Charles Francis: NCR-SARE Hero

May 15, 2018
Charles Francis

Coordinated by the NCR-SARE Alumni Organization, the term "NCR-SARE Hero" recognizes the leadership, vision, contributions, and impact that certain people have made in the field of sustainable agriculture in the region.

Charles (Chuck) Francis has more than four decades of experience working in sustainable agriculture and agroecology. Holding a bachelor’s degree in agronomy from the University of California, Davis and a master’s and doctoral degree from Cornell University in plant breeding, Francis started his career at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) in 1977 after completing his graduate research in the Philippines and in Colombia, and conducting research and training in the International Center for Tropical Agriculture for seven years.

Francis is a professor in UNL’s Department of Agronomy and Horticulture with research, extension, and teaching interests in efficient cropping systems, cover crops, rotations, spatially diverse field designs, integrated crop/animal systems, whole-farm planning, sustainable practices, and farming systems in watershed design, on-farm and participatory research and educational activities, and collaborative research design. He has been director of the International Program for the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania and director of the Center for Sustainable Agricultural Systems at UNL.

Francis is a highly energetic and enthusiastic sustainable agriculture and agroecology advocate, educator, promoter, and author. His publications include 240 peer reviewed papers, 72 book chapters, 202 abstracts, 23 books (as editor or author), and 324 symposium and workshop papers. In addition to participating in more than 15 SARE grant projects, Francis served on the NCR-SARE Technical Committee, and co-authored the 2005 publication, “Evaluation and Perceived Impacts of the North Central Region SARE Grants, 1988-2002” with John E. Barbuto Jr and Shirley K. Trout, which helped stakeholders understand the ways in which programs could add value and where they could be improved to better serve the program’s constituents.

Among his numerous awards, Francis has received honorary doctoral degrees from Helsinki University in 1999 and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in 2015 due to his development of curricula within sustainable agriculture and agroecology. He received the International Service in Agronomy Award from the American Society of Agronomy in 2002, the 2009 Educator’s Award from the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association, and a 2012 Distinguished Teaching Award from the College Agriculture and Natural Resources at UNL.

Leaders in sustainable agriculture offered tributes as Francis was nominated and selected to receive this recognition, including:

  • "Anyone who gets to know Chuck Francis cannot help but be enamored with him. First, his knowledge of and accomplishments in sustainable and regenerative agriculture are remarkable, by impact and magnitude. I am faculty at UNL and Chuck has done (at least) two great service for me personally: he is the best teacher I have ever met (and I try my best to capture his style), and he cemented my own conversion (begun by my daughters) from Big Ag devotee to sustainable agriculture proponent. My guess is that Chuck has done this for many folks. And Chuck has been a sustainable ag advocate, exemplar, and educator extraordinaire for students and learners around the world. Second, Chuck is simply a genuinely nice person. He and his wife Barbara devote countless volunteer hours to the Lincoln community through the local Audubon Society, native prairie rehabilitation, and sponsoring speakers on all topics. He even opens up his evening courses at UNL to the Lincoln community at large without charge just so others can learn. In short, Chuck is always putting himself out there. There is an irony about Chuck’s recognition as NCR SARE Alumni Hero. Chuck told me that his research career began after his drafting into the Army. His job? Develop and field test Agent Orange-like defoliants for warfare purposes. Chuck…you have come a long way!" - Jim Keen, Associate Professor, School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  • "Chuck Francis exemplifies that which an organic farmer can best hope for in an academic. Chuck is approachable, educated in soil, systems and the agronomics, as well as the community aspects of farming and culture. Chuck is widely diverse in his personal and teaching experiences, observant of and connected to folks on every level...academics, educators, non-profit efforts, beginning and experienced organic/regenerative/working farmers, as well as being open and engaging with students that may pass in his sphere for five minutes or five classes, as evidenced by what we see in the classroom when we speak there, at market, at ag conferences and events. We value Chuck's presence in our greater farming communities and all that he brings to it. Graciously listening and enthusiastically offering insights (still after so many years of educating others), Chuck, and so often his wonderful wife Barb also, is interwoven vitally and completely within and through the sustainable ag community (larger and smaller, nearer and farther). - Ruth Chantry and Evrett Lunquist, organic farmers, Nebraska
  • "Chuck is distinctive in that he is always open to new ideas, has high expectations for himself and others, really cares for and appreciates students and faculty, has almost boundless energy, and is always pushing us to publish the next article and increase the visibility of ideas that can increase agricultural sustainability. It has been a real joy and privilege to have him as a mentor and colleague." - Robb De Haan, Professor of Environmental Studies, Dordt College
  • "I want to honor Chuck for the impact he has made in teaching agroecology. You can read his papers and book chapters, but the best way to learn from Chuck is to work side-by-side with him in the "classroom", which could be in a barn, a field, a conference room, or a van. Since 1999, Chuck and I have been a part of a team of five instructors, teaching a summer agroecology analysis course in NW Iowa. I admire Chuck in many ways, but the time we have spent facilitating this class has allowed me to learn “balance.” Chuck is skillful at balancing self-discovery and guided learning, intentionality and spontaneity, asking questions and answering questions, listening and observing with a closed mouth and an open mind, and looking for possibilities and not just "the right” answer. Chuck has taught me about the food system, about the culture in agriculture, and helped me understand the whole while viewing the parts. - Mary Wiedenhoeft, Professor of Agronomy, Iowa State University
  • "Chuck is a kind, gentle person of high integrity (character and competence) who has devoted his life to living his values. He is an inspiration and mentor to me and so many other people – drawing us in as valued colleagues and co-authors. I’ve had the pleasure of co-learning with Chuck in an experiential agroecology field course for over 15 years. He sees the bigger, societal picture and gently moves others towards that vision. Chuck is a prolific writer who profoundly shaped the efforts in sustainable agriculture both nationally and internationally. He tells the story of being confronted by a more conventional agronomist who said to him 'I can’t tell if you are a researcher or an activist' – to which Chuck replied 'thank you.' His legacy will live on for generations through those he has touched." - Paul Porter, Professor of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, University of Minnesota

The NCR-SARE Hero Recognition honors individuals who 1) have provided service to NCR-SARE or national SARE, 2) have shown leadership in sustainable agriculture locally and regionally, and 3) have made lasting impacts to sustainability in the North Central region. 

NCR-SARE is one of four regional offices that run the SARE program, a nationwide grants and education program to advance sustainable innovation to American agriculture. Since 1988, NCR-SARE has helped advance farming systems that are profitable, environmentally sound and good for communities through a nationwide research and education grants program. The program, part of USDA's National Institute for Food and Agriculture, funds projects and conducts outreach designed to improve agricultural systems.

Related Locations: North Central