Faith in the Future

Published online: Jul 12, 2021 Articles Sarah Ehrlich
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This article appears in the July 2021 issue of Potato Grower.

Colorado State University is serious about its land grant mission. The leader of the university’s College of Agricultural Science (CAS) is James Pritchett, dean of the college and director of CSU’s Agricultural Experiment Station. Pritchett has a clear vision of where he intends to lead the CAS in the future.

Newly appointed as dean in May of 2020, Pritchett and CSU were not only dealing with a pandemic, but droughts across the state research stations and serious forest fires that were scorching Colorado. Two missions became paramount: keep everyone healthy and continue to serve agriculture.

“We took the last year and began to explore where we want to be great and what the industry needs,” Pritchett says. One idea that rose to the top was regenerative agriculture. “We don’t want to just sustain; we want to improve water resources, the profitability of family farms the strength of rural communities.”

Under the label “regenerative agriculture,” CSU’s role is to develop best practices and understand the science, then take it for a test run. The experiment stations will use a management system to determine metrics, then translate that into practices farmers can use. In addition to these experiments, new plant varieties improve the path of regenerative agriculture. The goal is to provide varieties that are valuable to the consumer, but will also steward farmers’ resources.

CSU is setting out to create an institute for plant adaptation. The goal is to determine which crops will meet the challenges of tomorrow by using today’s resources — and doing so in an accelerated time frame. Potatoes are a perfect example, Pritchett says.

“It might take [potato researchers] six to 10 years of traditional breeding to get an end product,” Pritchett says. “We think we can shorten that time a lot — maybe to three years by some of the technologies coming out.”

A vital part of making shorter breeding times a reality is the hiring of a new molecular potato breeder and potato pathologist at CSU. Pritchett hopes CSU researchers can lead out in developing and adopting new techniques from their study of potato genetics and diseases, leading to development of new varieties that are valuable to growers and consumers alike — all at an accelerated rate. Pritchett plans to have the positions filled by January 2022.

“It’s a great time to be in agriculture. Whether your hands are in the soil or in the bank, there are great opportunities within the food system.”

            —James Pritchett, Colorado State University

State-of-the-art facilities and labs are currently being built in the new Shepardson building on CSU’s campus to house agricultural research. Pritchett calls this “a home for agriculture,” and looks forward to hosting farmers, ranchers and commodity groups there.

The laboratories, including one for potatoes, will feature many windows so that science will be on full display. In addition to this construction, the Spur campus at the National Western Center is being developed in Denver as an extension of CSU. The campus will feature an agriculture building with similar laboratory setups, gardens, greenhouses and a dairy innovation center — all in the name of connecting rural and urban life. Making these decisions in the face of the unknown of the pandemic demonstrates the resiliency of the university and its commitment to the future of agricultural research and education in Colorado.

“It’s a great time to be in agriculture,” Pritchett says. “Whether your hands are in the soil or in the bank, there are great opportunities within the food system. We will help students and employers get ready, and will help advance the science.”