By Caitlin Switzer

DELTA COUNTY-It’s a gorgeous campus, in the middle of an area known for exciting, value-added niche-market crops. But when a feasibility study released last month explored the redevelopment of Colorado State University’s Rogers Mesa facility as an agricultural-based education program or farm incubator, it was only the first step, officials say.

The study notes the potential use of Rogers Mesa as an agricultural education center, saying, “Agricultural education at Rogers Mesa could benefit local and regional students by offering unique opportunities for study in the high altitude, dry environment….A model for a multi-use program at Rogers Mesa would include a combination of a farm incubator, educational programming, and commercial farming. The multiple uses would complement one another and spread the overhead costs across multiple users.”

CSU closed the Rogers Mesa experimental agriculture station in 2011, the study notes. “A farm incubator could contribute to Delta County economic development by facilitating new entrants into farming, production of new alternative crops or products…and the successful transfer of existing operations when older farmers retire … A farm incubator at Rogers Mesa is feasible with the site characteristics, but would require a lead non-profit organization to carry out the program, ensure site maintenance, and to raise funds.”

The study itself was funded through a $245,000 U.S. Economic Development Agency (EDA) grant to Region 10 following the closure of local coal mines, and performed through Better City of Ogden, Utah

Though Delta County Economic Development (DCED) has helped to promote the idea of redeveloping Rogers Mesa, the project is still in the formative stages, DCED Board President Brad Harding said.

“It’s definitely an exciting prospect,” Harding said. “Now, we are trying to make this wonderful dream a reality. As a CSU alumni, I would love to ask how we can get Rogers Mesa to be the next Pingree Park…here we could have a campus with viticulture, grapes, row crops, and organics.

“We have access to crops here that they don’t have on the Front Range.”

The most important element at this point will be leadership, he noted.

“I do think we have the State’s attention here,” he said. “Now, we need to do something bold with it, and we need continued leadership.”

A committee comprised of various entities with an interest in the project has been meeting for more than a year, and partner entities and producers with an interest in using the campus have been asked to submit letters of interest. “Delta County and the entire working group look forward to receiving the letters of interest from partners and taking the next steps to move this project forward,” Delta County Manager Robbie LeValley said.

As the project moves forward, an agency willing to dive in with management and fundraising support will be essential, as will a solid understanding of CSU’s level of commitment to any future endeavor, DCED Executive Director Trish Thibodo said.

“Our goal is to see it stay something that will contribute to our agricultural sector,” Thibodo said, “Something viable; having the education connection would be a great use for that facility.”

The Valley Food Partnership, an organization with a strong track record of community partnerships and a focus on promoting regional agriculture and locally sourced foods, has been suggested as a natural fit for an umbrella organization. However, the Montrose non-profit does not have the resources to manage a higher education campus, Executive Director Carol Parker said.

“We probably don’t have the capacity to carry the ball, but we are hoping to partner with Rocky Mountain Farmers Union,” Parker said. “This could be very beneficial to Delta County as an economic driver with the right plan in place; let’s look at it as serving multiple community purposes. There is a big walk-in cooler there, classroom space, greenhouse and irrigated ground.

“This is a great community campus and research facility,” she said. “It’s well worth rallying around to preserve this as a local resource.”

Providing another educational option is also a way to encourage young people to stay in the area, Harding said.

“Right now, we export the best of what we grow here,” he said, “our kids. With a CSU campus at Rogers Mesa, we could bring great minds to Western Colorado from everywhere.”