Our goal was to improve communication and cooperation between Colorado State University and alternative producers. Four regional Alternative Agriculture Advisory Teams identified research and extension needs and obstacles to communication with CSU. Each regional advisory team defined their priorities and designed a student project. Interns completed their projects working with local CSU faculty members, on-campus faculty members, and producers. Six Organic Weed Management factsheets, a report on enterprise budgeting for grass-fed cattle operations, a special alternative agriculture issue of CSU’s From the Ground Up newsletter, and a brochure summarizing this project are available at the Colorado Organic Producers Association website.
Our objectives were:
1) to establish fruitful lines of communication among organic and sustainable producers and Colorado State University researchers and extensionists — with all parties involved in speaking, listening, and learning,
2) to identify research and extension needs and priorities for Colorado State University,
3) to identify opportunities for participatory, on-farm, and farmer-initiated research,
4) to name and break down obstacles to effective communication between Colorado State University personnel and alternative producers, and
5) to bring students into active participation with Colorado State University research and extension and the real world of alternative agriculture.
The Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) recently reported that less than 0.1% of federal agricultural research dollars and only 0.02% of research acreage in the land-grant system is being used for organic research. In addition, OFRF surveys of organic farmers have repeatedly ranked university researchers and Cooperative Extension agents as among the least helpful resources for organic production and marketing information. It is the goal of this project to reverse this trend by improving communication and cooperation between the land-grant university and organic and alternative producers in Colorado.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
We formed four regional Alternative Agriculture Advisory Teams that met in Alamosa (South Central Region), Brighton (Front Range Region), Hotchkiss (Western Region), and Brush (Eastern Region). Each team met 2-3 times in 2003 and 2004. Two of the teams were facilitated by Jim Dyer from the Colorado Organic Producers Association, and two were facilitated by Jami Daniel from American Farmland Trust. The Advisory Teams first listed obstacles to effective communication between Colorado State University personnel and alternative producers. Then they identified research and extension needs in both production and marketing. From these lists of needs, each advisory team identified a top priority. Student interns were hired to work on those priority areas in 2004, and in 2005, our focus was on outreach and publications.
Outreach and Publications
In March 2005, this project was highlighted at the annual Colorado State University/Colorado Organic Producers Association joint workshop on organic agriculture. The student interns made presentations about their projects and outcomes and interacted with producers.
The six Organic Weed Management factsheets are located on the Colorado State University Colorado Environmental Pesticide Education Program website found at this address:
The report entitled Enterprise Budgeting: An Application to San Luis Valley Grass-fed Cattle Operations can be found at:
The December 2005 issue of the From the Ground Up newsletter, with an audience of about 200 extension professionals and crop advisors, focused on Alternative Agriculture, in particular on this project. The newsletter can be accessed at:
The Colorado Organic Producers Association (COPA) developed a brochure highlighting all of the regional projects and mailed it to all certified organic growers in the state. In addition, COPA has made the brochure available on its website (www.organiccolorado.org/AltAgProj3.pdf) along with links to the PowerPoint presentations from the March 2005 workshop and the publications named above.
We have begun a dialogue between CSU and alternative agriculturalists. It is critical now that we follow through and work on breaking down obstacles while working towards research and educational goals.
Eastern Region: Cover Crops Project
Twenty-two farmers were interviewed on their use of and experience with cover crops, green manures, and crop residues. Their knowledge and experience has been compiled into a report on the state of cover crop use in irrigated and dryland systems in Colorado. The benefits listed by farmers for cover crops were: fertility – 27%, organic matter – 23%, erosion control – 14%, soil protection – 9%, and harboring insects – 5%. Similarly the disadvantages to cover crops were as follows: water use – 9%; rotational difficulties – 9%; time, labor, and field work – 9%; and lack of direct financial return – 5%.
South Central Region: Grass-fed Beef Project
Enterprise budgets were created for grass-fed cattle producers in the San Luis Valley including cow-calf, wintering, summer production, and finishing stages. The data reinforced decisions to maintain strictly cow-calf operations. A survey was done to evaluate consumer perceptions about grass-fed beef. The use of no hormones and antibiotics were the most important production attributes in influencing consumer choice, but the share of consumers who responded that grass-fed was very or extremely important almost doubled over the past six years. However, price continues to be the most important attribute in beef purchasing decisions.
Western Region: Organic Weed Control
A series of Organic Noxious Weed Management factsheets have been developed for the following weeds: Canada thistle, diffuse knapweed, Russian knapweed, hoary cress, field bindweed, and quackgrass. The factsheets were reviewed by producers and extension agents.
Front Range Region: Organic vs. Conventional Seed
A field study was done comparing spinach varieties, including six conventional varieties, organic seed for two varieties, and biodynamic seed for one variety. Germination, emergence, and yield were measured. Whale was the highest yielding variety, and Spinner was the slowest to bolt. The comparisons between organic and conventional seed (only 2 out of 6 varieties had both seed types available) were inconclusive. The study was repeated in 2005 with a new student intern, but the trials were not harvested due to a disease outbreak.
Advisory team members made a list of obstacles to effective communication between Colorado State University personnel and alternative producers. Obstacles are described below in producers’ words:
“CSU is irrelevant and in the pocket of corporate agriculture; it doesn’t cross most alternative producer’s minds to use CSU as a resource, so the conversation never even gets started…Some folks at CSU are obstructionist and anti-alternative agriculture…CSU is not user-friendly. Information is often not in a useful form or the information is simply not available…CSU needs to market itself better—more accessible information…Poor communication between CSU and the field agents…Poor definition of what the Land Grant University does. It has become all things to all people…Need for greater communication among CSU departments and integration of disciplines. Too much compartmentalization…CSU should provide factual, unbiased information about all production systems, not be an advocate for any particular system…We need heterogeneity in curriculum content and extension materials; i.e., enterprise budgets for different production system types, not just for different commodity crops…CSU should be honest and realistic about what you can and can’t do in certain areas but not be a doomsayer and directing to other sources of info…Flow of information needs to go both ways FARMER to UNIVERSITY…CSU field days are mainly about yield—need more about adding value, marketing, alternative crops…CSU should participate in Alternative Ag Conferences to meet people and share information…CSU programs provide info on resources but we’re isolated generally from these meetings…Distance from CSU is an obstacle.”
Major research and extension needs identified at the advisory team meetings include:
a) Region specific information on insect and weed control and soil fertility for alternative crops
b) Low cost production techniques for organic farming
c) Nutrient-based production information (nutrition from soil to table)
Soil to Plant to Animal to Human: researching the relationship between production method and food nutrition.
d) Quantifying the economic, ecological, and nutritional aspects and benefits of alternative agriculture
e) Appropriate technology for diversified and “alternative” operations
a) Business planning and marketing skills – need a step-by-step resource for start-up businesses or enterprises
b) Fact sheets on Farmers Markets and why one should buy locally
c) Public good benefit analysis: importance of adding value locally—keep it in the community
d) Development of local markets and information on how to develop value-added markets
e) Agricultural economic development
f) Consumer information for producers to use in marketing
Networking (social, sharing ideas, synergistic)
a) Establish network of producers for information sharing on seed procurement, market pricing and production methods. Bring specialty crop producers together so they can discuss what works and what doesn’t work.
b) Peer-to-peer network Innovators, crop types, marketing channels.
Compile a list of what’s been tried in each area of the state—for extension agents and the area’s producers. Compile a list of marketing channels. Develop a referral network (resource notebook) for extension personnel and for producers.
c) Web-based marketing co-op
d) Organize local symposia for information sharing and region specific information
a) How to move agricultural land to the next generation
b) Food security
c) Government regulations
d) More funding at CSU for human resources and staff
Each of our four advisory teams identified regional priorities within the alternative agriculture arena. We employed four student interns to work on 1) interviewing producers regarding their successes, failures, benefits, and challenges with cover crops in irrigated vegetable and dryland grain production systems, 2) developing budgets for grass-fed beef production systems, 3) compiling information and writing factsheets on organic noxious weed management, and 4) evaluation of organic vs. conventional vegetable varieties. Student reports and factsheets were completed and are discussed further in the Publications and Outreach section.
On September 29, 2005, the leaders of this project met with the Dean of the College of Agriculture, the Director of the Colorado Agricultural Experiment Station, and the Interim Director for Colorado State University Cooperative Extension. We presented a brief overview of the project and the four student sub-projects. Our goal was to inform the administrators about our activities and to solicit support for the continuation of this work in the future. The administrators were supportive in a general way, but no specific commitments were made.
We did not have any pre-determined economic goals for this project. The producers decided that the grass-fed beef project would focus on economic objectives: enterprise budgeting and marketing. The report from that project, entitled Enterprise Budgeting: An Application to San Luis Valley Grass-fed Cattle Operations, can be found at:
Of course, there may be economic impacts from this project that we haven’t measured since that was not our intention. For example, use of the organic weed management factsheets may reduce weed control costs, increase yields, and enhance profits; but we didn’t measure that impact.
Our primary goal was to improve cooperation and communication with farmers, not to encourage adoption of any particular tool or practice. We listened to 40-50 farmers describe their needs and their hopes for what CSU could do for them. And we attempted to meet those needs through four student projects. This project is a start!
The faculty involved in this project wrote two large research grants to address needs, identified by the Advisory Teams, that we were unable to meet with the budget and time that we had. One proposal focused on environmental, economic, and health impacts of grass-fed beef and was sent to the USDA-NRI program in Managed Ecosystems. The other proposal focused on cover crops and was sent to the Organic Program of the USDA. Neither was funded. We continue to attempt to locate funding for these producer-identified research priorities.