Pressure To Grow More With Less Springs Innovation On Colorado Farms

“People don’t think of agriculture as a tech space, but it certainly is,” ... “It’s important to include economic analysis from the beginning — and work with companies that understand the supply chain and the customer — so we can better tie these ideas to real-world challenges,”

 — Matthew Wallenstein, head of the Innovation Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Colorado State University.

Agriculture is not often included in the big conversations about outdoor rec and emerging tech in Colorado. But don’t let stereotypes sway you. “Ag” is a big player in the Colorado economy.

More than 34,000 farms and 11,600 livestock ranches operate in the state, part of an industry that generates more than $5 billion in annual economic output and $700 million in exports, according to the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

But as with any other state with strong agricultural activity, growers face the same global pressure to produce more food for a growing population amid water shortages and other environmental constraints.

Colorado companies are attempting to solve for this new context by developing new technology that makes farming more efficient.

“People don’t think of agriculture as a tech space, but it certainly is,” said Matthew Wallenstein, head of the Innovation Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Colorado State University.

Modern Farming Takes Root

Wallenstein is also part of Growcentia, a startup based in Fort Collins, Colorado, that has created a patent-pending organic soil supplement that helps make nutrients more available to plants.

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Other researchers at the university are exploring ways to improve yield while minimizing water use. Wallenstein’s colleague, Meagan Schipanski, an assistant professor of soil and crop sciences, recently won a $1 million grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to look at how crop rotation and management can improve soils for better yields in water-restricted environments.

Drones dispatched by Boulder, Colorado, startup Agribotix fly over farms to collect data that shows farmers how certain sections of crops are growing. Such granular information can help farmers adjust watering and fertilization methods to maximize yield, Wallenstein said.

Big companies based in the state, such as flour manufacturer Ardent Mills, brewer MillerCoors and farming equipment maker John Deere — businesses that either supply the agriculture industry or use its crops — often collaborate with researchers.

“It’s important to include economic analysis from the beginning — and work with companies that understand the supply chain and the customer — so we can better tie these ideas to real-world challenges,” Wallenstein said.

Competing Water Interests Spur Innovation

Pressure to grow more crops with less water stems in part from conservation efforts.

Don Shawcroft, a fourth-generation Colorado rancher and head of the state’s 24,000-member strong Colorado Farm Bureau, follows government policy that could potentially affect farmers and ranchers. He said water rights for farmers may be threatened by federal legislation that would expand environmental scrutiny over bodies of water governed by the Clean Water Act.

He said state laws are effective at both encouraging farmers to use water wisely and making sure that enough water is available for agriculture. Still, Shawcroft welcomes the new crop of state farmers who are generally more open to different approaches than their predecessors.

“The next generation doesn’t always see it the way we do, and that’s OK,” Shawcroft said. “There’s always an attitude and willingness to try new things — a willingness to see how things can be improved.”

Hops Farmer Learns The Lay Of The Land

Ron Munger, who started a hops operation on 50 acres north of Telluride, Colorado five years ago, said he needed to get up to speed quickly on how modern farming is done today in the state. Munger, who moved from San Diego, said he was surprised by how willing area farmers and academics were to help him.

Today, his Olathe-based Misty Mountain Hop Farm counts AC Golden, a MillerCoors craft beer subsidiary, as his major customer.

“For the most part, everybody just kind of pitches in when a new guy comes in,” he added. “There are guys around here now trying to grow hops, and I help them any way I can.”

Brian Sodoma is a journalist who covers business and health. He lives in Southern Nevada.

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