Born on a farm in South Dakota but raised in California, Larson returned to the old homestead after graduating high-school to help his brother with restorations. Eventually, he decided to buy a farm of his own, just seven miles away. Unfortunately, that particular parcel of land was located on the edge of an ancient glacial valley, which caused extremely rocky soil—not an ideal environment for farming.
“The farm I bought wasn’t a very good one—it had some real issues,” Larson recalls. “I failed as a farmer because I didn’t ask enough questions. So, I went back to school and decided to be that resource for other farmers.”
Larson returned to California to study agronomy at UC-Davis, where he earned his master’s degree. While he initially desired to be an extension agent, he found the combination of public outreach and ongoing research ideal. A chance meeting between a professor of Larson’s and CSU faculty led to the recommendation that Larson oversee the Plainsman Research Center in Walsh, Colorado, which had opened just 15 years earlier. That was in 1988 and Larson has been the face of the center ever since.
The importance of the research center can’t be understated. Walsh is a rural farming town of about 400 people in the southeast corner of Colorado. With a strong historic connection to the Dust Bowl, farmers in the region understand that their line of work often operates on a knife’s edge. Add on the fact that the local Plainsman Agricultural Research Foundation owns the land that houses the center, and it becomes clear how important of a resource the center is to the community.
“I have seen times when there were six major Dust Bowl-like storms in a year,” says Larson. “Just absolute dust—you couldn’t see a few feet in front of you. It was nasty. We’ve always got to be cognizant of that. We’ve got to be able to hold that soil in place.”
On top of dealing with occasional apocalyptic-like storms, Larson has been instrumental in helping local farmers with myriad issues. Fertilizing methods, no-till and reduced tillage, crop rotations, herbicide-resistant weed management and crop varieties are just a few of the ongoing and evolving topics local farmers have relied on Larson for advice. Being this fountain of research and giving back to the community has created a special bond between Larson and local farmers.
“When I go out to their farm, it’s like I’m walking on my own farm, I feel that close to it,” says Larson. “If I know that they’re succeeding, and able to make more informed decisions, that’s my success.”
As to whether or not Larson ever sees his younger, misguided self in the newer generation of farmers taking over the land? Not really.
“I don’t think anyone’s been quite as naïve as I was,” he jokes. “Coming to Plainsman, I think I’ve helped a number of growers. I know that they can’t afford to make a mistake. If they make a mistake, they may fail. So, I try to keep them making informed decisions.”