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Struggling farmers getting creative

BARBARA MARQUAND

Facing tough economics, northern Nevada farmers and ranchers are finding creative ways to make a buck on their land.

Ventures range from building corn mazes to running dude ranches to growing non-traditional crops.Nevada wine, anyone? They’re not giving up on traditional farming and ranching.

“They’re augmenting their income, given the ups and downs of agriculture,” says Tom Harris, director for the University of Nevada, Reno, Center of Economic Development.

Ron Lattin of Lattin Farms in Fallon likes to tell this story to illustrate the farm economy.

Recently he bought a neighbor’s 1967 Dodge pickup and took the original title to the Department of Motor Vehicles.When he compared the registration fee to the one paid 37 years ago, he calculated that if alfalfa prices had gone up at the same rate, they’d be up to $800 a ton now.

Instead, alfalfa fetches $75 to $85 a ton, a mere doubling over 40 years.

Lattin Farms has diversified by selling direct to consumers, developing a corn maze and pumpkin patch and running education programs for school children.

As part of the direct-to-consumer strategy, the farm developed a certified kitchen for making specialty foods from farm products, and it sells produce through its own roadside stand and at farmers markets.

A box of sweet corn sold to the market will draw about $9.

Sold directly to consumers, it will bring in $48, Lattin says.Value-added products can bring a better return on investment, too.

Lattin Farms can sell zucchini for 48 cents a pound, or a 12-ounce loaf of zucchini bread for $5.50.

The corn maze is top-of-the-line designed by internationally renowned maze creator Adrian Fisher of London, England.

Each year for the farm, Fisher creates a complex design around a theme such as Nevada’s Pony Express and produces a computer-generated grid.

The Lattin family plants the corn, staking out 15-foot squares to create the grid, and cuts out the appropriate plants when they’re 6 inches high.

Meanwhile, the farm has developed school tours based on the state’s educational standards and hosted visits from 40,000 children in the last six years.

Some farmers are experimenting with new crops.About 92 percent of Nevada’s cropland is used for forage production, such as alfalfa.

“We desperately need something different because anytime the hay market falls, all our farmers get hurt,” says Jay Davison, a plant and soils expert at the University of Nevada, Reno Cooperative Extension.

“We’re also looking for crops that use less water because whether from drought or politics,water is going to become a more scarce commodity.” UNR Cooperative Extension is involved with growing trials of hybrid poplar trees, nursery stock, teff, a grain used to make Ethiopian bread and seaberry, an Asian shrub, among others.

Dan Hatrick in Orvada is part of a growers co-op for Indian rice grass.

The coop was launched after Montana State University developed a process for milling the native seed into a high-protein flour for people who can’t tolerate gluten,which is found in other grains.

Hatrick, who also grows alfalfa seed, potatoes, mint and Kentucky bluegrass, says he added Indian rice grass because prices were off for so many other crops.

Some farmers grow native seed to sell to the Bureau of Land Management.Hatrick says he joined the co-op instead because the market for reclamation varies widely depending on the fire season.

Meanwhile,with the help of the UNR Cooperative Extension, the Nevada Department of Agriculture and other groups, Charlie Frey started Churchill Grape Growers Inc., a non-profit that’s experimenting with wine grape growing and production in Fallon.

Several years ago, Frey, then a CPA in the gaming industry, returned to help with the family farm and discovered that the economics for growing alfalfa, corn and other grain crops didn’t pencil out.

“At one point, I was thinking about selling, but then my son said he wanted to live on the farm.” So Frey started looking for alternatives.He discovered that wine grapes would grow in Fallon’s climate and would require just 10 percent of the water needed to grow alfalfa.

The big temperature difference between Fallon’s daytime highs and nighttime lows is good for sugar production in grapes.

Frey then went to the university, which agreed to do a grape growing trial.

The farm planted 3,500 vines, including 10 varieties of grapes, in 2001, using grant money and contributions to construct the vineyard and buy winemaking equipment.

The university also started a grape growing trial on land belonging to Frey’s sister and brother-in-law, Judy and Joe Dalluge.

If all goes well, local growers eventually would form a wine grape co-op.

The experiment is a community-wide project.

Besides involvement of UNR, help has come from the Churchill County Commissioners, the city of Fallon,Western Nevada Supply and the Chamber of Commerce, among others.

Dick Tijsseling,who owned a northern California winery before moving to a Yerington ranch, is lending winemaking expertise.

Tijsseling also planted four acres of grapes on his land this year as part of a UNR trial.

This year, the non-profit harvested some of the grapes on Frey’s land and made a small amount of experimental wine,which will soon undergo a taste test.

Frey says there’s a market for Nevada wine among casinos, which want to serve locally made products.

But the non-profit is not encouraging farmers to plant yet.

The vines on Frey’s land are only three years old, and it takes three to five years for vines to produce grapes for harvest.

Once the growing trials are finished, the community will have reliable information on whether grape growing is viable and how to go about it.

Meanwhile, Tijsseling is experimenting with making wine from Fallon’s famous Hearts of Gold cantaloupe to extend the shelf life of that product.

“We’re playing with it,” he says.

Creative diversifying isn’t for everybody, Harris of UNR says.Not every farmer wants to deal with tourists every day, not to mention with the special insurance and legal requirements.

When developing the kitchen on his farm, Lattin had to get five different government certifications.He’s quick to add that every agency official bent over backwards to help.

But by nature the process is complex.

Diversifying can be risky, too.Hatrick notes that startup co-ops have a high failure rate.

And new crops, such as the wine grapes, can require heavy up-front investment.

Says Tijsseling: “I’m convinced we can grow grapes.What I’m not convinced about yet is if the grapes we grow here can make a good wine.”