The High Desert Farming Initiative at the University of Nevada, Reno, is more than an academic exercise in agriculture — it’s a business experiment, too.
“We always keep business and business success in mind,” says Jennifer Ott, HDFI project manager. “We track all costs and expenses to determine if a crop is worthwhile and how much money did we make off it.”
HDFI is the nearly year-old collaboration between UNR’s College of Business, College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources and Cooperative Extension.
The initiative also works closely with the Nevada Small Business Development Center at UNR to connect with local agribusinesses. Rick Lattin, owner of Lattin Farms in Fallon, sits on its board.
“He’s always pointing us in the right direction,” says Ott.
HDFI’s purpose is student engagement, applied research and community outreach.
Students volunteer to help operate the farm, located at the Valley Road Field Laboratory, and classes from agriculture to anthropology visit as part of the curriculum.
HDFI is experimenting with a European lettuce called salanova, which is supposed to be less costly to harvest, and is growing cucumbers as research for the Specialty Crop Institute at Western Nevada College. In an informal experiment, says Ott, HDFI is seeing if some Asian greens, typically a winter crop, can be grown in hoop houses in the summer.
And as part of its community outreach, HDFI works closely with Urban Roots, a Reno-based demonstration farm that works with area schools to teach kids about agriculture and healthy eating.
“They’ve been a partner from the very beginning. We wouldn’t be here without them,” says Ott. “They got the AmeriCorps program going in this area. We’ve have five full-time AmeriCorps workers year-round and we have 10 this summer.”
The overarching objective, though, is for HDFI to do all that as a thriving business.
“The project is meant to be self-sustaining. We’re modeling an agribusiness,” says Ott. “That’s the end goal.”
HDFI is growing various crops, including tomatoes, peppers and herbs such as rosemary on its acre plot and in eight hoop houses and two greenhouses.
Since first planting in October 2013, HDFI has harvested more than 1,000 pounds of lettuce, which it sells to the dining facilities at UNR as well as US Foods, a national food distributor.
The Washoe County School district used HDFI-grown grape tomatoes in school lunches this past year and HDFI in talks now to sell to two other customers, both institutions, says Ott.
The initiative is also hoping to man a farm stand later this summer after harvesting multiple crops and working out the logistics, such as whether to accept credit cards, questions any retail business asks itself.
Then more planting in the fall and in winter it’s time to renew the soil and do much needed repairs, says Ott.
“And that’s when we take vacation,” she says.