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New High Plains Ag Lab building named for Fenster
August 20, 2015 Jerry Purvis   

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Photo by Dave Ostdiek/UNL Communications - Posing with the new sign at the Charles R. Fenster Building are Charlie Fenster (immediately to the right of the sign) along with (from left) Jack Whittier, director of the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center; Gary Hergert, UNL soils specialist who was interim director at the Panhandle Center when the new building was dedicated; Cody Creech, current dryland cropping systems specialist at the Panhandle Center; Dipak Santra, faculty supervisor of High Plains Ag Lab and alternative crops breeder for UNL; Gary Peterson, retired soils specialist at Colorado State University who collaborated with Fenster on research at HPAL for many years; and Keith Rexroth of Sidney, chair of the building committee and High Plains Ag Lab Advisory Committee.

Las week, a Gering resident was recognized for his groundbreaking work into making crops grow better on the arid High Plains of western Nebraska.

On Aug. 11 the new office and laboratory building at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln High Plains Agricultural Laboratory (HPAL) near Sidney was named the Charles R. Fenster Building in recognition of Charles Fenster, a pioneering UNL researcher into dryland cropping systems in the Nebraska Panhandle and High Plains region.

It was a local group that originally requested the building name. IANR Vice Chancellor Ronnie Green, Chancellor Harvey Perlman and Interim President James Linder all endorsed the idea. After going through university channels, Dr. Jack Whittier, UNL Research and Extension Director for the Panhandle District, made the announcement at the annual meeting of the High Plains Ag Lab Advisory Committee last January.

“I told Ronnie Green they could put my name on it only if they were committed to ongoing research into dryland cropping and extension services in western Nebraska,” Fenster said. “That’s their most important work in the Panhandle area.”

About 150 people attended the HPAL Field Day on Aug. 11 when the building was dedicated. As usual, it was windy.

Fenster co-wrote more than 100 journal articles about the challenges of growing crops in dryland areas. They have been published around the country and internationally. And that led him to visit countries around the world to explain dryland cropping to local agriculturalists. Many of the techniques he developed are widely used throughout the world and provide the foundation for today’s conservation tillage movement. His research also established a connection between optimum date of wheat seeding and elevation.
Fenster began his career with UNL in 1956 as a crop management specialist and conducted research into controlling wind erosion. In 1966 Fenster became a full-time professor and extension agronomist until retiring in 1982.

“One of my biggest accomplishments was teamwork in getting the university staff from Lincoln and the Agricultural Research Service together to solve the dryland erosion problems we experience in western Nebraska,” he said. “The first thing you need to do for soil conservation is to make crops grow. If you have good crops growing, the soil will stay in place.”

His research made a big difference in the area. Until 1956, yields for winter wheat were only about 11 bushels an acre. From 1956 to 1982, yields went up to 33 bushels an acre. And today it’s more than 40 bushels an acre.

“This building is important because it will be a central location to help develop some of the teamwork necessary to solve some of our environmental problems,” Fenster said.

Although he’s now retired, Fenster remains active in Nebraska agricultural circles. He holds the title of professor emeritus at the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center and has been a major contributor to the university.

In 2005, he and his late wife, Eunice, established the Panhandle Station’s first endowed professorship. The Charles R. and Eunice R. Fenster Professorship Fund at the University of Nebraska Foundation provides an annual stipend to a full-time faculty member working on dryland cropping systems, new crop development, pest management or other practices relevant to dryland crop producers.

In 1988, Fenster became one of the founders of what would become the Farm And Ranch Museum. The museum later merged with the North Platte Valley Museum to form the Legacy of the Plains Museum, and he’s been a volunteer since day one.

Working with the Legacy of the Plains Museum and university resources, he created one of the museum’s major exhibits, “Breaking the Ground: The Evolution of Farming in the Panhandle of Nebraska Through 2002.” He called it “the story of my professional life.”
In addition to regular volunteering at Legacy of the Plains, Fenster has been active as a long-time member of the Gering Parks and Tree Board. That group works toward improving the city’s park system and encourages tree planting through various workshops and education activities, especially around Arbor Day.

Fenster has also been the recipient of many other honors. 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 Service to Agriculture Award. He was the 2008 winner of the UNL Outstanding Service to Panhandle Agriculture Award.

The university’s Dr. Whittier was quick to recognize Fenster for his career of service to the improvement of dryland ag production. “Charlie is well-known and highly respected for his work in dryland cropping systems and minimum tillage production practices focused on wheat. Charlie initiated a research program immediately after HPAL was established as an experiment station,” Whittier said. “We believe naming this building in his honor would be an appropriate and meaningful tribute to his career and support of the University of Nebraska and its mission.”
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