Wortmann retires after decades of work in sub-saharan Africa and Nebraska

Charles Wortmann
Charles Wortmann, University of Nebraska–Lincoln agronomy and horticulture professor and Nebraska Extension soil and nutrient management specialist, will retire May 31 after a 20-year career at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
May 4, 2021

Lincoln, Neb. —Charles Wortmann, University of Nebraska–Lincoln agronomy and horticulture professor and Nebraska Extension soil and nutrient management specialist, will retire May 31 after a 20-year career at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. A virtual retirement reception will be held May 13 from 2 to 3 p.m., CDT, via Zoom. Friends and colleagues can leave a note or photo memory in the online guestbook.

A native of Hartington, Nebraska, Wortmann’s prestigious career has focused on improving nutrient management, soil conservation and the environmental integrity of crop production systems in sub-Saharan Africa and Nebraska.

Human and institutional enhancement for research and Extension on smallholder agriculture in Africa has been Wortmann’s career priority. He has spent over 35 years working on improving soil fertility and soil conservation in Sub-Saharan Africa. His collaborative work with researchers, Extension specialists, multi-national research networks and farm advisors in planning, designing and implementing information exchange has strengthened the expertise needed for leadership in providing sustainable solutions for African farmers.

“His success and significant impact on two continents, in highly different cropping environments, is unique. His work has made distinct differences for crop producers from Nebraska to Rwanda,” said Richard Ferguson, professor of agronomy and horticulture and Vice Chancellor of Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture.

Wortmann graduated from Nebraska in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in agronomy. He then moved to Tanzania when he received a 3-year contract to work as an agriculturist to help improve crop production and upgrade dairy production. With no previous experience in tropical agriculture, Wortmann said he had a lot to learn about the many nutritional, disease and insect pests challenges of tropical agriculture. The Merck Veterinary Manual was one especially valuable information source. The very severe financial constraints of smallholder farmers added to the challenge.

He spent the first months in Africa in language school learning Swahili, in which he is fluent.

Because of the many issues with the soil in Africa, Wortmann returned to Nebraska to complete a master’s degree in soil science advised by the late Robert Olson, professor of agronomy and soil fertility specialist.

After finishing a master’s degree in 1979, Wortmann worked as an independent crop consultant, walking in corn and soybean fields every day.

“It was a great learning experience, but that one opportunity was enough for me,” Wortmann said. “Luckily an opportunity came up to return to Tanzania for 3 more years.”

His next position was working on a World Bank funded project for two years as an advisor with the Agricultural Extension service in Tanzania.

“The work was very hard at that time because the economy was very bad that even getting fuel was difficult,” Wortmann said.

He returned to Nebraska to obtain a doctoral degree in crop science working on sorghum breeding with emeritus professors of agronomy David Andrews and Jerry Eastin. Wortmann completed his degree in 1987.

Next he returned to Africa to work for CIAT, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, in cropping systems agronomy and soil management. Based in Uganda and focusing mostly on dry bean production systems, Wortmann worked with national research and extension programs in 11 countries with very different environments that required unique cropping systems to grow the many different crops.

In 2001, Wortmann was hired by Nebraska for a position in soil fertility management research and Extension after the family returned to Nebraska so their kids could attend high school in the United States.

While his primary responsibility was to work for the improvement of Nebraska crop production, he was soon able to get funding to continue with collaborative work in Africa. Wortmann and Martha Mamo, department head and John E. Weaver Professor of Agronomy and Horticulture, Robert B. Daugherty Global Water for Food Fellow and African Scientific Institute Fellow, received a grant in 2002 with USAID International Sorghum and Millet Collaborative Research Support Program to support a five-country sorghum research network in eastern Africa. This collaboration continued until 2012 and resulted in improved crop and soil management practices on sorghum production in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda. The work focused on appropriate targeting and use of fertilizers, reduced tillage and tie-ridge tillage, and planting patterns for increased productivity together with improved soil and water conservation. The project achieved great impact in improved fertilizer use, seed variety adoption and reduced tillage through training workshops, on-farm trials and demos, field days and facilitation of input supply and markets.

“Charles Wortmann‘s extensive agricultural research and extension experiences were key to the success of the USAID INTSORMIL program. This collaboration has continued to help cultivate linkages with partners in eastern Africa,” Mamo said.

Wortmann was instrumental in developing and implementing the 13-nation network, later extended to 15 countries, for Optimized Fertilizer Recommendations in Africa for 14 food crops. OFRA provided a scientific basis for nutrient management in Africa to target small-scale farmer’s use of precious fertilizer to get the highest profits possible. This research network of about 50 research teams resulted in numerous publications and resources including a book in multiple languages that is now used as a training reference for extension workers who engage with ORFA extension programs.

“Most farmers are very poor and need high profit from their investments in fertilizer use. Use of the fertilizer use decision tools developed for 72 recommendation zones enables the crop-nutrient-rate choices for maximization of farmer’s profit gained from their investment,” Wortmann said.

“Despite the challenge of both funding and implementing an applied, field-oriented research effort in SSA, Dr. Wortmann has established a well-funded program, a prolific publication record, and a large number of ex-students who are now highly regarded soil scientists and agronomists in SSA.

“Most important, his work has resulted in improved soil management and conservation, and the education of thousands of farmers and hundreds of farm advisors in SSA on these topics,” said Kenneth Cassman, emeritus Robert B. Daugherty Professor of Agronomy.

Wortmann’s research and Extension contributions in Nebraska in advanced crop-soil management and natural resource protection are also numerous. His efforts to improve nutrient recommendations and management for Nebraska crops, including efficient utilization of manure resources, has led to the adoption of improved practices in fertilizer use recommendations including crop reside nutrient value and reducing nitrogen leaching into ground water.

His most recent study with the 23 Natural Resources Districts in 2020 looked at the supply of essential nutrients and liming supply from irrigation across the state. The supplies are sufficient to greatly affect fertilizer and lime use decisions. The results, guidelines for testing of water and using the information were reported to farmers and other stakeholders in 28 Extension events.

“When Dr. Wortmann retires, most Nebraskans involved with growing crops or utilizing manure will not realize how reliant they have been on the research and Extension tools that he has produced over his career at the University of Nebraska,” said Charles Shapiro, emeritus professor of agronomy.

“Dr. Wortmann has a hand in all the soil nutrient recommendations we use. He has contributed to manure management in many ways, and his graduate students are located worldwide, making impacts of their own.”

But the defining feature of Wortmann’s contributions to agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa is that so many of his ex-students and collaborators are currently active and at the forefront of integrated nutrient management in Africa. Many of his Nebraska graduate students were international students who returned to their home country better equipped to solve important challenges. He has also advised many other students who studied at African universities and has contributed to the education of thousands of African farmers and farm advisors.

Wortmann has received numerous awards throughout his career. He is most proud of receiving the American Society of Agronomy International Agronomy Award in 2018 and Fellow of the American Society of Agronomy in 2011. He has also been nominated for Soil Science Society Fellow and the International Soil Science Society Award.

“Dr. Wortmann is the only colleague I would ‘suspend’ my retirement to nominate for Tri-Society awards,” Shapiro said.

Wortmann’s passion for agriculture and Africa will keep him busy post-retirement. He plans to volunteer in Africa, working for the sake of agriculture and continue collaborating in research, advising graduate students and writing.

Lana Koepke Johnson | Agronomy and Horticulture