Local food advocates work to bring more urban farms to Northern Nevada

Tom Stille of the River School Farm thinks early education is key to getting the next generation interested in urban farming.

Tom Stille of the River School Farm thinks early education is key to getting the next generation interested in urban farming.

RENO, Nev. — At Brenton Aikin and Kass Freitas’ home in Midtown Reno, neat rows of kale, salad greens and baby root vegetables cover the entire front yard. Out back, a greenhouse covers a variety of cherry tomatoes climbing up trellises.

The couple’s crops are not just for personal consumption. It’s their first season producing as Ital Farms, a state-registered urban farm — and an example of what local food advocates hope will be a growing trend in Northern Nevada.

Aikin and Freitas are farming on less than a quarter acre of land, including another residential plot they lease a few minutes from their house. This first season, Aikin estimates they grew 500-600 pounds of salad greens and roughly 400 pounds each of carrots, turnips and radishes.

“It’s a ton of work, especially being a high-rotation farm. We’ll get four crops in a bed in a season, so I’m planting every single week, and three to four times a week we are harvesting,” explained Aikin, who also works at the Great Basin Community Food Co-op where he sells the produce.

They set up shop at the South Reno Tamarack Farmers’ Market once a week, too.

Aikin takes inspiration from Curtis Stone, a British Columbia-based farmer, author and consultant, whose one-third acre urban farm generates $75,000 a year from eight months of growing high-value, quick-growing crops.

“I think one of the challenges is changing peoples’ mindsets about farming in general. Even when I tell people now what I do, they say, ‘You can’t make money from that,’” said Aikin. “I totally disagree. I think we’re proving that you can make money from it. It looks like next year I will be doing this full time, so that’s exciting.”

A challenging environment

Tom and Iris Stille bought their Truckee River-front property, which now houses River School Farm, 25 years ago.

They sold native plants from a nursery on site for eight years and slowly began transforming the urban farm into what it is today: a farm with ties to education, housing, event hosting and small-scale production.

“None of us are full-time,” says Tom, who works with his wife as a landscape developer. “We have two part-time farmers. We really should do more, but it’s not a big profit center for us. It’s something we are passionate about, and we actually kind of lose money doing it, but we still like to do it because we love to grow food.”

River School Farm hosts school groups, rents out its venue for events, has developed a “co-housing” living space called Dancing River Community, and sells jellies and jams made from the fruit grown on property. The farmers also tend a plot of land at the nearby Patagonia warehouse, where they grow vegetables the company purchases for its organic café.

Tom believes strongly in the benefits of urban farming, but sees challenges when it comes to finding locations for more of them, the high cost of water and the difficulty of attracting younger generations into the industry.

“With biointensive agriculture, there are people who are smart farmers who are making a living on a half acre, quarter acre. This is not easy to do,” said Tom. “It takes a lot of skill, and I think sometimes people don’t realize how difficult it is to work with growing vegetables with the climate we have, the water availability, and all the pests.

“It’s a challenge. So I think education is important and getting people young.”

It’s why it’s easier for some urban farms to go the educational, nonprofit route.

Anna Hebard tends the Flint Street Farm, a small plot of land owned by Todd and Debbie Leonard of Rubik Environmental Consulting. For five years the farm has grown primarily vegetables, which the Leonards donate to nonprofits like the Reno Initiative for Shelter and Equality (RISE), Eddy House and Veterans Guest House.

“It’s their way to give back to the community,” said Hebard. “If this were a for-profit farm, it wouldn’t be sustainable on this scale. You would need at least an acre to make a decent amount of money.”

‘Doing more with less’

Throughout the urban communities of Reno, Sparks and Carson City, there are roughly 40-45 certified growers, according to the Nevada Department of Agriculture.

“There are certainly a lot of challenges when it comes to urban agriculture: cost of land, zoning ordinances, water rights, etc.,” said Ashley Jeppson, agriculturist for the Nevada Department of Agriculture. “Because of these challenges, we have seen urban farmers adapt to doing more with less, including focusing a small space on a specific in-demand crop — like microgreens or garlic scapes — which has allowed restaurants, retailers and consumers to get produce closer to home, in spite of the barriers.”

Brian Harasha, an indoor hydroponics grower in Carson City, is once such grower.

Harasha started tinkering with growing microgreens out of his home before eventually adding in 18 hydroponic towers and lights for producing basil, peppers and other vegetables. Under the business name Jazi’s Greenz, he sold directly to restaurants in the region.

“I started noticing a lot of competition with microgreens. There is such a low barrier of entry when it comes to cost, effort and experience,” said Harasha.

This year Harasha was introduced to a new type of crop — edible succulents — at an agriculture conference.

Now Harasha produces rare crops like sea ice and sea asparagus in his hydroponic towers and sells to high-end restaurants in San Francisco, Lake Tahoe and Reno.

The sea ice sells for $8-$10 an ounce.

Planting for the future

On the corner of McCarran Boulevard and Mayberry Drive sits the historic 30-acre Betsy Caughlin Donnelly Park, once part of a 6,000-acre working ranch. The land and ranch house were donated to Washoe County in 1990 for preservation, but as of late, passersby may have noticed changes on the property.

The nonprofit Reno Food Systems started leasing 5 acres of the land last spring and this summer began to farm on a portion of the acreage with the ultimate goal of teaching new farmers and creating more agriculture on underutilized public lands in Reno.

“Eventually we will have four plots,” said Lyndsey Langsdale, farm manager. “One of them I’ll manage and the other three will be managed by interns who come to the Park Farm to get the hands-on experience of managing their own small urban farms.”

The food will be sold to keep the farm running without having to depend on grants.

“Our vision is that the interns would go through the program at Betsy Caughlin Donnelly Park Farm and if we’ve got a partnership with another park, they could go on to create a farm on another public land,” explained Langsdale. “This is some years down the road, so we don’t have the details all figured out.”

But there still remain hurdles in the way of getting a more robust food system in place in Northern Nevada.

“The way we look at it, and why we’re called Reno Food Systems, is that urban farming is a component of having a community-based food system — all of the components that are necessary to putting food on a person’s table such as production, processing, distribution, consumption, and disposal,” noted Langsdale.

“We don’t have that in Reno, but maybe if there were more farms locally, those different components would fall into place.”


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