Remembering Charlie Fenster

Charles Fenster

Former UNL dryland cropping system specialist Charles Fenster at the Legacy of the Plains Museum in 2015

Remembering Charlie Fenster

By David Ostdiek
Communications/Technology Specialist
UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center

Note: We at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center received word of the passing of our friend and colleague Charles R. Fenster on Feb. 10, 2016. This profile of Charlie was published in 2015, when the new building at UNL's High Plains Ag Laboratory near Sidney was named for the retired dryland cropping specialist in recognition of his achievements and contributions.

The personal history of Charles R. Fenster, "Charlie" to anyone who has ever met him, will always be intertwined with that of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's High Plains Agricultural Laboratory (HPAL) north of Sidney.

Fenster, 96, was a dryland cropping systems specialist for UNL at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center from 1956 until retiring in 1982. He was faculty supervisor at HPAL from its establishment in 1970 until he retired 13 years later.

Fenster's contributions received permanent formal recognition in August 2015 during the annual High Plains Ag Lab Field Day, when a new building completed in 2014 was named for him.

Although he's been retired for more than 30 years, Fenster remained active nearly to the end of his life. As recently as 2015, on most days he could be found at the Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering, where one of the exhibits tells the story of the development of conservation tillage in dryland farming - a story in which he played a big role. He also attended field days and similar events.

Fenster's research at HPAL on dryland farming practices has had a widespread and lasting impact on wheat yields, soil and water conservation, and profitability. It has helped transform the way dryland farmers raise crops in the High Plains, from the original wheat-black fallow rotation, which was associated with dust storms and several wind erosion, into the more productive, sustainable conservation tillage systems used today. 

Charles FensterHe worked cooperatively with colleagues from the home campus of UNL's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR) in Lincoln, as well as from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and other land-grant universities.
A Chappell native, Fenster taught vocational agriculture before going to work for the USDA Soil Conservation Service (later to be renamed Natural Resources Conservation Service). Working in Pierce County with demonstrations of Dr. F.L. Duley and Prof. J.C. Russel of the university, he learned that stubble mulch tillage methods could help manage sandy soils.

He accepted a university assignment in 1956 to address soil and water management problems of dryland farming in the Panhandle. He operated first from the Box Butte Station at Alliance (since closed), then the Scottsbluff Station at Mitchell, and finally at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center at Scottsbluff. Wheat farmers came to regard Fenster as the authority in dryland crop and soil management.

In 1966 Fenster became a full professor and extension agronomist, one of few to earn the academic rank without a doctorate degree. As he tells it, administrators felt at the time felt it was important to keep him at work in the field instead of taking courses on campus in Lincoln.

UNL dedicated the High Plains Ag Lab in 1970. But acquisition of the land and facilities was preceded by years of efforts by local individuals and groups, state government, and the U.S. Army.

An instrumental local group was the Cheyenne County Rural Area Development (RAD) Committee, especially its crops committee. Committee members, County Agent Ivan Liljegren, and State Sen. George Fleming traveled to Lincoln in 1962 to seek Ag College Dean Elvin Frolik's support for establishment of a field research laboratory. That June a delegation from East Campus, including Frolik and Herbert Kramer, director of state experiment stations for the university, toured the Sioux Army Depot several miles north of Sidney as a possible site.

The Sioux Army Depot operated from 1942 until 1967. Its mission was receiving, storing, and issuing all types of ammunition, general supplies, and materials.

When the Defense Department had announced that the depot would close, UNL and the local delegation intensified efforts to determine its suitability for a research station. Fenster created a soils map with help from the USDA Soil Conservation Service, and decided that the site was ideal. Soils at HPAL are representative of much of the High Plains of western Nebraska, he said.

The Nebraska Legislature appropriated money, the NU Board of Regents formally applied for the lands and building, and the U.S. Government made the land available. The deed and permit to initiate applications came in 1970.

UNL received 2,400 acres of land (one-third in dryland crops and two-thirds in pasture); 14  ammunition storage igloos, each 50 feet in diameter, made of reinforced concrete and covered with 3 feet of soil; two warehouse buildings; and the 42- by 114-foot headquarter building.

The HPAL research program always emphasized efficient use of soil and water and optimizing crop yields under the semi-arid conditions of the High Plains. Fenster worked with a local advisory committee that had been created from the RAD Committee.
Scientists from a range of disciplines collaborate at HPAL, including agronomy; plant breeding, physiology, and pathology; soil fertility; irrigation; entomology; weed science; marketing and economics; and livestock nutrition.

The headquarters building was instrumental in attracting researchers from the Lincoln campus and from USDA ARS to the facility, according to Fenster. And many graduate students have worked at HPAL over the years. He said the old building has served its purpose well, but was designed for a different use and cannot meet all the needs of a collaborative research facility.

The new building serves as headquarters for dryland research and extension work, but also will facilitate enhanced work with ag industries.

HPAL will be important to future research, Fenster said in a 2015 interview. He said agricultural production will be shaped by technology such as GMOs (genetically modified organisms), GPS (geographic positioning systems) and other advances.

"It might be a blessing to UNL to have this facility for potential new research to be developed," Fenster said. "If it enhances dryland work on behalf of the university in western Nebraska, go for it. The bottom line: I'd like to see it enhance the agriculture of western Nebraska."

The HPAL research program has grown and expanded. Fifty to 60 research trials are conducted each year on 27 fields ranging in size from 22 to 36 acres. Seven different crop rotations range in length from two to six years. Various cropping systems are represented, such as summer fallow, no-fallow, minimum tillage and no-tillage, to simulate the methods used by farmers in the area. In 2006, 75 acres were certified for organic production.

A 15-acre, lateral-move irrigation system enables scientists to simulate different precipitation patterns. Recent improvements in equipment include a continuous flow dryer and grain storage system that allow direct harvest of proso millet and emerging alternative crops with a stripper header.

As a satellite unit of the Panhandle Research and Extension Center at Scottsbluff, HPAL is under the leadership of Panhandle Research and Extension's Director. A faculty supervisor oversees operations at the ag lab, and the staff includes a farm manager, technicians, and graduate students. The HPAL Advisory Board provides input on research priorities.

Perhaps the biggest impact of HPAL, according to Fenster, has been the information gathered from a long-term soil management study established in 1970, overseen by Fenster and Gary Peterson, now-retired soil scientist from Colorado State University. Peterson is professor emeritus and former department head of Plant Sciences at CSU. The long-term plots compare winter wheat and soil parameters (such as the fate of nitrogen) in a variety of tillage settings, including moldboard plow, sub-tillage, and no-tillage fallow systems.

A native sod treatment has been maintained.

The long-term study has yielded a bumper crop of data. Since 1985, there have been more than 45 refereed journal papers, a number of book chapters, proceedings, and a number of graduate theses. In all, Fenster says, there have been more than 100 published pieces.

Following retirement Fenster had remained active in Nebraska agricultural circles. He lived in Gering and held the title of professor emeritus at the Panhandle Center. Charlie and his wife Eunice, who preceded him in death, also were major contributors to the university. He volunteered for the University of Nebraska Foundation and the University of Nebraska Alumni Association. He had been involved in the Farm and Ranch Museum (now Legacy of the Plains Museum) in Gering since its inception.

He was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Agricultural Achievement in 1983, and in 1991 was recognized as an honoree for the Nebraska Hall of Agricultural Achievement. In 2000 he was recognized as an honoree for the Nebraska Agribusiness Club Public's Service to Agriculture Award. He was the 2008 recipient of the Outstanding Service to Panhandle Agriculture Award.

In 2005 the Fensters endowed a major gift to establish an endowed professorship at the Panhandle Center, the Charles R. and Eunice R. Fenster Professorship Fund at the University of Nebraska Foundation.