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Colorado State University invests in rural Colorado

4-H for seniors, farmer mental health, 5G connections part of helping communities

By Elizabeth Hernandez

The Denver Post

BURLINGTON »

With the July sun scorching the Eastern Plains, Elaine Wright, Wayne Runge and Ron Hielscher delighted in the dirt beneath their fingers as they watered a garden tucked behind a tree grove about 15 minutes from the line separating Colorado and Kansas.

The Burlington garden — replete with beds of squash, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes and other produce — is tended to by residents of local nonprofit Dynamic Dimensions Inc., which provides housing, resources and care to adults with intellectual disabilities. The produce is then harvested and used in meals for the Dynamic Dimensions residents.

“Everything is my favorite part about the garden,” said Hielscher, who lives at Dynamic Dimensions. “I love it all. Especially eating the squash.”

If Hielscher, his friends or the Dynamic Dimensions staff have gardening questions or need more supplies, Colorado State University — which helped establish the gardening program — is on hand to lend support and funding whenever help is needed.

Linda Langelo, CSU Extension agent and horticulturist, said the garden has a mission: In addition to offsetting food insecurity among a vulnerable population in a rural community, it provides educational opportunities and occupational therapy for residents with disabilities.

“It’s more enjoyable for our clients than it is a savings on food at this point, but every little bit helps,” said Ginny Hallagin, Dynamic Dimensions’ executive director. “The garden has been such a joy for us all.”

The garden in Burlington is one example of CSU’s commitment to supporting rural Colorado communities in a more holistic way. The CSU System Board of Governors recently voted to devote $8.58 million over the next three years to better support rural Coloradans. The effort is unique in that the land-grant university isn’t just intent on recruiting rural students to its campuses. CSU plans to invest in rural communities by asking what they need and leveraging the university’s funding and experts — agrarian and otherwise — to make a difference.

“At the end of the day, what it means is more and more Coloradans 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, CSU’s vice president for engagement and extension.

Gauging rural needs

The rural initiative stemmed from a February retreat between CSU administrators and rural community and economic development leaders from around the state, said Kathay Rennels, special adviser to CSU Chancellor Tony Frank for rural-urban initiatives.

“All these people together had a virtual conversation about how, as a land-grant university, we can up our game and build stronger connections,” Rennels said.

Land-grant universities — institutions designated by state legislatures or Congress to receive federal benefits in exchange for providing an agricultural, mechanical- focused higher education — originated in the late 1800s with a mission of making college more accessible for working-class folks. They exist in every state and utilize 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 CSU’s retreat, rural community members shared the issues hitting their counties the hardest, including opioid addiction, mental health problems such as depression and suicidal thoughts among farmers, lack of broadband connectivity, and adapting to shifting technologies, Rennels said.

As Rennels chatted for an interview via a video call from her home in Livermore in rural Larimer County, the connection lagged and cut out multiple times.

“See, this is a good example of what we’re talking about,” Rennels said.

To address internet connectivity problems magnified by the pandemic’s shift to remote schooling and work, CSU’s new plan includes money to leverage the university’s network, partnerships and grant programs to build fiber and 5G connections to underserved rural areas. Other highlights of the plan include:

• Mental and preventative health education and resources.

 

• Establishing a 4-H-style program for older Coloradans to better serve rural seniors.

 

•Supporting regional economic development by helping transition workers to more technologically advanced jobs.

 

• Piloting 4-H programs targeting Latino and Indigenous families with a focus on college access.

 

• Helping facilitate conversations to bridge urban-rural divides.

• Reengaging the next generation of agricultural workers.

Through CSU’s Extension program, university faculty members and workers with expertise in areas including agriculture, horticulture, range, forestry, water, health, financial literacy, business management, community development and 4-H youth development are accessible to all of Colorado’s 64 counties. “In rural Colorado, we’re sometimes the only game in town,” Naughton said. “In many of these communities, there aren’t the same kind of services there are in the metro area.”

Outreach and assistance

When Trinidad Mayor Phil Rico connected with Rennels and learned CSU was bolstering its support of rural communities, he wanted to take advantage of what the university could do for his southern Colorado city.

“We had a really, really good discussion to see what they could bring to the table,” Rico said.

So far CSU is partnering with Trinidad State College to offer a specialized ecology class in Trinidad through CSU’s bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology, Rico said. CSU also is working with the city on a citizen science program that will train community members in basic scientific monitoring.

Rico said workforce training along with helping the city to make the most of expanding recreational tourism would be areas the university could help with in the future.

“Trinidad is quickly becoming a destination point for recreation and creative arts,” Rico said. “Anything that could be done in that arena would be super important. Workforce training is a huge thing. How do you establish a better workforce? In small communities, it’s difficult sometimes getting the locals to get trained in different areas. That’s a huge issue. It’s great to partner on these things.”

Down the road from the Burlington vegetable garden, a combine branded with a CSU logo charged through a vast field of wheat, harvesting in the name of science.

The university experiments on local farmland, growing countless crop varieties and testing which has the best outcomes. The crop data is then provided to Colorado farmers who can use it to make informed decisions about what varieties to plant.

“As a land-grant university, our investment in agriculture is priceless,” said Ron Meyer, CSU Extension agent and agronomist, as he overlooked the sea of wheat before him. “This kind of research allows farmers to produce better crops. If a farmer can have 3% more wheat, that’s a big deal for a community. That’s jobs. That’s food. That’s local economy. Private industry wouldn’t make that kind of investment.”

Recruiting more rural students

Whether educating Coloradans in a garden, on a combine or in a classroom, CSU’s plan still centers on learning.

Recruiting rural students isn’t the only aim of the initiative, but it is one focus and a hopeful result of increased engagement, Naughton said.

The plan puts money toward scholarship and financial support for rural and 4-H students and alumni with a goal of increasing rural student enrollment by 40% over six years and graduating more rural students, Naughton said.

More than 90% of the 87,246 fall undergraduate applicants to CSU’s Fort Collins campus from 2013 to 2019 were from a metro area in Colorado, according to university data.

In 2013, 258 rural students who didn’t live adjacent to a metropolitan area attended CSU, according to university data.

In 2019, that number decreased to 214.

“Our student population, which has grown tremendously, is largely not rural,” Naughton said. “There’s a challenge that a lot of communities of rural youths feel left behind and not welcome in systems of higher education.”

While rural students who apply to the Fort Collins campus are admitted at nearly identical rates to applicants from a metropolitan area of the state, data shows almost 48% of metro applicants from 2013 to 2019 ended up going to the university compared with 40% of rural students who don’t live next to a metropolitan community.

The university proposes tracking rural students closely on all three of its 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, Naughton said, will be ensuring the community’s voices and needs are prioritized to form true partnerships rather than a push.

“Extension has been doing this work going back to corn hybridization trials, helping keep families safe during the Dust Bowl, which evolved into nutrition work, economic work and now we help people in communities across 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 of this state there to provide educational programs and services and help youths to thrive, aging Coloradans be healthier, help farmers and producers get the best produce to our shelves. Hopefully these can be enhanced by these funds.” Elizabeth Hernandez: 303-954-1311, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or @ehernandez

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