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Growth, marketing of local foods focus of UNR initiative

John Seelmeyer

Organizers of the High Desert Farming Initiative at the University of Nevada, Reno, are stepping carefully in their relationship with the private sector.

On one hand, the facility to be created through a $500,000 federal grant is expected to provide much-needed research assistance to farmers in northern Nevada who want to sell produce to nearby restaurants and consumers.

But at the same time, organizers are taking care that the High Desert Farming Initiative doesn’t become a government-subsidized competitor to private-sector farmers.

The project at the UNR’s Valley Road Field Lab just behind the greenhouses that motorists see from nearby Interstate 80 is designed to test crops and marketing strategies to meet the demands of the so-called “locavore” movement.

Construction will include six hoop houses, which are essentially low-cost, unheated greenhouses that have proven capable of growing cool-weather crops such as lettuce even in the heart of winter in northern Nevada.

Also planned is construction of a new traditional heated greenhouse and a new food-packing facility.

Contracts have not been issued for the construction.

The Nevada Small Business Development Center helped spearhead the farming initiative, which has been about four years in the making.

Sam Males, director of the small business development center, said last week that UNR hopes to educate business students and agriculture students alike about growing and marketing locally grown foods.

For instance, the business plan for the facility was developed by Jennifer Ott, who is pursuing a master’s degree in business at UNR.

At the same time, the facility will provide research that can be used by growers such as Mark O’Farrell of Hungry Mother Organics near Carson City.

O’Farrell, who serves on a committee that will oversee the High Desert Farming Initiative, said the project is designed to be self-supporting. Sales of produce from its hoop houses and greenhouse will offset operating costs.

Males said the sales revenues are likely to vary from season to season as tests of low-value crops in some months are followed by research into produce that commands a higher price from restaurant owners and consumers.

But, he added, “We don’t want to compete with anyone.”

Any profits will be plowed back into the farming operation, Males said.

Holding up handfuls of lettuce and carrots that were grown in northern Nevada hoop houses in recent weeks, O’Farrell said organizers hope the new initiative will encourage more entrepreneurs to get into farming ventures to serve local markets.

One of the markets that might be served by the Valley Road facility is UNR’s own food service.

The $500,000 startup grant for the project came from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with the assistance of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid.