A low-rainfall research champion

Industry mourns passing of Dr Neil Fettell


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Dr Neil Fettell, who recently passed away, pictured in a 2011 NSW Department of Primary Industries water-use efficiency trial with GRDC investment at Condobolin, NSW. PHOTO Nicole Baxter

Dr Neil Fettell, who recently passed away, pictured in a 2011 NSW Department of Primary Industries water-use efficiency trial with GRDC investment at Condobolin, NSW. PHOTO Nicole Baxter

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Dr Neil Fettell advocated for high-quality research in Central New South Wales.

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The grains industry recently lost one of its leading lights in Dr Neil Fettell who passed away in March after a long battle with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

He was 70.

Neil became interested in agriculture as a youngster.

After coming first in NSW for agriculture and winning the Longmuir Prize for the best leaving certificate pass, he went to the University of Sydney and graduated in 1970 with first-class honours in agricultural science.

He subsequently won a CSIRO scholarship to investigate how to maximise phosphorus use by rain-fed wheat in the Condobolin district of central NSW.

Although offered a CSIRO job, Neil decided instead to become a research agronomist at the Condobolin Agricultural Research Station with the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI); a position he held for 38 years.

Neil's research spanned plant physiology, agronomy, adaptation, genetics, fallow management, stubble retention, frost, nitrogen, phosphorus, and maximising the yield and quality of rain-fed and irrigated barley, canola, wheat, oats, mustard and triticale.

In one five-year research project, Neil demonstrated a 50 per cent wheat yield increase from a long spray fallow starting in August-September compared to a short spray fallow starting in February-March.

He married his wife Shirley in 1979 and the couple settled on a 278-hectare mixed farm west of Condobolin in 1980.

He earned a Master of Agricultural Science from the University of Sydney in 1981.

Keen to remain intellectually stimulated, Neil embarked on a PhD at the University of New England (UNE), while working full-time and running his farm; graduating with his doctorate in 1992 for Yield Physiology of Triticale Under Water Deficits: A Comparison with Wheat.

Long-time research collaborator and friend, CSIRO research geneticist Dr Greg Rebetzke, says Neil was involved in some of the early germplasm selections that led to the release of Drysdale and Rees wheat.

"He had one of the brightest minds in agriculture and could make the most complex research understandable," he says.

In 1998, Neil co-founded Central West Farming Systems (CWFS) to advocate for high-quality agricultural research in the NSW Central West.

He earned a Staff Award from NSW DPI in 2000 and a GRDC Seed of Light Award in 2002 for excellence in extension and communication.

The award noted Neil was "a phenomenon in his region, respected by scientists and farmers alike, which makes him particularly valuable as a communicator of ideas".

In 2011, Neil was appointed to the GRDC Southern Panel as an authority on cropping, tillage, stubble, soil management and crop physiology.

After retiring from NSW DPI in 2012, he lectured part-time in sustainable grains production at UNE.

In 2015, he was appointed to the GRDC Northern Panel. Following retirement from the panel in 2017, Neil worked as a senior research adviser at CWFS.

To honour his contribution to the region, CWFS recently renamed its research innovation hub the Neil Fettell Centre.

Neil authored and co-authored numerous research and conference papers and spoke at countless field days, meetings and research updates.

At an event in February, more than 100 people gathered in Condobolin to say farewell and celebrate his contribution to agriculture.

GRDC managing director Dr Steve Jefferies says Neil was particularly appreciated for mentoring and challenging young cereal breeders to develop varieties that were well-adapted to low-rainfall environments.

"Neil was noted for his respect of every person," he says.

"He had a great sense of humour and an underlying passion for making a difference to the livelihoods of Australian grain growers."

Outside of work, he was passionate about family, music, rugby union, cricket, tennis, world affairs and good red wine.

Neil is survived by his wife Shirley; children Timothy, Monica, Daniel and Karen; and grandchildren Sophia and Alia.

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