From forage to flowers, Hansen changed the landscape of the Plains
If you’ve ever lived in South Dakota, or on the Great Plains for that matter, chances are that N.E. Hansen made your life better.
If you’ve ever savored the tenderness of grass-fed beef, enjoyed the nectar of a cool plum on a hot day or risked a bee sting to get a closer look at a beautiful rose, you’ve benefited from Hansen’s handiwork.
None of this was by chance. Niels Ebbesen Hansen, the first head of the horticulture department at South Dakota State College, made it his life’s work to find and develop plants and fruits suited for growing on the Great Plains in hopes that they would help ease the hard life of those who chose to live in an area that was as arid as it was frigid.
While he was earning his master’s degree in horticulture at Iowa State College in Ames, Hansen befriended James Wilson, the dean of the college of agriculture. Soon after he graduated in 1895, Hansen was tapped to lead SDSC’s horticulture department. Wilson heeded the call from the nation’s capital and was appointed secretary of the Department of Agriculture.
Wilson wasted no time in contacting Hansen and appointing him the department’s first official plant explorer. In her article about Hansen in the 1942 volume of the “South Dakota Historical Collections,” Mrs. H.J. Taylor quotes Wilson as saying, “I have 12,000 men under me, but none who knows how to work like Hansen. There is only one Hansen.”
Wilson put Hansen to work right away, sending him overseas in 1897 to search the Old World for plants that could be grown in the colder, drier parts of the United States. He was particularly charged with finding winter hardy, drought-resistant alfalfa.
Early version of Indiana Jones
On his first trip for the USDA, Hansen found what is now known as crested wheatgrass, a forage grass that has been used to reclaim millions of acres of rangeland across the United States, as well as purple-flowered alfalfa.
At a time when travel was arduous—once Hansen was overseas he would travel by wagon or sled—Hansen’s first collecting trip to Siberia, Turkistan and northern China covered more than 1,300 miles and lasted 10 months.
In all, Hansen made eight trips overseas: one at the behest of his professor while he was still in college, three as an explorer for the federal government, two that were financed by the South Dakota Legislature, one to attend the International Congress of Horticulture and one at the invitation of the Soviet government.
To find the cold- and drought-resistant plants he needed for his research, Hansen traveled to remote, wild regions of the world. Think of him as a precursor to Indiana Jones. He didn’t have a fedora or a whip, but he was ready for adventure.
According to Taylor, Hansen was outfitted with “a rubber billy, a dagger on his right side, a revolver in his belt, field glasses, and magnifying lenses. All these were essential to his safety and his work.”
Secretary Wilson turned out to be right about Hansen’s work ethic. During his first trip Hansen filled five boxcars with samples of grains, grasses and plants for shipment to the United States. This was a pattern he would repeat on each of his collecting trips.
Greatest impact: forage crops
“From my point of view, the greatest economic impact from N.E. Hansen’s work has been in the forage crops side—alfalfa, smooth bromegrass, crested wheatgrass, plants such as those that could help agricultural producers make a living on the Northern Plains,” says SDSU Vice President for Research Kevin Kephart in an article he wrote while serving as director of the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station.
Hansen’s work to develop alfalfa that would reproduce on the Great Plains was wildly successful, but his interests ranged far beyond forage.
According to Hansen’s great-granddaughter, Jean Pedersen, who earned a master’s degree in horticulture at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and has written extensively about her great-grandfather’s work, Hansen introduced 412 plant varieties. The majority were fruits, including 113 varieties of apples and crabapples; 72 varieties of plums, cherries and sandcherries; and 35 varieties of grapes.
Asked which of her great-grandfather’s accomplishments is the greatest, Pedersen has a tough time focusing on just one area.
“I know the forage crops have probably had the greatest impact as far as covering the United States,” Pedersen says. “The fruit trees are also very widespread, and even if the same varieties may not be used for their fruit, the hardy rootstock is still used. My favorite is his roses.”
Determined that Plains-dwellers should be able to see beauty in their gardens, Hansen developed 32 varieties of hardy roses.
He made life easier, better
Little-known today outside of SDSU and the world of plant breeders, Hansen’s work touched the lives of generations of people living on the Great Plains. And that was his intention.
In his article, Kephart refers to an interview with Hansen published on the eve of World War I in Farm, Stock and Home magazine that captures the spirit of a man who was equal parts scientist and adventurer.
The article’s anonymous author sums up Hansen’s work this way: “Professor Hansen touched upon what I would interpret as the dominant note of his life’s work, the making of life easier and better for people who must find homes in the dry lands.”
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