Lifelong commitment to Southern Colorado growers leads to state recognition

The senior research scientist for Colorado State University’s Arkansas Valley Research Center in Rocky Ford has farming roots deeper than those of the crops he works to improve every day.

“I’ve been able to work in the same area where I grew up, with some of the same people and some of the same issues,” Michael Bartolo said from his office recently.

“It’s a blessing to be part of that.”

Bartolo’s family immigrated to the Pueblo area from Italy.

“My grandparents came to Pueblo County to try to make a living. A lot of families started out as small farmers in the Mesa and Vineland areas. Both sides of my families were farmers there,” Bartolo said.

He grew up on a farm on the St. Charles Mesa that he called “modest and meager.”

“But that small farm gave me a lot of opportunities. I think it set the examples for the generations to come. Those people really are the true champions. They took a tremendous amount of risk — and they worked hard with little recognition at all,” Bartolo said.

“They gave the next generation and following generations tremendous opportunities to go to school, to go to college. These roots are why agriculture is so special to me. It got me to where I am today.”

His family still lives on the small farm today.

Bartolo was recognized Thursday by the Palmer Land Trust at the 10th annual Southern Colorado Conservation Awards in Colorado Springs. The event was created to honor significant achievements that advance the well-being of Colorado’s communities, ecology and economy.

Bartolo received the Innovation in Conservation Award in recognition of his longtime leadership in agricultural research and in the Colorado agriculture community as a whole.

“I think I get too much attention. I have been very fortunate to be in a job that I really have enjoyed. To me, it’s about conservation and the real people that are doing the conservation are the farmers and ranchers that I have been working with,” Bartolo said.

“They are the ones taking the chances and having to do all the risky stuff — and I just have been fortunate enough to have a job to work alongside them. It’s humbling in the fact that they are the conservationists, not me.”

Bartolo’s work has produced new crop varieties, including the Mosco Chile, and improvements to existing varieties. His work with irrigation practices has helped farmers conserve water, boost yields and reduce pesticide usage.

“I’ve always been in love with agriculture. I went to County High School and then went away for my undergraduate and masters at Colorado State University-Fort Collins,” Bartolo said.

“That really continued to stoke my interest in agriculture and research.”

After CSU, Bartolo went to the University of Minnesota, where he earned his Ph.D.

“The stars just aligned when I finished my doctorate up there. A position opened up with CSU here in the Arkansas Valley at the research center. That was 29 years ago. So I have been here a while,” Bartolo said with a laugh.

Bartolo has also provided leadership to various Colorado agricultural communities and groups. He helped establish the Rocky Ford Growers Association and the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Association, where he continues to serve as a board member. He also serves on various irrigation ditch boards and community service groups.

“Both the men and women who are involved in agriculture are just amazing people. If you wrote it down on paper what it is to be a farmer, you’d almost have to say it doesn’t make sense,” Bartolo said with a laugh.

“If you wrote down the pros and cons on one side or the other, there’s so much risk and so much hard work associated with it. You have to really be – well I don’t want to say crazy – but you’d have to really think hard-line why you’d want to be a farmer.”

Bartolo says the community's passion keeps him motivated to excel in his field.

"They love what they do. They love being independent and they love working with their families. It’s just that kind of an atmosphere that’s so special to me,” Bartolo said.

“There’s been so many challenges in this area over the years — and there continues to be challenges, but I am always optimistic. We need a good food supply — and people are beginning to appreciate more the value of local food. Hopefully, more people will see that farmers are really special people in our society.”

amestas@chieftain.com

Twitter: @mestas3517