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How the West was One: Reuniting urban and rural lives and livelihoods from soil to supper.

A unifying, regenerative and nourishing food future born out of Colorado — the heart of the American West.

Photo of Matthew Barry
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

National Western Center Authority

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

The National Western Center’s mission is to convene the world to lead, inspire, create, educate and entertain in pursuit of global food solutions. We are a growing partnership that includes CSU’s Spur campus, the National Western Stock Show, the City and County of Denver, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and History Colorado. As a convener we engaged stakeholders across Colorado to craft a collaborative, shared vision for this prize. In developing our submission, we met with more than 100 participants (approx. 2⁄3 urban and 1⁄3 rural). We hosted six in-person focus groups — two urban groups (Denver and Pueblo) and four rural groups (Fort Morgan, La Junta, Alamosa and Grand Junction). We culminated the engagement process with a systems-integration stakeholder meeting focused on synthesizing insights to develop a final vision. Submission Team: National Western Center: Brad Buchanan, Matthew Barry, Andrea Burns with support from Colorado State University

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Our Colorado region is made up of an urban corridor and four rural production regions, representing 103,434 square kilometers

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The National Western Center is a year-round urban hub for food and agriculture discovery — in the heart of the American West.

The National Western Center is located within the urban core of the Front Range of Colorado, which represents nearly 80 percent of the state’s population and economy, while the four agricultural regions we’ve identified represent 90 percent of the state’s agricultural production value. These urban and rural areas should be mutually supportive and thriving side by side, but there are cracks in our foundation. The urban-rural divide in Colorado has never been deeper and the National Western Center exists to bridge that divide.

The National Western Center is of, by, and for Colorado, and proud to call it home. As an epicenter for food and ag innovation for the next century, the National Western Center will rebuild common ground and renew a sense of interconnectedness across the regions we’ve identified, to forge a new path toward shared prosperity, equity, and community — with food and agriculture at its core.  One of the National Western Center’s key initiatives is to strengthen the food chain in our state by connecting its diverse participants. Our vision herein — How the West was One — guides our work in strengthening Colorado’s food chain.

Construction of the dynamic, 250-acre National Western Center in Denver is underway now. When complete in 2024, the National Western Center campus will convene the best and brightest minds in ag, food and education in pursuit of solutions to address the global challenge of feeding a population of 9 billion people by 2050. With Denver’s first public food market; an ag-tech innovation district; Colorado State University System’s “Spur” campus for learning about food, water and health; and conventions with international reach — the National Western Center is poised to be the global destination for ag heritage and innovation.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Colorado is a headwaters state — the source of many rivers that feed into the western and midwestern United States. With soaring mountains, open plains, rushing rivers, and vibrant cities, the natural areas across Colorado craft unique food-producing regions and incubate a dynamic mosaic of human and food cultures.

This vision is built upon the unique strengths of these Colorado regions:

THE SOUTH PLATTE RIVER BASIN in the northeast produces three quarters of the state’s livestock sales and half its crop sales. Home to the only county in the top ten for ag sales outside of California, this region is a major producer of cattle, grain, corn, wheat, milk, sheep, goats, poultry, vegetables, wheat, hogs and more. This region exemplifies Colorado’s reputation as an engine of industrial innovation and commodity food production for global export.

THE ARKANSAS RIVER BASIN in the southeast is the second largest ag region in Colorado. It employs the full range of production methods that make Colorado unique including rangeland, dryland and irrigated agriculture. Its historic resiliency is a testament to the power of communities banding together to beat the whims of weather and agricultural markets.

THE SAN LUIS VALLEY in south-central Colorado is a prime example of multigenerational family farms, some on their 16th generation, leveraging unique bioregions to develop innovative solutions used around the world (i.e. using irrigated agriculture and long, frigid winters to become the nation's second largest producer of potatoes).

THE WESTERN SLOPE is warmed by a unique mesa at the upper reaches of the Colorado River. It is best known for producing fruit and wine, and for immersive agritourism opportunities.

THE FRONT RANGE of Colorado is the urban core centered in Denver and extending north to Fort Collins, south to Pueblo, west to Boulder, and east to Greeley. While only 12 percent of the landmass of Colorado, the Front Range accounts for 78 percent of its population. Home to six major research universities, 33 federal research labs, and world-class management and scientific talent, the Front Range attracts one of the nation’s highest concentrations of publicly-funded ag R&D.



Colorado is on the map. It’s the birthplace of many national food brands including Coors, Monfort, Leprino and Celestial Seasonings, as well as fast-casual restaurants Chipotle, Noodles & Company, and more. The state is a major player in the rapidly-growing natural foods industry as well, with many brands based in Boulder. Colorado’s reputation on the national food stage is growing, with a pioneering craft beer industry, a slew of award-winning chefs, the permanent home of Slow Food Nations, and the setting for Top Chef season 15. Palisade peaches, Rocky Ford melons and Pueblo green chiles are seasonal favorites, and the National Western Stock Show draws 700,000 visitors each year.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.


It has been said there are two Colorados. Rural farmers and ranchers feel neglected and lack a voice in political decisions that directly affect them. Meanwhile, urbanites have become detached from the sources of their food, resulting in a lack of appreciation for rural communities. Rapid urbanization is exacerbating the divide — shifting financial and political power away from rural priorities (like irrigation) and toward urban priorities (like city water). By 2050, this divide is expected to widen, as the population reaches 8.1 million, with 6.8 million living on the Front Range. 


Population shifts and climate change are driving Colorado toward a water crisis. Colorado’s agricultural regions receive 10 to 15 inches of annual precipitation. However, our water is not just important for Colorado. As the headwaters of 18 other states, we are effectively the lifeblood of the thriving ag economies around the West. Increasingly, water is diverted to the urban core or to southern California. 

At the same time, annual average temperatures have increased by about 2 degrees over the past 30 years and are forecast to increase up to another 5 degrees by 2050. This means more snow in winter but less May to September, which could lead to earlier snowmelt and less water for growing. By 2050, the Colorado Water Plan predicts 700,000 acres of agriculture could come out of production.

These trends have a strong correlation with the booming urban economy. As incomes increase and more people are pulled into the cities, land prices are increasing rapidly as the cost of living in Colorado rises (median home cost is about $384,000; the national average is about $231,000). Higher land prices hinder beginning farmers from accessing prime ag land, and exacerbate challenges in transitioning family farms to younger generations. 


An influx of high-income workers is driving up Colorado’s cost of living, widening health and food-access disparities across urban and rural regions. Close to 1 in 11 Coloradans and 1 in 7 families in Denver are food insecure. Nearly half the low- and moderate-income neighborhoods around the city have no grocery store, and despite having the lowest rate of adult obesity in the country, the rate of increase in obese/overweight people since 2009 has been higher in kids grades 9-12 than in adults. Clearly the benefits of a 2.7 percent unemployment rate and growing economy are not shared equally across families.


Soil health is the heart of the food system. Economic pressures often drive farmers to adopt cost-efficient but soil-unfriendly practices. But rural communities and economies are reliant on healthy, productive soil to sustain successful agricultural businesses over time. Without that economic sustainability, it is difficult to remain responsible stewards of the land, return greater health and productivity to the soil, and properly nourish and feed a growing population.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Through collaborative efforts in soil, water, health, technology, agritourism and ag business, the National Western Center will build deeper and stronger connections between — and drive equitable value across — all stakeholders along the food and ag value chain.


We believe food drives connection, connection drives respect, and respect fosters community. By 2050, the National Western Center will have reestablished connections to the people and places from where our food comes, bridging the urban-rural divide.


The National Western Center will drive urban consumer engagement and education through unique, on-campus experiences of rural agriculture (e.g. the Smithsonian of Colorado food and agriculture). By 2050, these food-based experiences will foster an inclusive celebration of our region’s diverse food culture that will lift up the most vulnerable across the urban-rural socio- political continuum. Further, the National Western Center will serve as a convener, bringing the critical voice of agricultural producers to the table.


The National Western Center will root ag innovation in rural regional hubs by developing a micropolitan entrepreneurship network that pulls urban tech workers into rural areas for attractive work opportunities. By 2050, the Colorado region will be recognized as a leading global innovation cluster in food and agriculture and will feature a robust portfolio of patents, early-stage venture funding, and R&D. 


We intend to invest in next-gen ag workforce development (e.g., ag drone technicians) and help cultivate new market opportunities for Colorado farmers and ranchers (e.g., expanding the Colorado Proud brand). By 2050, technological efficiency and robust markets will drive on-farm profitability, thanks to our investments in new food infrastructure across the urban-rural continuum.


Leveraging the power of an interconnected regional food system and shared identity, the National Western Center will help drive the equitable production and distribution of nutrient-dense foods through urban and rural communities. By 2050, the trend toward more diet-related-lifestyle diseases will be reversed, and inequity in food access and food security will be a thing of the past.



Our vision has an explicit focus on soil, water, and health. It includes facilitating a new ecosystem service marketplace to pay farmers for carbon sequestration and other environmental regeneration. By 2050, the past decades of degradation to agricultural lands, soil, water, air quality, and native habitat will be reversed and a virtuous cycle of waste reduction and regeneration will bolster our bioregional resilience to climate disruption.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

See our vision in full color:

It is 2050, and we have regenerated our common ground. In this remarkable new world, the National Western Center is the nexus of ag innovation and collaboration, radiating regenerative solutions across the state and around the globe. We have achieved the vision of conservationist Aldo Leopold, who said, “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

The $1 billion investment that the people of Colorado made into building the National Western Center campus in the early 2000s has proven to be one of the most impactful investments in the state’s history. It led a once-fractured network of urban and rural communities to invest in co-designing solutions, transforming the agricultural and food economy.

The National Western Center led the joint development of new rural economic opportunities and food policies, crafted in unison by urban and rural communities. As a result, soil health and productivity have been restored, following the mass adoption of regenerative agriculture. Rural farmers and ranchers are hailed as heroes for battling climate change by sequestering carbon in soil. Water is plentiful — thanks to healthier soil, smart urban planning, and prioritizing agricultural usage. 

This new food system has created transformational byproducts. Climate has stabilized as carbon and other greenhouse gas levels have declined. Food is richer, tastier, and more nutrient dense. As a result of economic improvements and new, cost-efficient production methods, food is more affordable and farmer prosperity is at an all time high.. Healthy foods are readily accessible and food security is assured for all Colorado families. 

It is a renewable system. It is a resilient system. Through the power of food we linked the complex systems of urban and rural communities into one shared community, building a regenerative and nourishing food system for all. 

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?



The National Western Center used the economic dependencies in the value chain to build cultural bridges between rural and urban communities and across diverse industries. For example, in what was once a food desert, the National Western Center’s public food market becomes an internationally-recognized epicenter of healthy, local, fresh food. It reconnects consumers to the source of their food, and creates business-development opportunities for low-income entrepreneurs as well as a vital pathway for Colorado’s ag community to bring their products to urban markets.

Programs at the National Western Center help rebuild connections between Colorado’s rural and urban communities, and reconnect urban consumers with their agricultural resource base. Agritourism and education are just the beginning — creating shared values about the importance of nutritious food and those who produce it — ultimately driving a more equitable and efficient food chain. 

Each year at the National Western Center, the National Western Stock Show now draws more than 1 million visitors from around the state and the world to celebrate agriculture and advance the ag field. Meanwhile, the immersive experiences in Colorado State University’s Spur facilities are a scalable model for educating children and adults around the critical issues of food, water and animal health. In the summer, a new, signature experience — a multi-day festival modeled on South by Southwest — brings together 200,000 thought leaders, artists, innovators and funders. All are united in their commitment to sustainable food and agriculture. 

Gretchen Harris, Farmer:
“I inherited my farm from my parents, but I've also purchased the surrounding lands. I live on the Western Slope, and on the Western Slope the National Western Center has helped finance a processing facility. Now many farmers in the area are bringing their products there. I've also been connected with markets in Colorado and beyond, and I've been provided with technical assistance. I feel proud. I feel respected. I don't always agree with the community members in Denver, but I travel there quite often on business, and I feel that we share a mutual respect.”


Community well-being, health, access to nutrition, and overall happiness have become important metrics for the state as mandated by the Colorado Food Bill of Rights. Driven by a sense of shared destiny and nearly unprecedented bipartisanship, Colorado adopted a statewide Food Bill of Rights and a corresponding Food and Farm Bill to move public, private, and philanthropic work across the food system in both rural and urban communities. This innovative legislation was developed through massive statewide engagement that recognizes the unique role of the public sector in reinforcing the private and philanthropic food system. These policies improved the economic viability of family farms and rural communities while distributing nutrient-dense foods to combat key social determinants of health including inequities in healthy food access, food insecurity and hunger.

Through partnerships and work on its own campus, the National Western Center helped establish Colorado as a center for ag innovation and technology, incubating companies to measure soil carbon, propagate regenerative agriculture, deliver water efficiency, build food incubators, spread urban farming, and create community economic development.

In this remarkable new world, the National Western Center is the mainframe, providing knowledge, resources, programs, and tech to ensure the food system works effectively and produces value for all participants. Through data aggregation and analysis between the National Western Center and its partners, a technological and informational backbone powers the Colorado food ecosystem and is the connector between people, farms, and food. The National Western Center helps the city, state, and its farmers to understand supply/demand trends, operational issues, environmental challenges, and the unique needs of Colorado's diverse regions, etc. It develops new technologies, seed stocks, and farming techniques, then deploys information digitally and through human teams to producers. 

The state grew to house one of the highest concentrations of publicly funded agritech in the nation. Colorado’s 33 federally funded research facilities all actively engaged and supported the work in delivering this vision, helping connect robust research to public and private actors in the food system. 

Siddiq Khan, Tech Entrepreneur:

“I moved to Colorado from California, where I started a tech firm. I felt called to create an impact in the world. Employees of the National Western Center approached me about running an ag incubator fund on the campus to help fund ag tech innovations around Colorado. At first, I wasn't interested. Then, I met the community they had built. They brought me around the state to meet with farmers. I ultimately decided to bring my business here, because Colorado is unique as a lab, a classroom, and an international model for others to learn from. I feel hopeful and inspired, and I believe this is something we need to do across the globe.”


The National Western Center cultivated the power of self-organization in rural communities by establishing rural innovation hubs and urban-rural joint ventures. With greater economic viability, farmers and ranchers adopted new, more efficient technology to further develop their businesses. With more technology on farms, urban communities created new tech businesses to support regional agriculture. These urban tech businesses generated new job opportunities for residents of agricultural areas, as well as for urban tech workers seeking a rural lifestyle. The influx of tech-based workers in small towns spun off more new businesses and jobs, allowing rural communities to further develop and thrive.

Colorado also became the center of the rapidly growing natural foods industry. While industrial agriculture sustained its market share, the natural and organic industry experienced double-digit growth. Consumer spending shifted heavily to supporting brands sourcing regenerative inputs and using sustainable packaging. 


The National Western Center’s on-campus ag innovation district is producing breakthrough solutions that create long-term value for Colorado’s producers. On another part of the campus, the “AGgregator” co-working space is filled with powerful organizations working to advance regenerative farming.

Soil health helped solve the climate emergency. Colorado farms sequester carbon in the soil through regenerative agriculture. In 2020, the UN FAO estimated we had only 60 more harvests remaining. We now have hundreds if not thousands of harvests left. Every 1 percent increase in soil carbon generated by producers equated to roughly five tons of carbon and created new revenue streams. Colorado serves as a global model for rolling climate change backward via farmers and ranchers.

Water conservation is a priority. For Colorado, as the headwaters of 18 states and Mexico, stewarding and enhancing this resource is now critical to the western region. Regenerative agriculture is essential to proper water management. Every 1 percent increase in soil carbon per acre generated by producers increases the water holding capacity of the land by roughly 20,000 gallons per acre. This has created new value streams for Colorado producers through the same ecosystem services marketplace, and has helped to prove a new model for mitigating climate-change-driven drought and extending the growing season in semiarid areas.


Researchers at the National Western Center and across Colorado created new technologies that allow residents to use data to determine the foods and nutrients that are best based on growing season/availability, and which foods can prevent or counteract health conditions, as well as satisfy our individual flavor preferences. These new technologies also radically transformed the efficiency of the hunger relief network and made just-in-time delivery a reality for youth and seniors experiencing hunger. Together with new innovation in public policy, the prevalence of obesity has been cut in half and less than 1 in 100 kids and seniors experience hunger. 

Vianney Brito, Third-Grader
“I live in north Denver, a few blocks from the National Western Center. My parents both work two jobs to support our family. I go to after-school programs at the National Western Center, where I learn about science and the environment. One day a week, I go with my mother to the public food market on the campus to buy fresh produce, grains and meats sourced from Colorado. I love to eat Palisade peaches and apples. My family is in good health. My grandmother told me that our neighborhood was once a food desert before I was born, and there were few educational opportunities after school. I’m glad things are better now.”


It was in Colorado, the heart of the American West, where the National Western Center established How the West was One — a template for food systems thinking. 

The best part is, it’s real. The National Western Center is already pursuing this vision, powered by the people of Colorado who in 2015 agreed to support our mission, and who committed nearly $1 billion to build a campus that would establish Colorado as a global epicenter for agricultural heritage and innovation. We will pursue this vision with a passionate focus on cultivating a sense of oneness across Colorado and the West. 

We would love to partner with the other applicants in the Food System Vision Prize to refine our work and to be of service to the greater community of food-systems change agents. We foresee this vision being scalable across the American West, and ultimately the nation and the world.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Email
  • Website
  • Conference/event
  • Prize partners


Join the conversation:

Photo of Benjamin Fahrer

Amazing project with great vision of scale and scope. I think often of this divide and urban to rural connection and am curious at the demographic and approach you are employing to reach your desired effect.

I would love your insights, comments or perspective on our project The Farm Clinic We are approaching this from a public health component and the soil being a foundation key to unlocking the challenges that we face in breaking through misconception.

Also curious what role indigenous people have played in your process and their input on such a center.
Keep up the amazing work. I will be out in Denver in later March and it would be amazing to meet up if possible.

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