Specialty Crop Institute caters to needs of small farmers

What started out five years ago as an inquiry from a Fallon farmer, has grown into a trend of sorts toward growing specialty crops, said Ann Louhela.

Louhela, project director for Western Nevada College's Specialty Crop Institute in Fallon, believes that as consumers become more fussy about their food sources, Nevada farmers are hoping to appeal to more palates.

"Nevada does have a lot of ag farmers," Louhela said, "but when Rick Lattin (of Lattin Farms) went to Bus Scharmann, (Dean of WNC's Fallon campus), they got a small grant to start giving workshops."

"I had been laid off, and I was unemployed, so they hired me, and we continued to get grants for the program," she said.

Specialty crops could include lettuces, most vegetables, melons, grapes for wine-making, raspberries, blackberries, but not necessarily strawberries since it's difficult to compete with Watsonville, Calif., strawberries, Louhela said.

"There is also a nice niche market for cut flowers and lavender, but people are also raising honeybees, chickens, eggs and rabbits," she said. "It just tastes better, and the consumer wants food that doesn't have antibiotics and hormones in it."

The Institute was started by farmer demand, she said. Farmers were interested in learning about crops that could be grown in Nevada.

"The first workshop we held, we thought we would be happy to have 20 people, and at our last workshop, there were 135. We consistently have 60-75," she said.

Workshop focus

"If you want to grow tomatoes or grapes, you shouldn't talk to people in California," she said. "We get folks in from eastern Washington and Colorado, people who know our climate, to teach our workshops."

Louhela said another purpose for the workshops is to teach business planning.

"We would get farmers who grow alfalfa who wanted to diversify, or someone who wanted to build a hoop house, and we teach them what it will take in terms of the different labor and different soil requirements. We give them the information and they decide, 'Yes, I'm interested,' or 'No, I'll stay with what I've got,'" she said.

"With new farmers, we can save them money from costly mistakes," she added.

In Nevada, with 80 percent of the land federally owned, most of the agriculture is cattle and beef, but there is a lot of alfalfa, too, Louhela said. There are 3,000 farms in Nevada, with the majority in Fallon and Yerington.

"Even though Washoe County is urban, we're seeing a lot of 1/2-acre farms popping up," she said. "People might want to put in a hoop house to sell to consumers locally."

There also are some crops in Caliente, Las Vegas and Logandale - the Moapa Valley - where people sell to Nevada Grown. They can grow pistachios and they even have a pomegranate festival, she said.

"We have an early frost, so the growing season is relatively short here, but some specialty crops can be grown year-round," she said.

Small farmers

"We usually work with larger farms, but farming is changing," she said.

A large farm is considered to be about 2,000 acres, while a small farm is 400-500 acres, Louhela said, but the Institute also works with some that are 10-20 acres or less.

"The people coming now - the little guy who can't compete with those selling to national markets - is selling locally - known as direct marketing," she said.

She explained that a farmer with 5,000 acres of potatoes might sell them for 10 cents a pound, but the small guy could sell his potatoes to locals for $2 a pound, easily, because the produce is fresh and the consumer knows where it comes from. The model for the small farmer could be anywhere from 1/2 acre to 50 acres.

"To survive, you need two things: environmental sustainability and financial sustainability," Louhela said. "You also need a business plan, not just a romantic notion about growing raspberries. You might plant 1,000 acres of raspberries, but where are you going to sell them?"

The thing about farmers, she said, is that they love to farm.

"They are stewards of the land, they are the first environmentalists," she said.

The degree to which crops are organic depends on the individual farmers.

"Every farm is different. Ideally, they don't want to use herbicides and pesticides, and lots more are going organic, but it might come to where if bugs come in, you have to decide whether to spray a little or lose your entire crop that year, so you'll use a minimum amount," she said.


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