University of Nevada, Reno partners with USDA to bolster regional food systems

USDA project allocates $5 million to Nevada to build a stronger agricultural infrastructure

Rodney Mehring, owner of Blue Lizard Farms harvests 600 pounds of tomatoes from one of the farm’s hoop houses.

Rodney Mehring, owner of Blue Lizard Farms in Caliente, Nevada, harvests 600 pounds of tomatoes from one of the farm’s hoop houses, some of which was delivered to Three Square Food Bank Las Vegas. Photo by Abraham Mehring.

University of Nevada, Reno partners with USDA to bolster regional food systems

USDA project allocates $5 million to Nevada to build a stronger agricultural infrastructure

Rodney Mehring, owner of Blue Lizard Farms in Caliente, Nevada, harvests 600 pounds of tomatoes from one of the farm’s hoop houses, some of which was delivered to Three Square Food Bank Las Vegas. Photo by Abraham Mehring.

Rodney Mehring, owner of Blue Lizard Farms harvests 600 pounds of tomatoes from one of the farm’s hoop houses.

Rodney Mehring, owner of Blue Lizard Farms in Caliente, Nevada, harvests 600 pounds of tomatoes from one of the farm’s hoop houses, some of which was delivered to Three Square Food Bank Las Vegas. Photo by Abraham Mehring.

The University of Nevada, Reno has entered a partnership with a consortium of public institutions, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), to implement initiatives focused on strengthening the agricultural food supply system in the Southwest region, which the USDA defines as Nevada, California, Utah and Arizona for the project.

The partnership is part of a federal effort to enhance the overall resilience of the nation’s food system, particularly after the vulnerabilities exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. In support of the initiative, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service recently directed $400 million toward its newly designated 12 Regional Food Business Centers to coordinate regional activities and collectively serve all areas of the country. The centers will provide small-scale farmers, processors and distributors, especially those from underserved communities, training and guidance to expand markets and improve access to government services and funds. 

The Southwest Regional Food Business Center is set to receive $30 million to improve the agricultural infrastructure in the region, with Nevada securing $5 million of the allocated funds for the five-year period of the grant. In addition to the University of Nevada, Reno, the Nevada Department of Agriculture will be a key partner in Nevada. University of Nevada, Reno Extension, a unit of the University’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources, will lead Nevada's participation in the project.

Other key partners for the regional project will include the University of Arizona; Utah State University; the University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources; and the departments of agriculture in Arizona, Utah, California and Nevada. The University of California, Davis is the region’s lead grant applicant and will serve as the project coordinator. 

The program is timely for Nevada as it addresses the issue of growing food insecurity, exacerbated by the state's limited agricultural productivity, which has led to an excessive dependence on imported food. According to a Feeding America report, Nevada was ranked eighth nationally for the highest projected overall food insecurity rates in 2021. Additionally, the same report placed Nevada fifth nationally among states with the highest projected child food insecurity rates.

“Extension is honored to collaborate with the Nevada Department of Agriculture to revitalize Nevada’s agricultural, food-based infrastructure,” said Jacob DeDecker, the director of Extension and associate dean for engagement at the University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources.” We are grateful to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for this grant and their investment in Nevada. This support allows Extension and our partners to expand our reach and offer vital assistance to farmers across the state to help them achieve success and strengthen the state’s food supply.”

In collaboration with the Nevada Department of Agriculture, Extension will use the grant, among the largest it has received, to provide training and technical assistance to help Nevada producers diversify and expand their product portfolio, optimize operational processes and ensure that those entering food processing comply with USDA, Food Safety and Inspection Service, and Food and Drug Administration requirements.

“The Nevada Department of Agriculture is dedicated to creating food security in communities across Nevada and improving infrastructure for resilient supply chains,” said J.J. Goicoechea, director of the Nevada Department of Agriculture. “This grant is another step in the right direction by providing additional resources for producers and consumers, and we are thankful to partner with University of Nevada, Reno Extension on important work like this."

Extension will draw on its extensive grassroot networks developed over a century of providing outreach services to deliver targeted support through existing programs such as the Small Business Education ProgramBeginning Farmer & Rancher Program, Risk Management Education and Integrated Pest Management, among others. The Experiment Station, also a unit of the University’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources, will bring its research and teaching expertise in desert farming to the project, through its Desert Farming Initiative and the Initiative’s Nevada Farm Apprenticeship Program. The University’s Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Program also helps recruit and instruct participants for the Apprenticeship Program.

"The funding from this food business center will provide technical support to producers in the processing and distribution of agricultural products, conduct consumer preference research, and provide and build capacity on how to bring a crop from the farm to the marketplace," said Staci Emm, the project’s state implementation manager, and a professor and Extension educator in Mineral County. "Educating producers on value-added processes, such as efforts to reduce spoilage and boost consumer demand, will further contribute to this initiative. This comprehensive approach marks the first long-term program in Nevada specifically designed to enhance the distribution and processing of agricultural products, setting many of our producers up for success."

Nevada farmers advocate for supportive agricultural policies

Rodney Mehring is a past participant of Extension’s agricultural farm tours and a leadership committee member for the Nevada Farm Network, a project coordinated by the Desert Farming Initiative that helps fruit and vegetable farmers connect and access technical resources. He is also the owner of Blue Lizard Farms in Caliente, Lincoln County, where he grows specialty crops. In 2022, Mehring became the first farmer to participate in the Department of Agriculture’s Home Feeds Nevada Program, through which the agency purchases and distributes locally produced foods to those in need. This month, his farm was awarded the Nevada Agriculture, Food and Beverage Small Business of the Year by the agency for his dedication to Nevada’s food sustainability.

Despite his successful operation, Mehring, an advocate for Nevada’s food sovereignty, sees the potential for greater profits for farmers with increased state and federal support, particularly through initiatives such as the Regional Food Business Centers.

"I believe the regional food centers have the potential to empower farmers of all scales, to compete effectively against larger producers from Southern California and Mexico,” Mehring said. “Advocating for policies that fund farmers, coupled with providing transportation assistance and reinforcing direct-to-consumer marketing channels, would allow farmers to focus on expanding production, leading to accrual of economies of scale."

Bramble Farm in Spanish Springs, Nevada.
Brian Markowski’s Bramble Farm in Spanish Springs, Nevada, specializes in cultivating microgreens such as lettuce, squash and zucchini. Photo by Olga Miller.

Brian Markowski, farmer and owner of the Bramble Farm in Spanish Springs, Nevada, also sees supportive agricultural policies as a step to promoting farming as a viable and attractive career. He has worked as a teacher and a financial analyst but says that he didn’t find his calling until he enrolled in and graduated from Extension’s Beginning Farmer & Rancher Program. The program helps Nevada producers develop business and financial management skills to operate successful agricultural ventures.

Today, Markowski sells more than 25 varieties of vegetables at three farmers markets in Sparks, Nevada. However, had it not been for a county ordinance that has limited his water usage, curtailed his sales outlets and restricted his production to a quarter acre of his 10-acre farm, he says he would have expanded his production and sold his produce through commercial outlets. This would also qualify him for more USDA loans and allow him to participate in programs such as the Nevada Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School, which aims to help deliver healthy food to school children, connect them with the sources of their food and inspire them toward careers in agriculture.

“Establishing farmer-friendly policies in Nevada would surely foster a favorable environment for farmers like me and ensure continued production and accessibility of quality food for Nevadans,” Markowski said. “The Regional Food Business Centers can help us by advocating for such policies to build a robust food system for the state.”

Extension forms partnerships to train Nevada farmers in agribusiness and sustainable farming

As part of the project, Extension’s Small Business Education Program, which serves as a catalyst for job creation and economic growth for Nevada small businesses, will enlist the help of the University’s Center for Economic Development to provide producers with customized and multilingual small business education training, to be offered in classroom and virtual formats. The partnership will address a spectrum of topics, including grant writing, mentoring, business planning, financial management, regulatory considerations, record-keeping, value addition, direct marketing, purchasing and procurement. They will also facilitate feasibility studies and connect agribusinesses with funding sources.

“We are committed to launching business incubators aimed at discovering and fostering emerging producers, with a special focus on niche sectors like microgreens, irrespective of their scale,” said Buddy Borden, an associate professor and Extension specialist. “Our objective is to fortify their skill set and furnish them with essential resources, enabling them to navigate the challenges inherent in launching businesses. This endeavor is geared toward ensuring their commercial viability in Nevada, benefitting the local community.”

The Nevada Small Business Development Center, a statewide nonprofit organization that offers innovative training to support businesses throughout their stages of growth, will also partner with Extension’s Small Business Education Program to help farmers position their businesses for success. The Center provides advisement on topics such as marketing, sales and expense forecasting, protecting intellectual property, and financing options.

"This program represents a significant leap forward, as it allows us to bring on board an additional rural business advisor with expertise in food systems, agriculture and value-added food concepts," said Winne Dowling, state director of the Nevada Small Business Development Center. "Since its establishment in 1985, the Center has been providing free and confidential assistance to businesses at its 12 locations across Nevada, to foster job creation, initiate new businesses, attract capital investments and boost sales, and we are pleased to collaborate with the Regional Food Centers project in transforming Nevada farmers into entrepreneurs."

The Desert Farming Initiative will provide technical assistance to small- to medium-sized food producers in northern Nevada and align with other existing efforts that support the agricultural industry, such as the Initiative’s Nevada Farm Apprenticeship Program, according to Jill Moe, director of the Initiative. The Apprenticeship Program involves apprentices in grower-to-grower training, hands-on farming, and farm incubator management for executing individualized crop and sales plans. Emphasizing certified organic and climate-smart practices, it provides apprentices with guidance through science-based agriculture, food systems and farm business curriculum led by university and industry specialists.

"To operate viable enterprises, farmers require skills in marketing, sales and financial management," Moe said. "The objective of the Nevada Farm Apprenticeship Program is to provide them with training to not only farm, but also make informed financial choices, successfully engage in the market and implement climate-smart practices."

As part of the overarching project, the Center will also have a leadership council, comprising key partners, representatives of tribal nations and colonias (unincorporated settlements on the Mexican-United States border), and the stakeholder advisory board. The leadership council will offer policy recommendations, help coordinate funding opportunities and oversee initiatives such as business builder grants, which will distribute subawards of up to $100,000 to support projects that address regional needs and investments.

Nevadan producers can already visit the website, for information on some upcoming events and resources. For more information on Nevada’s efforts as part of the Southwest Regional Food Business Center or to learn how to participate in the program, contact Emm, the state’s project implementation manager.

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