With pastures full of cattle, fields golden with grain, and slopes ripe with peaches, Colorado is a state bursting with the bounty of agriculture, with nearly 32 million acres of farmland spread across 38,900 farms and ranches that generated some $7.3 billion in 2020. The Colorado Department of Agriculture reports 195,000 people were employed in all phases of agriculture in 2020, for a total economic impact of $47 billion.

But agriculture isn’t just an economic engine. Any longtime Coloradan, or even a newcomer who’s been to the National Western Stock Show a time or two, can tell you that ag is threaded through the fabric of our state, an inseparable element of Colorado’s history that shaped the state as we know it.

As Colorado’s land-grant university, Colorado State University has always understood the importance of its role in agriculture, both in preserving the pride of the past and shepherding in the innovations of the future. CSU’s first college, the College of Agricultural Sciences is the bedrock from which the rest of the university launched.

“There’s a social contract between a land-grant university and society,” said Dean James Pritchett. “Our job is to serve society. Our bread and butter, the things we do, are to serve others for the betterment of society.”

After all, as every new Ram learns at orientation, the Aggies were the school’s original mascot, and their colors were alfalfa green and pumpkin orange, an ode to the kinds of crops to which the school’s original students were devoted.

As the global population swells, the importance of agriculture goes beyond commerce and tradition. It’s a crucial component of our continued existence that must be adapted to the changing conditions we face today. With millions invested in recent years into new buildings, faculty, and programs, CSU is running headlong to meet the challenge.

The United Nations estimates that the world will be home to 8.5 billion people by 2030 and 11.2 billion by 2100. All of those people must be fed, using the same amount of land that Earth’s 2.6 billion people were using in 1950.

“In the college, we believe there are some pretty specific things that drive change,” Pritchett said. “What are the drivers of change? It’s pretty straightforward. The first is a growing population. In order to feed 11 billion people, you have to think about new ways of doing things.”

PHOTOS: ©2022BradNicol Photography

Looking to the future

Pritchett, a native of Colorado’s ag-blanketed Eastern Plains, sits in the recently overhauled building formerly known as Shepardson, perched on the edge of the Monfort Quad in the middle of CSU’s Fort Collins campus. The Nutrien Agricultural Sciences Building is a $43.5 million manifestation of the University’s commitment to shaping the future of ag.

In May, after three years of construction, renovations were unveiled, modernizing the space for new generations of ag students. The facility now bears the name of Nutrien, the Canadian ag company with North American headquarters in Loveland, in honor of an investment of $1 million per year over a decade to advance shared areas of strategic priorities in agriculture.

The building combines state-of-the-art research capabilities with the latest in classroom innovation, like the Bernard Rollin Knowledge Well, an innovative classroom in the round.

The Knowledge Well borrows a concept from the theater world and seats students in concentric circles around the professor so that no student is more than five rows away. Studies have shown that the design leads to greater student interaction with both the professor and each other, as they’re more likely to choose a different seat every day than in a typical classroom.

Students can access brand-new lab spaces dedicated to soil science, plant pathology, and food safety, among other disciplines, in pursuit of new technologies that will advance the science of agriculture and contribute to the ongoing stability of the global food supply as the population grows and the climate changes.

An expanding population and a warming globe work at odds, simultaneously making it more difficult to grow more food and more important to do so. Further complicating matters is the fact that food production itself contributes as much as one-third of greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change, according to the latest estimates by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

CSU is hard at work finding solutions to these challenges, Pritchett said, with collaborative research aimed at improving processes for both plant and animal production.

Sustainable livestock

Among the newer programs is AgNext, an effort launched in 2019 as a sustainable livestock system collaborative. AgNext convenes producers, industry partners, and researchers with the goal of making animal agriculture more sustainable, according to Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, director of the collaborative.

The initiative is one of a kind, according to Stackhouse-Lawson, and takes a forward-thinking, holistic approach that brings together knowledge and experience from across the animal agriculture spectrum to find solutions that work in real-world applications while working toward common goals.

“In this space of sustainability, as things become more complicated, we and our partners work on things in parallel and in collaboration and with each other, not against each other,” Stackhouse-Lawson said. “And this constant dialogue is so critical to food security more broadly.”

As a newer initiative, the staff of AgNext is small right now, but a cluster hire is underway, with 12 tenured faculty expected to come on board. These staff members come from a variety of backgrounds within agriculture, including disease and nutritional epidemiology, carbon sequestration, and manure management, among other specialties.

Right now, Stackhouse-Lawson, who holds a Ph.D. in animal science and is also a CSU professor, leads the research charge for AgNext with a focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

One of her projects is developing a roadmap to carbon-neutral beef, drawing together food companies, beef producers, scientists, and others to identify areas where methane emissions from cattle can be reduced.

By identifying low-hanging fruit and where research gaps exist, Stackhouse-Lawson intends to better direct research dollars and move the needle on cattle-related emissions, which account for approximately 2.7% of the methane that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Although the contributions of beef cattle to overall emissions are often perceived as being greater than they truly are, there’s still room for improvement, Stackhouse-Lawson said.

“In the sustainability space, as it relates to agriculture, our usual approach is to look backward in time and to understand how we’ve shifted farming and ranching practices over time. CSU really wanted to own more of a forward-focused approach,” she said. “And so we’re really building a team that is focused on innovation, that defines sustainability, inclusive of those three pillars of social, environmental, and economic, but even takes it beyond that, by saying that we’re going to foster animal health and ecosystem health.”

Investing in land resources

Of course, livestock production is only part of the picture. Growing plants is the basis for all of agriculture and coaxing enough of those plants out of the ground to feed humans and animals alike is increasingly challenging.

A 2021 NASA study indicated that climate change could begin affecting the global production of corn as early as 2030, with projected yields declining by as much as 24%, although the same study projected a potential increase in wheat yields in the same time frame.

In an effort to reduce the unpredictability inherent in farming and improve yields as the climate continues to make consistent outcomes less reliable, CSU Assistant Professor Joshua Craver researches controlled environment agriculture.

Craver’s work involves studying how types of light affect a plant’s growth. By tweaking the color, temperature, and timing of light application, he and his fellow researchers have found ways to help plants grow better and produce more.

“The aim is to help understand how a plant responds to light in terms of physiology and how that translates into a grower’s application,” Craver said.

While Craver’s work focuses on light, others in the College of Ag are performing similar research to determine how carbon dioxide, water, and other variables contribute to a crop’s success, improving growing efficiency for better yields.

Keeping up with population growth

Improving yields is key to keeping up with a growing population, as we’ve reached the limit of our existing arable land, according to Gene Kelly, a professor of soil sciences at CSU and the deputy director of the Colorado Agricultural Experiment Station program.

Population projections for 2050 represent a 30% increase from today, Kelly said.

“So we have to double food production at least. And we’re doing that under a changing climate that is getting warmer and drier,” he said.

Recognizing the importance of controlled-environment agriculture, which includes greenhouses and vertical farming, CSU has made significant investments in this kind of research, including a major advancement at the new CSU Spur campus at the redeveloped National Western Complex in Denver.

In addition to rooftop gardens, CSU invested in four controlled-environment growth chambers that Craver and others can use for their research. The chambers are essentially walk-in coolers that regulate temperature, humidity, and factors such as carbon dioxide concentration, Craver said.

“The chambers are precise to one-tenth of a degree. That gives us incredible power to understand plant physiology and how plants respond to the environment, and then we can figure out how to apply that to grower operations,” he said. “It gives us this wonderful research potential to understand physiology to a much greater degree.”

The three-building, $250 million Spur campus is perhaps the most visible sign of CSU’s commitment to not only the pursuit of agricultural advancement, but also to creating greater awareness of food systems through community outreach.

Serving as an educational destination for the public all year round, CSU Spur includes learning labs, a living wall containing 1,600 plants, and a veterinary hospital operated in conjunction with Denver Dumb Friends League where visitors can watch as veterinarians perform procedures on pets in need.

Another partnership, with the National Western Center, Centura Health, and Focus Points Family Resource Center, brought a FarmBox to the Spur campus, according to Craver. FarmBoxes are controlled-environment container plant growing systems, and the one at Spur will also be growing jobs.

“It allows people to develop skills and earn while they learn,” Craver said. “It’s a great partnership with controlled environments at the center but has workforce development and community partnership as well.”

The first two buildings at Spur, Vida and Terra, opened in 2022, and the third, Hydro – focused on water research – is expected to open in early 2023.

Facing the whole challenge

While technological advancements and research breakthroughs tend to get the most attention in the conversation around improving food access and stability, social and economic considerations should not be ignored, said Dawn Thilmany, a professor in the Department of Agricultural Resource Economics who specializes in labor and agribusiness management.

The reality of feeding a growing population goes well beyond actual food production and includes a nuanced approach to how resources are distributed, Thilmany said.

She looks at food security as a portfolio, similar to managing financial investments. The big, “legacy” industries and crop types, like corn and wheat, will always have a place in humans’ diets, and optimizing the growth and dissemination of those crops will remain a priority, she said.

Major food supply chains that carry these crops around the world are and will continue to be crucial to feeding the planet, but our collective experience with the COVID-19 pandemic taught everyone what can happen when global networks are disrupted.

“During COVID, there were some places that had local supply chains that helped those areas respond more quickly to global supply-chain disruptions,” Thilmany said. “Those areas are in a better position to weather them well. It does matter and it does help. It encourages us that that’s a way to go. It doesn’t mean you throw away the entire system; it just means you should rebalance your portfolio, like you would going into retirement.”

Food security for everyone

Food scarcity is already a reality for millions of Americans. Federal spending on food assistance reached a record high of $182.5 billion in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a sign of a particularly difficult pair of years following COVID-19’s arrival, but also an indicator of continued hardship for many families living near or below the poverty line well before the pandemic.

One of the keys to ensuring the future of food security for everyone is to offer as many choices as possible and work to allow everyone access to the options that work for their budgets, diets, and preferences, Thilmany said.

“Even though we’re an ag college, we need to recognize that the public eye is going to be on what they eat, feeding their household, and making those choices,” she said. “We need to understand their way of thinking, and how they’re making choices needs to be front and center, even though we’re a supply-side college.”

Helping farmers succeed

An important component of improved food distribution is, of course, getting the country’s farmers on board with the advancements made by institutions like CSU.

To that end, the University works hard on its outreach to farmers in every corner of the state through its Extension program and the Experiment Station network.

Director Kelly oversees 11 research centers across Colorado that work together with farmers and ranchers to help understand what they need to find success.

“Dean Pritchett, my colleague Troy [Bauder], and I spend an enormous amount of time in these communities,” Kelly said. “We engage with the stakeholders and we have to deliver. We’re not gladhanding. We have to say we’re willing to try these things out.”

The Ag Experiment Stations research the effectiveness of different cropping systems, irrigation management, and soil preservation schemes, all with the input of the farmers who have been tilling the corners of Colorado for generations.

This kind of cooperation is necessary to find success in the face of the complex problems created by the warming planet and growing population, Kelly said.

“Everyone will have to work together. This affects everybody across the planet. It’s the interaction of food and climate,” he said.

‘No better time’

There’s no question that it’s a challenging time to be in agriculture. Resources are shrinking as demand expands. Consumer preferences change almost as quickly as commodities markets shift.

But with an expanding national interest in food production and security, combined with previously unimagined technological advances, getting an education in agriculture today is a chance to make a difference in a completely new way, Pritchett said.

And it all comes back to acting as stewards of the land and what it provides.

“When I’m in front of students, I tell them there’s no better time to be in agriculture. If we make ourselves obsolete with a new idea, we’ve done a great thing,” he said. “If we come up with a new idea that we innovate, and it turns out that it works, we should give it away. That’s good stewardship.”