CSU researchers to investigate solutions to Colorado agricultural challenges

solar panel in a field of grass
In an agrivoltaic system, solar panels provide partial shade for the crops being grown below, which can help protect plants from heat extremes.

To explore new ideas and initiate novel research programs, the College of Agricultural Sciences is funding six research proposals that address challenges common across Colorado agriculture. The Solutions to Colorado Commodity Challenges grants aim to enhance creative and innovative agricultural research, encourage partnerships with stakeholders, and catalyze the development of interdisciplinary teams.

“Addressing wicked problems like climate resiliency is not something we can do with just one kind of science,” said Jan Leach, associate dean for research in the College of Agricultural Sciences, noting that the research aligns with Colorado State University’s Courageous Strategic Transformation vision to cultivate a sustainable, thriving planet and a flourishing humanity.

Solving the problem of how to feed a growing population while sustaining and regenerating the natural resources that support agriculture requires solutions that are both environmentally sustainable and economically and socially viable.

The grants are focused on bringing together producers, growers and other stakeholders into the conversation to generate research topics that specifically address the needs of agriculture in Colorado.

A focus on climate resiliency and agrivoltaics

Climate resiliency is defined as adaptation to variations in climate patterns. There is an urgent need to discover, develop and scale innovations in agriculture, such as drought mitigation strategies and soil carbon capture, to ensure food security and sustainability for a growing population.

Agrivoltaics is the co-location of agriculture and photovoltaics (e.g., solar panels) and has potential to benefit growers in both crop productivity and farm profitability. Solar panels provide partial shade for the crops being grown below, which can help protect plants from heat extremes and increase water efficiency. Additionally, farmers add another revenue stream to their operation through solar energy production. Agrivoltaics is an exciting, emerging field with potential for positive impact in both the agricultural and renewable energy sectors, but more research is needed.

Funding for the Solutions to Colorado Commodity Challenges was made possible by a generous donation from Nutrien. These grants will facilitate initial research in these areas to increase the competitiveness of the projects for future external funding.

About the proposals

Addressing the threats of climate change in eastern Colorado with early-planting management strategies for sorghum

Principal Investigator: Geoff Morris, Associate Professor of crop quantitative genomics, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences

To maintain crop productivity and food security, agriculture requires strategies to cope with the negative impacts of climate change, such as increased frequency of heatwaves and drought. Shifting planting dates to better align with water availability is one such strategy. For example, in eastern Colorado there is more water available to crops in the spring as the snowpack melts than there is at the end of the summer. This research project will investigate the interaction between chilling tolerant varieties of sorghum – a drought-adapted commodity grain that generally prefers warmer temperatures – and its performance under different planting dates. Crop modeling simulation results will help quantify the relative grain yield of different sorghum genotypes using current and future climate scenarios. These findings will inform management strategies such as shifting planting dates and will also inform breeding programs in considering chilling tolerance as a potential trait in sorghum to cope with water scarcity in future climates.

Agrivoltaics innovation for Colorado: Providing solutions to commodity challenges by exploring agronomic crops and solar modules of varying transparencies

Principal Investigator: Mark Uchanski, Associate Professor, Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture

Interest in agrivoltaics is rising due to dwindling space for solar development sites paired with an increased need to bolster renewable energy infrastructure in Colorado. Farms are the next logical place for solar installations, but questions remain about how to profitably integrate solar modules: which crops to grow, how panel transparency impacts crop productivity and soil moisture dynamics, and how a cover crop or agronomic cash crop could be effectively integrated into the overall farm rotation with specialty crops. The long-term goal of this research project is to develop a set of recommendations for agrivoltaics in Colorado, including appropriate rotational crops. To do this, researchers will evaluate the crop and soil moisture response of two common cash crops in Colorado, wheat and alfalfa, under three solar module transparencies. This project will serve as a demonstration site where stakeholders can see the physical integration of irrigation infrastructure, crops, and a photovoltaics array. The results of this work will be immediately impactful for farm owners considering agrivoltaics on their properties and will be disseminated through both extension communications and in the peer reviewed literature.

Balancing innovation with practicality: Assessing agrivoltaics from the perspectives of Western Colorado fruit orchard growers

Principal Investigator: Bradley W. Tonnessen, Research Scientist, Organic Agriculture Research Station at Western Colorado Research Center – Rogers Mesa

Transitioning to renewable energy sources can mitigate the detrimental impacts of burning fossil fuels as well as provide energy in rural settings where options are limited. Agrivoltaics has the potential to benefit growers in both crop productivity and farm profitability through energy production. However, grower adoption of agrivoltaics is slow to occur, likely due to financial restrictions, and there is a need for more research, and especially outreach, to build grower confidence in the idea. This research project aims to assess the potential of agrivoltaics in fruit orchards, the high value crop in the Western Slope of Colorado. Researchers will construct an economic assessment on orchard agrivoltaics based on the size of farm and solar array types to account for the diverse needs of different growers and hold an educational workshop and grower focus groups to learn about their concerns and viewpoints. Ultimately, the researchers will form a diverse and interdisciplinary agrivoltaics working group to compile this information for use by growers and the research community.

Evaluating the potential of different agrivoltaic systems in Colorado

Principal Investigator: Meagan Schipanski, Associate Professor, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences

This agrivoltaics project aims to understand how solar arrays in semi-arid regions can be designed and managed to optimize land use for both agriculture and energy needs. In partnership with Jack’s Solar Garden, in Longmont, Colorado, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, this project expands the potential impacts of recently developed agrivoltaic projects evaluating different vegetation management systems. Researchers will conduct two distinct field-based experiments to evaluate the short- and longer- term impacts of agrivoltaic systems on water use efficiency, soil carbon sequestration, biomass and forage production, erosion control and pollination services. Relevant stakeholders will be interviewed to identify knowledge gaps, priorities, constraints, and general attitudes toward agrivoltaics in Colorado. Together, the outcomes from this project will inform land use and policy decisions, both locally across the Front Range and at national and international levels, to support sustainable intensification of agricultural systems and help farmers to remain profitable in an increasingly uncertain market landscape.

Rooftop Agrivoltaics: Support for the Leafy Green Yield and Environmental Condition Characterization Research Project

Principal Investigator: Jennifer Bousselot, Assistant Professor, Horticulture and Landscape Architecture

The emerging field of rooftop agrivoltaics has the potential to increase energy and food security in urban areas, which have limited space available for traditional food production. There can be a symbiotic benefit of co-locating solar panels on rooftop gardens. The solar panels partially shade plants which is beneficial in the high temperature, water limiting space of green roofs. In return, evaporation from plants cools the solar panels and helps prevent overheating. However, we know little about the shade tolerance of most horticultural crops for use in rooftop agrivoltaics and especially the way crop yields are affected. This project will study the performance of high value leafy greens (lettuce, arugula, spinach, kale, and Swiss chard) under both opaque and semitransparent solar panels and in adjacent full sun green roof systems. The researchers will test to what extent does the shade of solar panels alter crop growth, and reciprocally, whether the presence of crops increases solar panel performance. Findings will help inform future decisions around rooftop agrivoltaics and catalyze future research.

Soil Carbon Solutions Center Industrial Consortium

Principal Investigator: Jane Zelikova, Executive Director, Soil Carbon Solutions Center, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences

Regenerative agricultural practices that increase soil carbon storage on working lands can substantially draw down atmospheric carbon while improving the environmental, economic and social sustainability of food, fiber and bioenergy production. CSU’s Soil Carbon Solutions Center (SCSC) leverages world-class expertise across the university to build the tools and approaches needed to accelerate the deployment of credible soil-based climate solutions, measure their impacts and bring them to scale. Strong academic-industry partnerships are foundational to achieve these goals, so the SCSC is forming an industrial consortium to help guide the development and strategic priorities of the Center and provide opportunities for more rapid transfer of knowledge and expertise. This project will support the development of a communications strategy and brand identity for the consortium and support a consortium launch event. The launch event aims to catalyze the development of new interdisciplinary teams to tackle fundamental challenges in scaling soil carbon solutions and will be conducted in partnership with industry and other stakeholders.

Nutrien Gift

Nutrien — a global company with offices not far from CSU in Loveland, Colorado — has been providing crop inputs and expert agronomic services for more than 50 years. The company has operations and investments in 14 countries and 20,000 employees, including more than 600 CSU alumni. Nutrien’s gift – the largest in the College of Agricultural Sciences’ history – will impact the college in numerous areas to elevate CSU as a leader in developing a diverse, highly skilled agricultural workforce and boosting Nutrien’s ability to deliver industry-leading products. The gift supports the Nutrien Distinguished Scholars program, student scholarships, undergraduate research fellowships, faculty research grants, events like Nutrien Ag Day and the college’s inaugural Inclusive Excellence Day, and a 41,000-square-foot expansion of the renamed Nutrien Agricultural Sciences Building to house impactful programs and people supported by the gift.