Since its closing in 2011, several ideas for re-opening the Colorado State University Western Colorado Research Center at Rogers Mesa have been tossed about. Thanks to state funding and efforts by District 61 State Rep. Miller Hamner, a re-vamped center will open this spring, focusing on collaborations and community partnerships, business incubation programs, and on research and education.
After the 83-acre site closed during the Great Recession, it sat on the real estate market, but no serious offers were made. Several public, private and mixed use ideas, including a food hub and incubation facility, were considered for the site. In 2014, CSU, Delta County, Region 10 and other partner organizations conducted a feasibility study of the site in hopes of re-purposing it as community resource. None of the ideas gained traction.
Hamner is credited for securing funding for Rogers Mesa. A member of the Budget Committee and a frequent visitor to the North Fork area, in 2017 she convinced the General Assembly to provide $875,000 to revamp and restart research at Rogers Mesa.
"That was fantastic news for CSU and for the community," said station manager Frank Stonaker. "Everybody I've talked to is so psyched."
That base funding has allowed CSU to leverage more than $11 million in long-term bonds for its agricultural experiment station system, including $8 million for a veterinary diagnostics lab and regional Colorado State Forest Service office at the CSU Western Campus on Orchard Mesa near Grand Junction, and roughly $2 million for upgrades to the Arkansas Valley Research Center at Rocky Ford.
Within that budget is enough money to get Rogers Mesa going again, said Stonaker. A former horticulture assistant professor at CSU Fort Collins with degrees in horticulture and agronomy from CSU, Stonaker spent time at the Rogers Mesa facility before it closed and fell in love with the area. Five years ago, he and partner Beth Karberg, salinity coordinator for the Colorado Department of Agriculture Lower Gunnison Basin, moved from the Front Range to Rogers Mesa and purchased an orchard. When funding for the site was announced last July, he was hired as site manager.
Brian Braddy, a former technician at Rogers Mesa, has also returned to help manage the site. "He knows the place inside and out," said Stonaker.
The 83-acre facility includes water rights, roughly 60 acres of arable land, fruit trees, grape vines, a three-bedroom house, and a 4,000-square foot lab and office space. Since last fall Stonaker has overseen efforts to upgrade buildings and prepare the site for a spring opening. Cover crops are being planted to re-build the soil, blocks of dead and dying cherry, peach, and poplar trees are being removed to make way for specialty crops, and about 500 mountain mahogany shrubs will be removed and are in need of a new home.
The facility is still in the planning stages and an advisory group of local agricultural growers, producers, suppliers, and an economist are working to develop programs. Stonaker said he made a 20-page list of priorities for the site, with education and outreach topping the list.
Rogers Mesa is one of nine research stations in Colorado, and each site has a different research focus. For example, said Stonaker, Orchard Mesa focuses on viticulture (grapes) and pomology (tree fruit), and Rocky Ford focuses on irrigated crop production and optimal water use. A main objective in creating programs at Rogers Mesa, said Stonaker, is avoiding duplication.
There is a lot of interest in developing an incubator and accelerator program to provide support for new and existing growers. One area of research Stonaker believes is lacking in the research center system, "and one that's very vibrant in the agricultural world," is organic production. An estimated 65 percent of new farmers consider themselves to be organic farmers, and they need a reliable source for science-based references, said Stonaker.
There are also plans for table grape trials, root stock trials on a variety of cider apples and testing of modern training methods for fruit trees that can markedly increase production, said Stonaker.
A 20-acre area on the lower (south) side of the property isn't conducive to growing, but could be used for a solar farm, or as pollinator habitat, said Stonaker, who has a masters degree in entomology from the University of Florida and a particular interest in native pollinators.
Eventually, CSU graduates and undergraduates could live on-site and immerse themselves in agriculture and horticulture. With an emphasis on community, Stonaker would also like to revive the brown bag lunch program formerly offered through the CSU Master Gardener program. He also sees more job opportunities in the future, and volunteer opportunities.
Unlike in the past, Stonaker said the facility won't operate strictly as a research environment, and the gates will be open to encourage community engagement.
The seventh annual Eckert Crane Days, the annual viewing of the sandhill cranes migrating north from New Mexico through Colorado's West Slope, will be March 16-18. Representatives from the Black Canyon Chapter of the Audubon Society (BCAS) will be at the viewing site east of Eckert at Fruitgrowers Reservoir, 9 to 11 a.m. each day, to answer questions and provide binoculars and spotting scopes.