North Dakotans of German-Russian backgrounds.

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck & Mandan's City Guide.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller