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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Specialty Crop Institute Spurs Growth of Sustainable Farming and Local Food Systems in Nevada

December 1, 2011 |

Nevada has the fewest farmers of any state in the union – 3,131 compared to 81,033 in neighboring California, according to the USDA. Of these, only an estimated 200-400 are produce farmers, with ranchers dominating in the state.

“I’ve lived in Reno for 30 years, and didn’t even realize there were farmers here for the first 20,” admits Ann Louhela, Project Director of Western Nevada College’s Specialty Crop Institute.

That’s why along with its primary goal of providing small farmers in Nevada with an innovative education program to help them become more sustainable, the Specialty Crop Institute is also seeking to increase public awareness surrounding local agriculture in Nevada.

The Institute was formed at the behest of local farmers and ranchers, who were frustrated by traveling to Oregon and California for incremental farming and management lessons that were not necessarily relevant to growing conditions in Nevada.

“The techniques they were learning just weren’t applicable to the High Desert,” adds Louhela. Nevada’s desert soils have notoriously high levels of salt, especially near the surface.

Based in the state’s major produce farming area in Fallon, just over 60 miles from Reno, the Institute offers education programs for current and future small scale farmers. The institute teaches farmers sustainable farming methods to help them manage water more efficiently and diversify from low-value to high-value crops. Its approach is innovative and combines classroom and field-based education to help small farmers become more sustainable. “Farmers don’t want to sit in classrooms, so we host many classes on farms,” explains Louhela.

The typical participants in its workshops, which range from orchard planning to accounting, are small farmers looking to scale up production or the first-timer debating whether to start a farm. Most of the current participants run very small acreage farms that they intend to expand slowly. Most of them already sell through local farmers’ markets (there are 5 in Reno alone), community supported agriculture (CSAs) and co-ops, but lack the scale, insurance and food safety documentation to supply large wholesalers.

The Institute has had some success through its outreach and marketing efforts in connecting its small farmer participants with larger distributors. Just this past March, the Institute’s Nevada Small Farm Conference attracted a representative from major distributor US Foods (formerly US Foodservice). The company subsequently signed up several local farms participating in the conference as suppliers under a company initiative that encourages the growth of local food systems.

Growing Awareness of Locally Produced Food in Nevada

For such a small town – there are 225,000 residents – Reno has a surprisingly lively food scene, aided by proximity to the tourist mecca of Lake Tahoe. There’s a Reno-Tahoe version of the gorgeous Edible magazine – Edible Reno Tahoe – that promotes local restaurateurs, such as Mark Estee who prides himself on sourcing local beef and produce for his expanding group of restaurants. Nevada Grown, a non-profit, lists 120 producers on its website and promotes the use of a colorful symbol to denote producer’s provenance.

One major change for the area was the 2008 arrival of a 52,000 sq ft Whole Foods Market to a central Reno location. Their support of local food is legendary, and it’s made a great difference to Nevada’s farmers, in part because Whole Foods Market is so responsive to consumer demands for local products. As one successful Fallon farmer, Rich Lattin of multi-generational Lattin Farms, commented at a recent marketing workshop: “I have to sell Whole Foods my squash, but they ask for my melons because consumers request them.”  Whole Foods Market’s stocking of honey from a Sparks, NV farm – Hidden Valley Honey – led to mainstream supermarket chains Scolaris and Raley’s picking up the brand also.

Beyond this, Louhela notes that there are still many “’broken links’ in Nevada’s local food system and views the kind of education that the Specialty Crop Institute provides as one of the keys to fixing this problem. “Maybe 5% of Nevada residents know what local food is now,” she said. “If we could increase that by 1 or 2%, that would make a real difference for our farmers.”

Nicola Kerslake is a real assets investor, entrepreneur & advocate and maintains the blog, Real Assets Junkie.

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