Before there was a state of Colorado, there was an institution dedicated to helping farmers and ranchers and their families reap the benefits of the latest research in “agriculture and the mechanic arts.” What is now known as Colorado State University is still fulfilling that mission a century and a half later and has since grown to support residents in so many ways that the founders of Colorado Agricultural College never even dreamed of in 1870. 

Through its Office of Engagement and Extension, CSU is expanding access to education and empowering lifelong learning, from youth development and certificate programs to online degrees and noncredit classes. OEE research partnerships bring best practices to the state’s entrepreneurs, whether they are on the farm or launching a small business in the big city. Specialists work within their communities to help residents plan for, respond to, and recover from natural disasters. And through a network of offices serving all of Colorado’s 64 counties, anyone can tap into the knowledge and resources of a world-class university. 

Even if you don’t recognize CSU’s Office of Engagement and Extension by name, you’re probably familiar with its work. You might have seen 4-H youth and their projects at the county fair or exchanged plant advice with a Master Gardener. Maybe you identified a bug in your backyard using a fact sheet you found online or enjoyed homemade food from a farmers market, without giving a second thought to the training that ensured it was safe to eat.

The goal of this statewide outreach is to help all Coloradans thrive – physically, mentally, and financially.

“From the Front Range and Eastern Plains to the mountains, valleys, and the Western Slope, CSU can meet you where you are,” says Kathay Rennels, interim vice president of the Office of Engagement and Extension. “OEE can be your classroom, your kitchen, your laboratory, your garden, your past, and your plan for the future. We are your neighbors.” 

Here are just a few examples of how your neighbors are serving Colorado communities.  

From farm to table, community to campus

In 2021, the CSU System Board of Governors invested $8.58 million to expand support for rural Colorado students and communities. The investment has funded the hiring of regional and statewide Extension specialists who facilitate programs in accessible education, improved health, vibrant communities, and economic development.

“By adding regional specialists on the ground in rural communities, we can better support existing staff there and better co-create community-driven work between campus and the communities,” says Nicole Didero, an Extension western regional specialist. 

Libby Christensen understands the need. When she was a county-based Extension specialist, she wanted to participate in many regional projects but needed to focus on top priorities in her county. Now, as the statewide food and ag specialist through the Rural Initiative, she’s able to say yes to bigger projects, support county specialists, and build partnerships across counties.

Those partnerships start by listening to communities.

“With these new positions, there’s been a lot of listening to stakeholders,” Christensen says. “These positions have had the flexibility to think thoroughly about how to respond to challenges that were identified and reach into campus in new ways that we haven’t necessarily done in the past.”

Both Christensen and Didero are focused on helping rural economies thrive through food and agriculture.

“Food and agriculture is a way that we can see immediate linkages between rural and urban residents because everyone eats,” Christensen says. “It’s a coming to the table, a conversation starter that allows us to break down some of these historical perceived barriers of the difference between rural and urban communities.”

Christensen and Didero have found that Coloradans are interested in value-added ag products, or products that have been enhanced from their original form, such as fruit turned into jam or meat processed to make it more convenient for the consumer.

“What we’re seeing in lots of different corners of rural Colorado is this excitement and energy around food products and in sourcing Colorado ingredients to make Colorado products,” Christensen says.

Meeting people where they are

Hunting is an economic driver for tourism in the northwestern part of the state, but regional processing facilities can’t keep up with simultaneous needs of livestock and wild game producers. 

The increased demand for processing also is fueled by a growing desire for local and regional meat products, according to feedback gathered from the 173 attendees at the Mountain Meat Summit, hosted by CSU, and focus groups organized by the Northwest Colorado Development Council. 

“There’s an innate level of trust and value for meat products coming from northwestern Colorado,” Christensen says.

Christensen is leading a feasibility study synthesizing regional data and global market dynamics to determine how to increase the capacity of existing processors. In addition to providing a resource for producers, who will be able to use the study data to apply for federal capacity-building grants, Christensen hopes consumers will benefit through an increase in high-quality, locally sourced meat.

One issue that must be addressed to increase capacity is labor. Meat processing is skilled labor, and there aren’t a lot of folks who are willing to do that work, Christensen says. 

She is working with faculty in CSU’s Department of Animal Sciences, who currently provide training for the meat industry, to explore the potential of expanding training opportunities in partnership with community colleges.

“The nature of these [Rural Initiative] positions is thinking about how to meet people where they are,” Christensen says. “I’m trying to create opportunities for partners to cross the perceived divide between rural and urban through conversations, events, and programs. I think that is what’s really beneficial about this initiative.”

Added value for producers

Warm days and cool nights make the Western Slope a produce powerhouse. But, even with ideal growing conditions, not every piece of fruit or vegetable is going to be perfect. 

What’s a grower to do with undersized or otherwise imperfect produce? Economically, it might make the most sense to drop it on the ground and let it nourish next season’s yield. Given enough time, labor, and the right equipment, growers could process it into a value-added product, such as cider, jam, or dried fruit, to diversify their income and extend their season. But adding that value comes with risk. 

Thanks to an Economic Development Administration grant secured by CSU agricultural economics Professor Dawn Thilmany and Delta County Administrator Robbie LeValley, CSU is piloting a study with Food Bank of the Rockies to assess the viability of dehydration as a value-added activity for fruit “seconds” in the region. Dehydrating perishing produce cuts down on waste and creates shelf-stable, nutritious forms of fruit and vegetables available year-round. 

The Western Slope branch of the Food Bank of the Rockies already dehydrates fruit to distribute to clients experiencing hunger – in fact, it has the only dehydration program among the 200 Feeding America food banks. The expensive dehydration equipment was a worthwhile investment for FBR because the nonprofit spends so much on produce – in money, labor, and infrastructure – during fruit season. 

The pilot study will test a fee-for-service model, where FBR will use a portion of its equipment capacity to dehydrate and package producers’ lower-grade fruits for a fee and then return the products to the growers to sell at local markets. The goal is to benefit both the food bank and producers by creating new sources of revenue without detracting from the mission of hunger relief.

“This is a novel idea, for a nonprofit that handles food for food insecurity to switch gears and temporarily become a manufacturer of a product that’s going to be sold at a farmers market,” says Amanda McQuade, community food systems program coordinator at the CSU Western Colorado Research Center, who leads the pilot project with Didero. “That’s not necessarily intuitive, but it could meet a lot of the needs for both partners.”

Aside from the cost of diverting and transporting their produce, producers will not have to pay for dehydration services during the pilot study. They also will get feedback from consumer taste panels held at the Food Innovation Center at the CSU Spur campus in Denver.  

“This project will allow us to add another layer of partnership to our work with small producers in a mutually beneficial way,” says Colleen Daszkiewicz, FBR’s perishable purchasing manager. “It will help them expand their businesses and become another source of local Colorado produce for Food Bank of the Rockies.”

If FBR chooses not to pursue fee-for-service dehydration after the pilot study, they still can be a resource for other Feeding America nonprofits and commercial kitchens in the area that are interested in their own dehydration programs. McQuade is hopeful that even if this project doesn’t work out, conversations between FBR and producers could lead to other partnerships.

“We’re putting people in the same room to start having these conversations,” she says. “That’s why this is important and why CSU is in a unique position to make this happen.”

Extension and the 11 Agricultural Experiment Station research centers, part of CSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences, partner on such projects across Colorado to help co-create knowledge to address challenges and support thriving communities around the state.  

“My job is about community development,” Didero explains. “We help address problems with an inquiry-based mindset so that we can provide research-based knowledge. The Agricultural Experiment Stations focus on agricultural research, and we work together to make sure it is driven by community needs.”

Art of Ranching 

In 1908, 22-year-old Adaline Johnson homesteaded 160 acres in Routt County outside Steamboat Springs. She married neighbor John Monger in 1909, and they worked the land, raised sheep, grew barley and wheat, and had six kids. 

Johnson did not survive the 1918 flu epidemic, but her property has stayed in the family. Her great-granddaughter, Krista Monger, now runs the ranch with her husband and parents.

The Monger ranch’s story is one of 16 so far preserved through the Art of Ranching community history project conducted by 4-H youth in collaboration with ranchers.

“We’re contributing to keeping these stories of the ranchers and the land [alive] and making sure that isn’t lost,” says Sean Nelson, a CSU history student working on the Art of Ranching through an Extension internship. 

The project is led by 4-H Extension specialist Tami Eggers and history Professor Leisl Carr Childers. They are working with History Colorado and Colorado Encyclopedia to publish the stories for posterity.

Art of Ranching is one of many vibrant communities efforts launched through the Rural Initiative. Envisioned by Eggers in Routt County, the project has expanded to Douglas and Larimer counties, with many other areas interested in launching their own version.

Eggers, Carr Childers, and Extension interns have created a how-to manual so other 4-H groups can replicate the project: 4-H youth research the history of the land, interview the rancher, write a narrative, and present their work.

“We have a few open-ended questions, but we really want to hear their unique story,” Eggers says. “There’s an art to every ranch.”

Carr Childers specializes in oral history and researches public land use and ranching in the West.

“A ranch is a property, but it’s also people,” Carr Childers says. “It’s a set of activities that’s not confined to livestock.”

Firsthand accounts provide insight into rural life, including agriculture, migration, labor, social dynamics, and environmental changes. Oral history emphasizes personal experiences and adds a human element to the historical narrative.

“We’re building a process that will help solidify the community going forward, because that’s what intergenerational storytelling does,” Carr Childers says. “It helps them understand where the community has been and where it’s going.”

Past Art of Ranching Extension interns Dale Mize (M.A., ’23) and Jacie Rex (M.A., ’22) are still involved in the project. Mize is now a doctoral student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Rex is a CSU Extension specialist in Douglas County.

“Being a part of something that provides educational opportunities in nontraditional ways is incredibly meaningful,” Rex says. “That’s why I have stayed with Extension. I think there is power in education.”

Renaissance in retirement

John Blair (B.A., ’74) didn’t know what he wanted to do when he retired in 2015 from his career as a trust officer, but he knew he wanted to stay busy. Eight years later, Blair is active and engaged in subjects he never considered exploring. His days are filled with classes, book clubs, writing, socializing, and language lessons. 

Blair and his wife, Anne (B.S., ’76), are two of the most active members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, offered through the Office of Engagement and Extension at the Fort Collins South Campus and online. OLLI is open to all adult learners but geared toward those 50 and older. 

During spring term, Blair took classes every day. 

“It’s just been an outstanding experience,” he says. “I don’t want to miss a class because I might miss an opportunity.”

Noncredit OLLI classes provide mental exercise and socialization, something Blair considers to be especially important as he ages.

“This is my extended family in a way,” he says of his OLLI classmates and instructors. 

Blair came to CSU in 1971 to study social science and has been involved with the University in some way ever since. He has served on two advisory councils, and he and his wife established scholarships in their respective colleges – Liberal Arts for John, Health and Human Sciences for Anne. They met while attending CSU. 

Blair says he recommends OLLI “to everybody I can think of all the time,” but he can’t name a favorite class because he has enjoyed so many. Some recent favorites include wine-tasting and poetry, but he also has found archaeology, history, birding, and meditation courses rewarding.

“My last class was ‘Breathing with Trees,’ which I never anticipated what that might be, so that’s why I took the class,” he says, adding that communing with nature during class was enjoyable.

Blair eagerly anticipates the next term’s catalog, with more than 100 courses to choose from, and respects the knowledgeable and passionate instructors, some of whom are faculty emeriti. 

At 88 years old, Henry Weisser, who taught history at CSU for 39 years, now teaches OLLI history classes. The Blairs and Weisser are examples of the well-being gained by staying mentally sharp and socially engaged after retirement.

Weisser looks forward to teaching OLLI classes again this fall.

“OLLI provides a wonderful teaching environment,” he says. “Participants are there because they want to be and not because they are fulfilling requirements. There are no tests and no grades, eliminating themajor source of friction in ordinary teaching. The participants are great people with all kinds of interesting backgrounds.”   

Illustrations: Kerry Fannon