From Famine to Feast
A Few Groups in Reno Desert are Finding the Will, and the Way, to Provide Fresh Produce for the Hungry
By Annie Flanzraich, Nevada
The sun beats down on Laura Leonard’s toned, tanned arms as she rips a three-foot tall weed from the ground. She tosses the gnarly invader to the side atop a pile of other offenders she’s already brought to justice.
Next to her, tomato blossoms practically sigh in the hot sunshine.
“I’m trying to get rid of the weeds because they start to get really close to the plants,” Leonard says as she rests for a moment, settling her garden-gloved hands on her waist. “I pulled a dandelion that was like a tree. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Every Tuesday and Thursday, Leonard tends to the tomatoes and other crops underneath the hoop house on the University of Nevada, Reno’s farm, which is about eight miles east of downtown Reno.
But Leonard’s not a farmer. She’s not a homesteader, either. She’s a volunteer from Catholic Charities of northern Nevada, and she’s part of the organization’s Crossroads Program, which provides a supportive living arrangement for men and women transitioning out of homelessness.
Leonard helps grow food for the more than 154,000 people who rely on Catholic Charities’ food assistance programs. She’s part of a philanthropic, educational and agricultural ecosystem between the University of Nevada, Reno Desert Farming Initiative and Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada.
“I think this is kind of like therapy,” Leonard says.
Good intentions aside, crops don’t grow easily in the hills of northern Nevada.
In the peak of July, the sun beats down on the dry, brown dust of earth and midday temperatures crawl above 100 degrees. By night, a 40-degree temperature shift cools the air — until the sun rises again.
Come January, heavy snowfall often caps the nearby mountaintops and feathers the valleys. Above ground, temperatures barely reach 45 degrees. Below ground, the soil chills to even colder temperatures.
Through all these seasons, Nevada remains the driest state in the country — with less than 7.5 inches of annual precipitation. Only about six percent of the 110,000 square miles in the state are cultivated for agriculture.
“It’s not like in California or North Carolina or some places where you throw seeds out your back door and all of a sudden you have vegetables,” says Jennifer Ott, the project manager of the Desert Farming Initiative. “It’s not quite that easy here. But, it can be with the right tools and the right selection.”
In the midst of this aridity, rows of green and red lettuce grow on the University of Nevada, Reno’s 900-acre Main Station Field Lab—one of the several outdoor laboratories throughout the state that are part of the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station. Next to the lettuce, tomato plants blossom beneath the cover of six hoop houses.
The hoop houses are the centerpiece of the partnership between Catholic Charities and the Desert Farming Initiative. In 2015, Catholic Charities provided $15,000 in funding to erect the 8-foot high, 16-foot wide, 96-foot long hoop houses. The simple structures (built with reinforcing bar, metal and plastic pipe supports and canvas coverings) will be used to grow vegetables year-round to benefit Catholic Charities food programs. In the summer season, the hoop houses can produce as much as 500 pounds a week of fruits and vegetables.
“We use everything that is given to us,” says Yvette Myers, pantry director at Catholic Charities.
The produce feeds people who rely on the organization’s hunger-relief programs and who might not otherwise be able to afford a ripe, red tomato or a fresh bunch of lettuce. In July 2016, Catholic Charities received 1,480 pounds of lettuce, which helped supplement 9,800 meals for the month.
“We literally get the fruits of our labor,” says Jenyfer Cook, another volunteer from Crossroads. “So many of us have gotten lost in our lives. This work is humbling, but it’s good, it’s a good humble.”
Seeds of Innovation
“These will be red soon,” says Sarah Krum, as she cradles a pair of too-green Juliette tomatoes. A student intern for the Desert Farming Initiative, Krum helped to build the hoop houses that protect the blossoming plants.
“It was February, and there was still snow on the ground,” Krum, an agriculture education major at the University of Nevada, Reno, says.The hoop houses are one of the ways the Desert Farming Initiative tries to ensure full crops and good harvests.
“We always talk about the high desert climate — the lack of water, high temperatures in the summertime, low temperatures in the wintertime,” Ott says. “Yes, it’s not exactly the perfect environment, and it’s not intuitively a place where you would think that you could have a thriving vegetable oper-ation. But, it can be — using the right technology and the right techniques and the right variety selections.”
The hoop houses help to mitigate three of high desert’s adverse conditions (temperature, the wind, and aridity) while harnessing the power of Nevada’s biggest agricultural re-source—300 days of sunshine a year.
In the summer, students and volunteers cover the hoops with a black mesh cloth, which shields the plants from the brutal temperatures while letting in 70 percent of the sunshine.
“The plants can still photosynthesize, and have enough to grow,” Krum says. “But it keeps them cool enough that they’re not going to dry out, and we can save some wa-ter there.”
In the winter, plastic sheets cover the hoop houses to keep the plants warm and moist.
“That’s the really nice thing about using hoop houses,” Krum says. “You can put different things over it de-pending on what you need.”
Another factor the Desert Farming Initiative tries to combat is the dramat-ically fluctuating temperatures.
“In the summer, the heat really hurts us,” says Dalton Pils, another student intern who is majoring in veterinary science at the University of Nevada, Reno. “We have a lot of tip burn from the heat because it goes from 70 degrees at night to a hundred during the day.”
But in the winter, temperatures at the farm can drop to negative 20 degrees.
“In Nevada, because we’re a desert, we see anywhere from a 30-degree difference to a 60-degree difference,” Krum says. “It’s just so shocking to the plants that aren’t really designed for that.”
In the high desert of northern Nevada, water can be scarce. But the Main Station Field Laboratory is fed by the University of Nevada, Reno’s well system, which is a reliable source for potable water even during droughts. Still, the Desert Farming Initiative implements water conservation techniques and environmentally sustainable practices, like burying drip tape.
“By burying it under the ground, we have a lot less evaporation,” Krum says. “That’s where a lot of water gets lost in the desert.”
Then there’s the wind.
“It’s very violent,” says Brandi Murphy, a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno, and an intern for the Desert Farming Initiative. “You have to be careful and be mindful of your pressure points. The plastic will just tear right off.”
While adapting to a challenging environment, the Desert Farming Initiative also adheres to the Good Agricultural Practices outlined by the USDA.
“As the Food Safety Modernization Act comes into play, the Desert Farming Initiative has been the model of best agricultural practices,” says Ash-ley Jeppson, produce safety program manager for the Nevada Department of Agriculture. “When those rules roll out over the next few years, we’ll be working with DFI as they serve as a working demonstration farm to help all Nevada growers comply.”
Developing and supporting best agricultural practices is one of the rea-sons Desert Farming Initiative and its community-outreach programs exist.
“Because of our educational mission, we work a lot with the department of agriculture to spread the word about food safety,” Ott says.
Food For Thought
The Initiative began in 2013 as a partnership between the University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources and its College of Business, the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station and University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. At first, the program adopted two abandoned hoop houses closer to the university’s main campus, near downtown Reno.
“They were falling over,” Ott remembers and chuckles. Then, she looks proudly to the six other hoop houses, wash and pack shed and heated greenhouses that surround her on that same site.
Now, the Initiative works toward three primary goals. One is applied research.
“We do small applied research projects to determine the best practices for growing certain crops in our high desert climate,” Ott says.
The Initiative also strives to reach out to Nevada’s agricultural and educational communities. In addition to partnering with other Nevada higher education institutions, the Initiative operates with complete transparency.
“All somebody has to do is call us and say ‘Hey, what are you growing and how much did you get for it?’” Ott says. “It allows us to participate in the overall agricultural industry in a very unique way.”
Transparency allows the Initiative to build connections with professional farmers in the northern Nevada area. For example, when students needed to learn to grow melons in the fields of the Main Station Field Lab, they called the owner of Lattin Farms—a more than 100-year old farm in Fallon, Nevada (about 60 miles east of Reno).
“He helped us start our cantaloupes even though we might be seen as competition,” Krum says. “People around here don’t really think of it that way.”
While the Initiative is an educational endeavor, the staff and students treat it as if they were working on a for-profit farm. Between 60 percent and 80 percent of all the yields are sold to both wholesale and resale clients including U.S. Foods, a variety of food hubs in the Reno area and a farm stand the Initiative operates each Thursday.
The rest of the food goes to hunger relief organizations—a practice that began shortly after the program’s beginning.
“We had some produce that wasn’t of a sellable quality and some volunteers were nagging on me to harvest it, wash it and take it down to the food bank,” says Ray Saliga, farm supervisor at the Initiative. “They nagged me for hours, and I finally said okay.”
The fresh produce is a more-than-welcomed addition to the menu of shelf-stable foods the clients at Catholic Charities usually receive.
“It’s a healthier way of eating,” Myers says. “It’s just been a great partnership in the community. It’s opened up a lot of doors.”
Finally, the Initiative continually strives to develop, implement and provide resources for an educational program in sustainable farming systems for high-desert climates.
“That’s not just our university students,” Ott says. “For our K-12 students, we do tours and small, hands-on laboratories to get kids involved. We want them to know what agriculture is, where their food comes from, and a little touch of healthy eating.”
For university students, the Initiative hosts classes, undergraduate and graduate student projects and academic research.
“By us being able to grow, the professors and students are able to focus on their research and data analysis and not have to worry about who’s going to turn on and off the water every day,” Ott says.
For the student interns who work with the Initiative, the experience teaches them more than they would learn than in a classroom setting.
“Honestly, it’s a whole other ballgame,” Murphy says. “You don’t know until you’re actually hands-on doing it. You learn the lessons a lot more deeply.”
She cites an example of when she mistook blemishes on a batch of tomatoes for blossom end-rot—it was actually catface.
“In a textbook, they look similar,” Murphy said. “When you’re going through all your classes, and you’re studying to learn it, it’s not the same as actually doing it.”
For Sven Diaz, a junior at the University of Nevada, Reno studying computer science and engineering, the decision to work on the farm was simple.
“I could sit at a computer the rest of my life, so I might as well work outside for a little while,” Diaz says.
Annie Flanzraich is a writer and editor based in Reno, Nevada. Find her online at flanzwrites.com or medium.com/@FlanzWrites.