CSU Extension program connects residents with university research

Every Friday night during the growing season from late June through October, fourth generation farmer Steve Ela packs up that week’s organic fruit harvest from Ela Family Farms and makes his way over the continental divide from Hotchkiss to farmers markets along the front range.
With a truck full of peaches, cherries, apples, plums, berries and heirloom tomatoes, one of his stops is the farmers market in Old Town. Here, Ela and other growers work closely with the Certified Master Gardeners and coordinators from CSU’s Extension program who organize the weekly farmers market.
CSU Extension is a statewide network which connects community members with research-based information gathered at CSU and other universities.
Ela said that as the demand for locally grown food increases and people become more aware of how it is produced, Extension’s role in connecting local growers to consumers will expand.“Extension plays a big role in making organic produce accessible to people in the area,” Ela said.
As the only land grant university in the state, CSU has a unique role in making sure the people of Colorado benefit from research done at nationally-renowned universities.Employing 370 people and organizing thousands of volunteers in a network of 61 offices serving 63 counties around the state, Extension professionals answer questions from community members on subjects from agriculture, pest management and nutrition to renewable energy, sustainability practices and personal finances.The $25.7 million dollar operating budget for Extension is funded through a combination of county, state and federal dollars, with counties pitching in 39 percent of the total.

Lou Swanson, vice president of outreach and engagement at CSU, said the flow of information works both ways. The county Extension offices are aware of the needs of local communities and bring that information to researchers and personnel at CSU, who are able to respond to the needs of each community.

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“It’s not us telling everybody ‘here’s the answer to your problem’ but to be part of the discussion and to contribute university resources to seek new solutions to public questions and problems,” Swanson said.

During the High Park Fire in Larimer County this past summer, for example, Extension assisted with a Disaster Recovery Center and distributed fact sheets to assist those affected by the fire.

The biggest program in Extension is the 4-H youth organization, Swanson said. Across the nation, 4-H is sponsored entirely by the country’s 106 land grant universities’ Extension programs.

“That’s our most impactful program if you look across the number of people,” Swanson said.

In Colorado last year, Extension worked with 103,000 youth and 11,970 4-H volunteers who contributed 1,532,160 total hours.

The Extension program has a long history of working with rural communities when it comes to agriculture and animal sciences. With a large percentage of the population situated on the Front Range, however, urban engagement is just as important as the rural areas, Swanson said.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock has embarked on a plan to reinvent how the food economy operates in the city. Currently, only one percent of food consumed in the capital comes from within 300 miles of the city. CSU Extension will play a role in helping to increase that number to upward of 20 percent through urban agriculture initiatives being considered by the mayor’s office.

The way food is grown, distributed, processed and turned to waste will be tailored to be done on a local level. The end goal is an increase in jobs and better overall sustainability practices.

Rusty Collins, director of CSU Denver Extension, said urban agriculture is a “hot button issue right now” and Extension has been able to assist the city of Denver by providing a coordinator who works with potential growers to develop a long-term business plan and move from backyard to more large scale farming.

A beginning urban farmer class is also taught for members of the public interested in areas of urban agriculture including cultivating their own plot or raising bees or chickens.

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Collins also runs the Denver Seed Task Force and has facilitated monthly meetings for the last year with approximately 20 key organizations involved with urban agriculture. The task force plans to release a summary on the progress towards the twenty percent initiative.

“We’re creating a first-of-its-kind model that will be replicated in other cities,” Collins said.

Kendra Sandoval, community liaison for the Denver mayor’s office, said if and when the initiative is implemented it would usher in a whole new growth industry with restaurants, businesses and jobs springing up across the metro area to support the twenty percent benchmark.

Sandoval said Extension has been able to bring expertise in farming, community relations and a “historical understanding of the region” to the dialogue and infrastructure of Denver’s transition to a center of urban agriculture.

“I think that CSU Extension has been so good at bridging all those together, especially with the knowledgeable staff and going out of their way to really build this urban agriculture community and train for this industry that’s coming,” Sandoval said.