Collaboration and specialty crops

Rebuilding Nevada’s economy will take ingenuity, innovation and partnerships between higher education and local entrepreneurs. One area where the Nevada System of Higher Education is taking a leadership role is in the development and marketing of specialty crops. These high-value crops can be more water efficient than traditional crops such as alfalfa and corn, and can help diversify farm income. Despite the benefits and increased popularity of these crops, however, there has been little to no training available in specialty crop production for Nevada’s small farmers.

To that end, Western Nevada College established the Specialty Crop Institute (SCI), an education program designed to expand and foster the success of sustainable small farms. WNC created this self-funded program in November 2008 with a single $14,000 grant. Additional grants totaling over $200,000 have kept the program in operation over the past three years. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program took the lead in establishing a working committee to pursue funding for economic development projects. The committee includes the Specialty Crop Institute; UNR College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources (CABNR); Nevada Department of Agriculture; and USDA Rural Development. Two proposals have already been submitted with more in the works.

The Specialty Crop Institute facilitates training from local, regional and national experts through conferences and workshops, combining classroom and on-farm learning experiences for small-scale farmers, students, and professionals. Some of the topics include viticulture (the development of Nevada’s wine industry), season extension and hoop house production, cut flowers, and lavender. To date, the SCI has produced 16 workshops with an average of 60 attendees per event.

In 2010, the SCI was instrumental in reviving the Nevada Small Farm Conference which had been suspended due to lack of infrastructure to produce the event. The 2011 conference included over 15 partners and sponsors with nearly 200 attendees. It has expanded to a two-day conference with an additional day of pre-conference workshops. In addition to the SCI, conference partners include UNR CABNR; Nevada Dept. of Agriculture; USDA Rural Development; Nevada Farm Service Agency; Natural Resources Conservation Service; University of Nevada Cooperative Extension (UNCE), and more.

The SCI is also involved with Native American and rural outreach through its hoop house project. A hoop house is similar to a greenhouse but is much simpler and less expensive to build and maintain. It keeps temperatures higher in cold climates and protects crops from wind and elements. In partnership with UNCE and Owyhee Unified School, the SCI replaced the school garden that had been destroyed by early frost with a new hoop house that is thriving and producing vegetables for several months each year. In January 2011, the SCI produced a low-cost hoop house construction house in collaboration with Randy Emm, tribal reservation coordinator for UNCE, and the Yerington Indian Reservation. More than 130 participants participated in the hands-on workshop to construct a low-cost hoop house on the reservation.

Participants included farmers and ranchers from Northern Nevada and California, representatives from five Nevada tribes, and community members. As a result of the workshop, dozens of hoop houses were constructed in Northern Nevada, and the workshop will be used as a template to build more hoophouses throughout Nevada. Emm has already coordinated an additional workshop and built a hoop house at a reservation in eastern Nevada.

Through these and other collaborative efforts, WNC's Specialty Crop Institute will continue to work toward rural economic development, expanding Nevada's agriculture industry, diversifying Nevada’s farms for sustainability and serving the underserved.