Francis to retire after 45 years at Nebraska

by Fran tenBensel Benne | Agronomy and Horticulture

Charles “Chuck” Francis
Charles “Chuck” Francis, University of Nebraska–Lincoln professor in agronomy and horticulture, will retire June 30 after a 45-year career at Nebraska.
June 15, 2022

Lincoln, Neb. —Charles “Chuck” Francis, University of Nebraska–Lincoln professor in agronomy and horticulture, will retire June 30 after a 45-year career at Nebraska.

A reception in his honor will take place from 3 to 5 p.m. June 17 in the Goodding Learning Center. Cake will be served, and a program will begin at 3:30 p.m. Friends and colleagues can leave a note or photo memory in the online guestbook.

A native of Modesto in the San Joaquin Valley, Calif., Francis grew up in a family of educators before attending the University of California, Davis, and spending two years in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps in Maryland.

Following this, Francis’ prestigious career was focused on crop production and farming systems methods, and demonstrating these to farmers. Over the years, his interests broadened to include local and global food systems, as well as equity and access to quality food by all people, and the land available to grow crops by all interested rural and urban populations.

“It is hard to put into words the lasting impact that Chuck has had and will continue to have,” Tiffany Heng-Moss, Dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, said. “He has inspired, led by example, and taught us to strive to become the best of ourselves in all ways and for that, we are forever indebted to him.”

Francis started at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln as a full-time researcher in sorghum breeding in 1977. He soon added a teaching role in an introductory plant breeding course, and after returning from a brief time at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, he became a specialist in cropping systems for Nebraska Extension. That broadened into working with the sustainable agriculture system program and over the past 20 years into teaching and research in farming systems.

He has been an agronomist and plant breeder in research, extension and teaching with interests in efficient cropping systems, cover crops, rotations, spatially diverse field designs and integrated crop/animal systems. In agroecology and sustainable food systems, his interests have expanded to whole-farm planning, sustainable practices and farming systems in watershed design, on-farm and participatory research and educational activities, and collaborative research design.

Interested in participatory and experiential education, Francis taught several courses at Nebraska; in a Midwest consortium with Iowa State University, Dordt University and the University of Minnesota; and at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

He has been vitally concerned about future farming systems, the role of diversity and integrated resource management, value-added enterprises and products, and relationships of small and moderate-scale family farms to viable rural communities. In 2014, he initiated a course called Land Grabs in the Global South. He also taught courses in agroecology, organic farming, agroecosystems analysis and urbanization of rural landscapes — land loss in the U.S.

“I wanted to help students explore one of the defining food system issues of our time, to learn more about equity and accessibility to food and resources, and to understand that all cultures are not like our own,” Francis said.

He has advised over 125 students for Master of Science and doctoral degrees at Nebraska, over 35 students for the Master of Science degrees in Norway and served on graduate committees for numerous others in the United States and in Europe.

“Endurance is a quality Chuck Francis possesses,” Don Lee, professor of agronomy and horticulture, said. “I was impressed by his relentless effort to grow his teaching program. Chuck recognized the opportunity to share his wisdom and challenge our students with courses like agroecology.”

Francis said his major goals at Nebraska were to project enthusiasm and competence in the course subject matter and to generate interest among students in gaining capacity for autonomous and lifelong learning.

“I strove to make the courses relevant to current local and global issues, and to help students make connections between what we were discussing in class with the real-world, and with the often ‘wicked problems’ that confront society,” Francis said.

When asked about his career, Francis said he’s most proud of two areas that reflect the value of relevant education and the application to society’s challenges.

First, is the number of undergraduate and graduate students who were part of several learning communities in classes at Nebraska and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, and how they worked together on course projects and took ideas from the classroom to the larger community. He had over 150 advised graduate students who completed degrees in Nebraska and Norway and went on to careers in teaching, research and other directions in the private and public sectors in their careers.

“The idea of co-learning is becoming more accepted in academia and points the way to a future with students becoming more engaged in the learning process and taking a higher degree of ownership in their own outcomes and applications,” he said.

Second, is the success of the agroecology program in Norway and eight new programs that were initiated in agroecology because of Francis and his colleagues’ teaching, demonstrations and publications on learning methods and course content. With support from SIDA, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Francis and colleagues were instrumental in starting similar Master of Science programs in agroecology at Mekelle University in northern Ethiopia, at Uganda Martyrs University in Kampala and at SLU, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Ultuna. Additional programs were established at the University of Calcutta and the University of Kerala in India, the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, and the University of Santiago, Chile.

“Chuck’s relentless curiosity, genuine interest in others, and openness to failing — and learning from it — have been highlights of having him as a mentor,” Ali Loker, a Doctor of Plant Health student, said. “I admire Chuck’s dedication to thinking outside the box and encouraging others to challenge their own assumptions. I think he has helped many of us grow and consider how we can make the world a better place.”

Francis has a bachelor’s degree in agronomy from the University of California, Davis, and a master’s degree and a doctoral degree from Cornell University in plant breeding. His graduate research was in the Philippines and in Colombia, each time with the national maize research programs and involving farmers.

He was director of three programs at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia and director of the Center for Sustainable Agricultural Systems at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Francis has been an active member and proceedings editor of the European Network on Organic Agriculture and Agroecology since 2007. He contributed to the founding of and served as director of the International Program at Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. He served on the board of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and helped organize the Grain Place Foundation in Marquette, Neb., where he is on the board of directors.

Francis has published in teaching, research and extension including 253 reviewed journal articles and book reviews, 77 book chapters, 27 workshop proceedings, 123 symposium and workshop papers, 209 published abstracts, 514 other publications and he authored or edited 23 books.

He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Society of Agronomy, and Crop Science Society of America. He also has received numerous awards including the Sustainable Agriculture Educator Award from the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Hero Award, Seventh Generation Lifetime Service Award (with Barbara Francis) from Center Rural Affairs, National Education Quality Award from Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, Honorary Doctor of Science Degree from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, CASNR Distinguished Teaching Award, All-University Excellence in Education Award from NMBU and Honorary Doctor of Science Degree from Helsinki University, Finland.

After retirement, Francis plans to continue advising students at Nebraska and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and collaborate with the NMBU Agroecology Teaching Program each year during the fall semester. He looks forward to traveling in the United States, Europe, Latin America and elsewhere to observe farming and food systems, meet new people and learn about other cultures.