Planting the seed

High Desert Farming Initiative

Mark O’Farrell, owner of Hungry Mother Organics, shows off lettuce grown in a hoop house.

Mark O’Farrell, owner of Hungry Mother Organics, shows off lettuce grown in a hoop house.


The announcement of the University of Nevada, Reno’s High Desert Farming Initiative came soon after the proposed annexation of the Main Station Farm Land was postponed—and for agriculture students and supporters, the initiative is a promising step in the right direction.

The High Desert Farming Initiative is a joint effort between the university, the Nevada Small Business Development Center (NSBDC) and local farmers, including Mark O’Farrell of Hungry Mother Organics and Rick Lattin of Lattin Farms. It will transform the Valley Road Field Lab into what the university calls a “collaborative agribusiness demonstration project and farm.”

The initiative is threefold: provide learning opportunities for students and community members, develop research on organic farming in high desert climates, and use agriculture as economic development for small businesses. It is funded with $500,000 provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Lattin and O’Farrell will serve as community representatives to the university and will handle much of the day-to-day operation.

“As a society, we’ve gotten to the point where everything we eat is processed,” said O’Farrell. “Forty years later, we’re seeing a reaction to that. There’s a consumer preference for local and organic food.” He also mentioned that the initiative has “a special focus on small farms,” and cited his educational background at Virginia Tech, where Future Farmers of America was founded.

The food grown at the facility will be used toward food services on the UNR campus and will be available for local stores and businesses. Waste generated by the facility will be used as compost material. Students will have opportunities to be involved in all aspects of the operation, and some have been a part of the initiative’s inception—graduate student Jennifer Ott wrote the initiative’s business plan.

“Students will participate in business and agriculture right here rather than going to some outlying place,” said NSBDC director Sam Males. “Construction, research and outreach is the 21st century model for agribusiness.”

Through the initiative, six hoop houses, a new greenhouse, new produce packing facility and an area for composting will be built. Officials estimate the construction of the new buildings will be completed this summer.

O’Farrell emphasized the use of hoop houses to grow produce as a way of “enhancing our natural environment.” He argued that greenhouses are often fossil fuel intensive, whereas hoop houses allow for more adaptability and experimentation.

“Hoop houses create their own ecosystems,” he said. “We want farmers to introduce more risk to their operation.”

He cited the use of durable materials, such as twin wall polycarbonate panels, that will be used in the hoop houses so farmers can “alter our environment” and maintain a steady stream of food production.

Research on economical and sustainable farming practices will be a vital part of the initiative, and officials say the university has already collected some funding to be delegated toward studies which will investigate how farmers can plant durable, healthy crops organically in Northern Nevada.

“The amount of food we produce will be minimal, initially,” O’Farrell said. “But [this project] has potential for rural development and urban food production.”