Charlie Fenster: The Man for Whom the New Building at the High Plains Ag Lab is Named

East Campus pillars at enterance

July 28, 2015

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.

Charlie Fenster: The Man for Whom the New Building at the High Plains Ag Lab is Named
Charlie Fenster pauses near an agricultural display at the Legacy of the Plains Museum at Gering.

Fenster, now 96, was a dryland cropping systems specialist for UNL at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center from 1956 until retiring in 1983. He was faculty supervisor at HPAL from its establishment in 1970 until he retired 13 years later.

Fenster’s contributions will receive a permanent formal recognition on Aug. 11 during the annual High Plains Ag Lab Field Day, when a new building completed in 2014 will be named for him. The day’s events will begin with lunch, followed by a ceremony to name the Charles R. Fenster Building. A tour of the plots will follow the ceremony.

Although he’s been retired for more than 30 years, Fenster remains active. On most days he can 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 attends field days and similar events when he is able.

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 severe wind erosion, into the more productive, sustainable conservation tillage systems used today. 

He 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 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 headquarters 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. 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 will serve as a headquarters for dryland research and extension work, but also will facilitate enhanced work with ag industries.

HPAL will be important to future research, according to Fenster. 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 Director: Dr. Jack Whittier. The current faculty supervisor is Dr. Dipak Santra. The facility manager is Rob Higgins. Keith Rexroth, a Sidney farmer, is chair of the Advisory Board. Other staff include Paul McMillen, Animal Science Technician, and Vernon Florke, Alternative Crop Breeding Technician.

Higgins is the facility’s seventh manager. The other six managers include Gerald Moline, John C. Bishop, Robert J. Walter, Jim Cederburg and Ken Barton in the initial five years. Then, for 40 years, Tom Nightingale had been manager before retiring in early 2015.

Wheat research will be conducted by the new dryland cropping systems specialist at the Panhandle Center, Cody Creech. His research technician is Travis Orrell.

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.

Since retirement Fenster has remained active in Nebraska agricultural circles. He lives in Gering and holds the title of professor emeritus at the Panhandle Center. Charlie and his late wife Eunice have also been major contributors to the university. He has volunteered for the University of Nebraska Foundation and the University of Nebraska Alumni Association. He has 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. 

Dave Ostdiek
UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center

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