SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as 99¢ for the first month
SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as 99¢ for the first month

CSU studies specialty crop diversification options

Candace Krebs
Winter squash in a field near Rocky Ford. CSU is researching organic squash production and developing new varieties to suit organic growing systems.

The Colorado State University specialty crops program is exploring several promising options for crop diversification in Colorado. 

A couple of the projects involve organically certified cropland under cultivation at the Agricultural Research, Development and Education Center (ARDEC) South research farm east of Ft. Collins.

Interest in organic foods and nutraceuticals continues to grow. CSU’s specialty crops program coordinator Mark Uchanski spoke during a field day this fall about the need for more research into growing hemp to harvest as CBD oil, or alternatively, as seed and fiber.

“There’s been no comprehensive research for 70 years, so there’s a huge knowledge gap,” he said.

CSU is looking into the specifics of how to produce a high-CBD organic crop, including plant spacing and irrigation rates, and organic fertility management.

CSU’s project is also studying the best way to prevent cross-pollination.

Uchanski gave a virtual tour of organic high-CBD hemp plants being grown under drip irrigation on certified organic land at the station. Some of the plants appeared to be covered with heavy white cloth. “The reason we use the tents is these are female clones,” Uchanski explained. “If you’re growing CBD plants, pollination is a negative thing. In Colorado, there are large amounts of pollen that can travel two miles or more, so that’s a challenge for any high-value crop you’re trying protect.”

CSU is studying structures similar to the short tunnels vegetable growers often use, made from a variety of materials with small enough pores to keep invading pollen out. The effect on soil temperature under these canopies is being carefully monitored and recorded.

“Thick-and-thin row crop materials are the best materials in the study so far,” Uchanski observed.

Widely spaced female plants put their energy into producing flowers rather than seed, which is necessary for optimal oil development, he added.

Growers have several choices among hemp varieties and markets. High-CBD oil is the most lucrative, but another option is dual-purpose seed and fiber, also being grown at the CSU station. Researchers are studying the differences between the various types of plants and how to achieve their ideal growing conditions. 

Organic vegetables are extremely popular, but can pose unique challenges compared to conventional production. Jane Davey, a new research associate who joined the specialty crops program in March, gave an overview of research into peppers, tomatoes and winter squash being conducted in conjunction with the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative.

“This is a collaboration between researchers, farmers and breeders to get more seed availability and more seed evaluation information,” she said. “Right now organic growers just don’t have as many varieties as conventional growers have.”

“The idea is to actually breed plants and seeds for growing in organically certified soil,” she continued. “Organic systems are different than a conventional system. We want to evaluate the varieties that are out there and breed new ones.”

CSU has 13 varieties of organic winter squash in one trial, which allows them to look at disease and pest resistance and adaptability to Colorado conditions.

Among the plots, there are clear differences, she said, pointing to a wilted bed of plants.

“Squash bugs have been a big problem this year, and we do see some differences in the Colorado environment,” she said. “All of these plants that have wilted are from squash bug infestations later on in the season. You can see there are some small fruits developing, but they won’t get to maturity.”

Peppers are another popular organic produce item. Colorado researchers are looking for early maturing, high yielding varieties that do well in the local environment.

Dry beans have long been a staple of crop rotations in Colorado, but it might be time to refresh the model, another researcher said.

In the last decade or so dry bean acreage has declined due to low profit margins and disease pressures, according to Hannah Sutherland. “We want to find out whether other legumes could be an addition, or replacement, to dry beans,” she said.

She is currently working on a project evaluating the feasibility of other warm and cool season legume options for Colorado. 

The main cool season options are lentils and dry peas, which can be planted in the fall on either irrigated or non-irrigated ground.

“They have an advantage in water use efficiency and can be harvested earlier,” she said.

Spring-planted warm season pulse crops under review include chickpeas, fava beans and black-eyed peas.

“The goal is a production and harvest system ready for traditional ag machinery, so the farmer doesn’t have to buy new equipment,” she said. “These crops have been grown successfully and have sold at high prices, with strong domestic and international demand.”

These crops have done well in the Pacific Northwest, and Sutherland said CSU has high hopes for their feasibility in Colorado as well.