Colorado State Program Lets Students Try Sustainable Ag Organic Farming and Produce Stand Business

An innovative program at Colorado State University, managed in part by undergraduate students, is providing university students with hands-on training in sustainable agriculture. The program, called the Colorado State University Agroecology Program, allows students to raise organic food on campus and sell it at the campus produce stand while learning about food production from a holistic point of view.

The university program, called COAP, was started in 1998 by several students, primarily Adrian Card, a horticulture undergraduate student. Card jumped on the chance to manage the 11,000-square-foot plot at PERC, or the university’s Plant Environmental Research Center, when the land opened up after the retirement of a professor.

"Several food crop students who belonged to a sustainable development group wanted to manage the space – which had been used for vegetable crop evaluations for about 15 years – in order to keep the space donated to food crops," said Card. "We wanted to see the space remain in food crop production so that horticulture students who concentrate in food crops would have an opportunity for some hands-on experience."

During the program’s first year, the students donated all of the produce to the Larimer County Food Bank – 1,300 pounds of it. Today, Card is the program coordinator and instructor. He manages the program, several student employees and provides hands-on and classroom instruction as an educational program that provides sustainable agriculture education at the university. He oversees three undergraduate students who manage various aspects of the space, including a greenhouse, garden and produce stand, and provides education about sustainable agriculture and high-value organic production in the classroom and through experiences in the garden. Under Card’s management, the student plot turns out several thousand pounds of produce with as many as three different crop plantings and harvests from each bed during the growing season.

The program is centered on the concept of agroecology, an old term that has been taking on a new meaning. When it was first proposed in the 1930s, agroecology meant that farmers would consider what ecological conditions would make certain crops grow best in any given area.

Since then, the term agroecology has evolved to embody food production within the scope of the entire food system, going hand-in-hand with the term sustainable agriculture, which means agriculture that is profitable while being environmentally and socially responsible. The philosophy supports locally produced food as a way to support communities and the environment. For example, the Colorado State Agroecology Program considers social and human perspectives, markets and policy, natural resources and ecology, and agriculture and technology while raising food crops.

"The goal of an agroecosystem is to create the greatest social and economic benefits while keeping the human food system interests in balance with the needs of natural ecosystems," said Card. "This sort of a program also works toward creating a sustainable food system so that farmers get a more equitable portion of the food dollar because they reduce middle-man costs and market as directly as possible to the consumer through local businesses, farmer’s markets and produce stands."

With that philosophy in mind, Colorado State food crop students in the horticulture department get an opportunity to raise fruit and vegetables under the concept of sustainable agriculture. Their fresh melons, corn on the cob, colorful eggplants and peppers, winter squash and carving pumpkins, tomatoes and broccoli, lettuce and greens, and other produce is sold to the community via a produce stand each Saturday morning from 8 a.m.-noon during the summer and into the fall, ending the last weekend in October, which this summer is Oct. 26. Proceeds from sales pay the student managers for their part-time positions and purchase a few supplies for the program.

COAP has participated in a Fort Collins program that supplies local produce to area restaurants and that supplies vegetables for the fall back-to-school picnic held by the university’s College of Agricultural Sciences. The program includes Cooperative Extension Master Gardener participation in the garden and greenhouse and provides several days of hands-on training for two Fort Collins high school horticulture classes.

COAP is funded by the university’s College of Agricultural Sciences, Cooperative Extension, Agricultural Experiment Station, Department of Sociology and the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. More information about the produce stand and COPA is available online at