BURLINGTON – As the July sun scorched the Eastern Plains, Elaine Wright, Wayne Runge and Ron Hielscher rejoiced in the dirt under their fingers as they watered a garden nestled behind a plantation of trees about 15 minutes from the Colorado-Kansas border.
The Burlington Garden – filled with beds of squash, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes and other produce – is tended by residents of the local association Dynamic Dimensions Inc., which provides housing, resources and care for adults with intellectual disabilities. The products are then harvested and used in meals for residents of Dynamic Dimensions.
“Everything is my favorite part of the garden,” said Hielscher, who lives at Dynamic Dimensions. “I like everything. Especially while eating squash.
If Hielscher, his friends, or the staff at Dynamic Dimensions have any gardening questions or need more supplies, Colorado State University – which helped establish the gardening program – is here to help. funding whenever help is needed.
Linda Langelo, extension worker and horticulturalist for CSU, said the garden has a mission: in addition to compensating for food insecurity among a vulnerable population in a rural community, it provides educational and occupational therapy opportunities for residents with disabilities.
“It’s nicer for our customers that it’s saving on food at this point, but every little bit counts,” said Ginny Hallagin, executive director of Dynamic Dimensions. “The garden has been such a joy for all of us. “
The Burlington Garden is an example of CSU’s commitment to supporting rural Colorado communities in a more holistic way. The CSU system’s board of governors recently voted to spend $ 8.58 million over the next three years to better support people in rural areas. The effort is unique in that the Land Grant University does not only intend to recruit rural students to its campuses. CSU plans to invest in rural communities by asking them what they need and leveraging funding and university experts – agrarian and others – to make a difference.
“Ultimately that means more Coloradians will see the value of CSU in their daily lives, not just because they follow the basketball team or send their kids here,” said Blake Naughton. , vice-president of CSU for engagement and extension.
Measuring rural needs
The rural initiative stems from a retreat in February between CSU administrators and rural community and economic development leaders from across the state, said Kathay Rennels, special advisor to CSU Chancellor Tony Frank, for rural-urban initiatives.
“All of these people together had a virtual conversation about how, as a land granting university, we can improve our game and build stronger bonds,” said Rennels.
Granting universities – institutions designated by state legislatures or Congress to receive federal benefits in return for higher agricultural education focused on mechanics – arose in the late 1800s with the mission of making the college more accessible. to working class people. They exist in every state and use a network of extension systems, which provide people across the country with non-formal education and resources to better enrich rural and urban communities.
During the CSU retreat, rural community members shared the issues that hit their counties hardest, including opioid addiction, mental health issues such as depression and suicidal thoughts among farmers, lack of broadband connectivity and adaptation to changing technologies, said Rennels.
As Rennels chatted for an interview via a video call from his home in Livermore in rural Larimer County, the connection was delayed and dropped several times.
“You see, this is a good example of what we’re talking about,” Rennels said.
To address internet connectivity issues magnified by the pandemic’s shift to distance education and work, CSU’s new plan includes funds to leverage the university’s network, partnerships and grant programs. to establish fiber and 5G connections in underserved rural areas.
Other highlights of the plan include:
- Mental and preventive health education and resources
- Establish a 4-H style program for older Coloradians to better serve rural seniors
- Support regional economic development by helping workers transitioning to more technologically advanced jobs
- Pilot 4-H programs targeting Latin American and Indigenous families with a focus on college access
- Help facilitate conversations to bridge urban / rural divides
- Re-engaging the next generation of farm workers
Through the CSU extension program, faculty and academic staff with expertise in areas such as agriculture, horticulture, grazing, forestry, water, health, financial literacy, management 4-H business, community development and youth development are accessible to all 64 counties in Colorado.
“In rural Colorado, sometimes we’re the only game in town,” Naughton said. “In many of these communities, there are not the same kinds of services as in the metropolitan area.
Awareness and assistance
When Trinidad mayor Phil Rico connected with Rennels and learned that CSU was strengthening its support for rural communities, he wanted to take advantage of what the university could do for his town in southern Colorado.
“We had a very, very good discussion to see what they could bring to the table,” said Rico.
So far, CSU has partnered with Trinidad State College to offer a specialized ecology course in Trinidad through CSU’s Bachelor of Science in Wildlife Biology, Rico said. CSU is also working with the city on a citizen science program that will train community members in basic science monitoring.
Rico said training the workforce and helping the city make the most of the expanding recreational tourism would be areas the university could help with in the future.
“Trinidad is rapidly becoming a destination for the leisure and creative arts,” said Rico. “Anything that could be done in this arena would be super important. The training of the workforce is a huge thing. How to build a better workforce? In small communities, it is sometimes difficult to get the inhabitants to train in different fields. It is a huge problem. It’s great to be a partner on these things.
Down the road from the Burlington Kitchen Garden, a combine with the CSU logo charged across a vast field of wheat, harvesting in the name of science.
The university experiments on local farmland, grows countless varieties of crops, and tests what gives the best results. The crop data is then provided to Colorado farmers who can use it to make informed decisions about which varieties to plant.
“As a land granting university, our investment in agriculture is invaluable,” said Ron Meyer, CSU extension officer and agronomist, as he overlooked the sea of wheat in front of him. “This type of research allows farmers to produce better crops. If a farmer can have 3% more wheat, that’s a big problem for a community. It’s jobs. It’s food. It is the local economy. Private industry would not make that kind of investment.
Recruit more rural students
Whether educating Coloradans in a garden, on a combine harvester, or in a classroom, CSU’s plan is always about learning.
Recruiting rural students is not the only goal of the initiative, but it is a goal and a promising outcome of increased engagement, Naughton said.
The plan invests in scholarships and financial support for students and alumni in rural and 4-H areas with the aim of increasing the number of rural students by 40% over six years and graduates more rural students, Naughton said.
According to university data, more than 90 percent of the 87,246 fall undergraduate applicants at CSU’s Fort Collins campus between 2013 and 2019 were from a metro Colorado area.
In 2013, 258 rural students who did not live near a metro area attended CSU Fort Collins, according to university data. In 2019, that number increased to 214.
“Our student population, which has grown dramatically, is largely non-rural,” Naughton said. “There is a challenge that many rural youth communities feel left behind and not welcome in higher education systems. “
While rural students applying to the Fort Collins campus are admitted at nearly identical rates to applicants from a metropolitan area of the state, data shows that nearly 48% of metropolitan applicants between 2013 and 2019 have ended up coming to university, compared to 40% of rural people. students who do not live near a metropolitan community.
The university offers to closely monitor rural students on its three campuses to understand where its weaknesses lie and keep tabs on student performance and use the data to produce an annual report.
The key to a successful rural initiative, said Naughton, will be to ensure that the voices and needs of the community are prioritized to form true partnerships rather than a push.
“Extension has been doing this work since the corn hybridization trials, helping to keep families safe during the Dust Bowl, which has evolved into nutrition work, economic work and now we are helping people in communities through the state, ”Naughton said. “Most people don’t recognize what our extension system is, but what it is is a CSU employee in every community in this state to provide educational programs and services and help young people. to thrive, the aging Coloradans to be healthier, to help farmers and producers get the best products on our shelves. Hopefully these can be improved by these funds.