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Ag education eyed for Rogers Mesa site

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Photo submitted During a Teens on Farms 4-H garden project, Odessa Shenk leads a soil classification exercise (the "ball and ribbon" method) to check the soil at the garden plot at Delta County Fairgrounds. This is an example of the hands-on education env

A vision for the Rogers Mesa Research Center is taking shape as collaborators come together to revitalize a unique community resource.

Established in 1961, the CSU Rogers Mesa station engaged in research in tree crops, grapes, vegetables and alternative crops. The station was closed in June 2011 and put on the market for sale.

CSU was dissuaded from selling the site by stakeholders who asked for time to study alternative uses of the property that could promote local economic development. A feasibility study was funded by Delta County, Region 10 and the Colorado Agricultural Experiment Station.

The study resulted in a call for letters of intent to determine which organization(s) would take the lead for any new programs at Rogers Mesa.

While ideas were plentiful, the only formal response came from Teens on Farms, which shares CSU's vision for multiple public uses for the site that would support agriculture, education and economic development. The concept of a "Center for Experiential Ag" was launched.

In early 2016, Teens on Farms hosted an open house in hopes of recruiting project partners. Cassandra Shenk, founder of Teens on Farms, said the open house was well attended but no one was willing to make a commitment.

Then Ross Allen, a fifth generation rancher and a nearby property owner, expressed interest in bringing the hay fields back into production.

By combining for-profit operations like Allen's with the experiential learning offered through Teens on Farms, and with the backing of educational institutions like CSU and Delta County Joint School District #50, Shenk believes the research station can be re-opened.

Potential benefits to the community include connecting area producers and food to people in need, as well as educating youth for the future of farming and food production in Delta County.

To ensure sustainability, two main sources of revenue have been identified -- leasing revenue and educational revenue.

The Rogers Mesa site is comprised of 83 acres of land adjacent to Highway 92, and includes an orchard, vineyard, irrigated land with water rights, a residence, a classroom/laboratory building, offices, cold storage facilities, greenhouse and equipment/storage sheds.

The offices, greenhouse, cold storage and classroom are all available for lease. Educational revenues would be generated by providing experiential

learning modules for K-12, adult and postsecondary students. There would also be opportunities for professional development, and CSU ag students could pick up practical experience or engage in research.

"We've pulled together what we think is a really solid group of people," said Shenk, including Phil and Emily Wassell, seasoned educators who would serve as station coordinators. Both also serve on the steering committee for the Center for Experiential Ag.

"When I came back to the valley, I was really interested in bringing an alternative form of experiential education," Emily said, which meshes with the goals of the proposal put forth to CSU.

That agreement is being refined while at the same time Teens on Farms is launching a membership drive to raise the funds needed to start the new Rogers Mesa Center for Experiential Ag.

"We need to raise $5,000 by Oct. 15 to hire a grant writer, and another $20,000 by March 15 from local donations through our membersip drive," Shenk explained.

Memberships are available at three levels -- $50, $500 and $1,500 -- and would create opportunities for use of the facility.

As a nonprofit entity, Shenk said the Center for Experiential Ag would become a resource in the community "for anybody who is interested and able to make and manage agreements with the station with integrity."

Teens on Farms hopes to firm up its budget by March, so a strategic plan can be presented to CSU in time for FY2018 budgeting. Teens on Farms would like to do some pilot classes in the spring, prior to a full program launch next summer.

"CSU understands this is an outside-the-box concept, and fortunately they don't need every detail nailed down right now," Shenk said.

Membership information, a draft budget and project proposal can be found at teensonfarms.com. Shenk can be contacted for additional information at shenkca@gmail.com.

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