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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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From Classroom to Field, CSU Arms Students with Practical Sustainable Ag and Land Management Skills

March 28, 2012 |

Colorado has played a central role in U.S. agriculture since the first permanent European settlement took root in southwest Colorado in the San Luis Valley in 1851. As if to underscore the importance of agriculture to the state, Colorado State University, the state’s only land-grant university, first opened its doors in 1879 under the name Colorado Agriculture College.

Over the past couple of decades, CSU has taken great strides to integrate sustainable and organic agriculture programs into their graduate and undergraduate level agriculture curriculum.

One sustainable agriculture-related program of note at CSU is the Integrated Resource Management program (IRM), which is run by the Western Center for Integrated Resource Management (WCIRM) whose long-term goal is to “improve the competitive position and sustainability of independent livestock producers and the economic and environmental health of rural communities.”

The master’s level IRM program is designed for individuals who want to become professional land-based resource managers. The program attracts operators of family-owned ranches, federal or state agency personnel, ranch managers for corporations and absentee owners, loan officers and extension personnel according to the WCIRM website.

“We teach students about the livestock management, land management and business management aspects of agriculture production,” says program Co-Director Jay Parsons. “The key word being ‘integrated’. We give equal billing to all three pillars and are careful not to deemphasize any one of them.”

The intensive, one-year program includes between 10 to 20 students from around the globe who participate in a series of 11, intensive two-week courses that require daily attendance. Each class is taught within a two-week block allowing one week off in between for practical, hands-on training. “Because students only take one class at a time, we have the opportunity to participate in a lot of field trips,” says Parsons. This is an integral part of the program. “The fact that they (the students) go through the program with such a tight cohort really allows them to get to know one another and helps the learning process.”

As livestock is one of the dominant agricultural sectors in the state of Colorado, the WCIRM program includes instruction on how to sustainably manage a livestock operation. “We primarily focus on nutrition and health with animals and how that interfaces with sustainable grazing practices,” says Parsons. “We look at the animals needs and how they change during different times of the year.”

Graduates of the program follow diverse career paths, from returning to their family farms to starting up sustainable cattle operations to participation in various other entrepreneurial endeavors.

While pursuing his degree, 2010 WCIRM graduate Geoffrey Hess developed a farm sustainability action plan for Oskar Blues Brewery in Longmont, Colorado. His plan consisted of building the Hops & Heifers Farm, a model 50-acre sustainable farm just outside of the town of Longmont to supply food for the restaurant and hops for the brewery. The overall objective for the plan was “to integrate the farm into the relationship between brewery and restaurant by converting brewery non-production outflows into locally grown food products,” wrote Hess. “What the program did for me was allow me not only to speak the business language, but put together the project plan for the Hops and Heifers Farm from A to Z,” he says.

Hess now works as Farmer Geoff for Oskar Blues Brewery and successfully manages the growth and production of high quality farm raised products that are sold direct to retail customers.

Heather Dutton, another recent WCIRM graduate, currently works as the coordinator for the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project in Alamosa, Colo. The mission of the restoration project as stated on their Web site is, “to restore and conserve the historical functions and vitality of the Rio Grande in Colorado for improved water quality, agriculture water use, riparian health, wildlife and aquatic species habitat, recreation and community safety while meeting the requirements of the Rio Grande Compact.”

According to Dutton, the Integrated Resource Management program really helped prepare her for her current job in that she now understands and appreciates how agriculture practices relate to water conservation in the state. A key area of focus and concern for Dutton and the Restoration Projection relates to getting water to the Front Range where the population of the state’s larger towns and cities is forecast to double by 2050. “The conversations that I’m fortunate to be a part of include thinking about where the water will come from, whether it be Ag transfers, rivers, farm sales or conservation, and really understanding the market and economic value of such decisions,” said Dutton.

In addition to WCIRM Integrated Resource Management program, CSU is committed to improving and growing its sustainable and organic agriculture programs across the university. For example, within the Department of Horticulture & Landscape Architecture students can receive an interdisciplinary minor in organic agriculture. This minor focuses on the science of organic production and includes courses such as, “World Interdependence – Population and Food, Greenhouse Management and Sustainable Food Issues.” The university also works to provide farmers within the state information on and training in sustainable practices and technologies through CSU Extension.

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