The motto “It’s not our land, but it is our turn” has served as a guide to the caretakers of Bien Ranch for more than 130 years.
“Conservation has been important to our family ever since my grandfather, Ole, homesteaded in 1888,” said Neil Bien, a third-generation Veblen rancher and a 2023 South Dakota State University Eminent Leader in Agriculture, Family and Community honoree. “Every generation has taken their turn to care for the land, water, soil, and animals.”
Bien’s turn arrived earlier than anticipated. He was only 17 when his father passed away. The second of seven children, he turned down a collegiate football scholarship to take over his father’s ranch responsibilities.
Determined to keep the family ranch going and further his education, Bien balanced ranch work and studying. A year after his father died, he enrolled at Northern State University and four years later received a degree in biology.
Bien’s connection to the land influenced his area of study.“The word ‘biology’ means the study of life. I don’t know where you would get a whole lot closer to studying life than in ranching,” he said. “I was always fascinated by the natural world. I saw things in nature—simple things like insects, birds, the birth of calves—and those things inspired me from a young age. You don’t have to pay tuition to observe things in nature. You don’t need a scholarship to study it.”
Bien shared his enthusiasm for the natural world with generations of students, teaching high school biology off and on for 38 years,all while caring for the ranch’s grasslands, wetlands and cattle.
He worked to bring biology to life for his students in creative ways. Using a kiddie pool, Bien recreated the wetland ecosystem he saw on his ranch. The classroom kiddie pool was home to crayfish, water bugs, fish, frogs, and tadpoles.
“When you are interested in something and excited about something, you learn without realizing you are learning,” Bien said.
Bien was recognized for his efforts in the classroom. He was twice named South Dakota Science Teacher of the Year, and in 1974 he received the National Biology Teacher Award.
Although he enjoyed teaching, caring for his family’s ranch has always been his passion. Located on South Dakota’s Prairie Coteau, Bien Ranch includes hundreds of wetlands and thousands of acres of native prairie. Like his father and grandfather, all along Bien was intentional about land stewardship—never draining a wetland and implementing rotational grazing, no-till and other soil health techniques to bolster and support the natural ecosystem.
“You can choose to take every penny you can get out of the land and try to make as much profit as you can. Or you can choose to go a little slower and treat the land and the soil as best as you can,” Bien said.
Over the years, Bien was recognized for his efforts: South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks named him Habitat Partner of the Year. The South Dakota Chapter of the Wildlife Society named him Citizen of the Year. In 2005, he received a National Wetlands Award, and in 2022, the South Dakota Grassland Coalition presented Bien with the South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award.
Although Bien has a collection of awards, he said the most rewarding thing for him has been the return of his and his wife Muriel’s grandson, Nate, to the family ranch. Nate and his wife, Katie (Vander Wal) are both graduates of Milbank High School – Nate in 2017 and Katie in 2018. Nate also earned a double major in agronomy and precision agriculture from SDSU in 2021.
“It’s his turn now,” Bien said. “Our goal was always to make this ranch ready for the next generation to take their turn and make it work.”
In an effort to make Bien Ranch viable for the next generation, over the years Bien slowly expanded its land and cow/calf herd size. He also invested his time and shared his knowledge by allowing SDSU Extension and many other organizations to host educational field days on the ranch. Bien has also served on the board of cooperatives, state agencies, and agricultural organizations.
“Being involved was my way of giving back because just baling hay and fixing fence do not make a ranch sustainable,” Bien said. “You have to be able to do other things in order for the ranch to be ready for the next generation, and I learned many of those things from others.”
Bien was honored for his contributions to South Dakota during the 2023 Eminent Leader in Agriculture, Family and Community recognition banquet held at the McCrory Gardens Education and Visitor Center on the SDSU campus on September 15.
The Eminent Leaders in Agriculture, Family and Community award program began in 1927 and is sponsored by the SDSU colleges of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences and Education and Human Sciences. Honorees are nominated by people in their community based upon their efforts to contribute time, talent, and leadership for the betterment of family, communities, the state, and the nation.