Growing local, buying local
Mark O’Farrell takes a seat by a tiny wooden shed on his five-acre farm just south of Carson City.
“It has not been an easy spring,” O’Farrell said, sporting a flannel shirt and baseball cap. “It’s hard to predict the grow season in Nevada. Usually in April or May there are a couple of usable weeks with warmer weather.”
As another late winter storm peaks over the Sierra, a nearby flock of chickens suddenly shoot like a school of fish into their coop when a hawk begins to hover overhead.
Welcome to farming in rocky, windy Northern Nevada.
O’Farrell is the owner of Hungry Mother Organics, located at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, where he grows dozens of fruit and vegetable varieties and raises free-range chicken. He’s also among the dozen or so farmers who bring produce to the farmers markets every week during the summer in Carson City, which started May 8.
But sustaining his four-year-old operation requires more than hawking tomatoes and farm-fresh eggs to eager foodies every weekend. The business he gets from farmers markets amount to just a quarter of O’Farrell’s income, which is why he is trying to break into the retail business. He recently opened a store on Highway 395 – the former Northern Nevada Nursery – just south of Carson City. He also supplies the Whole Foods market in Reno as well as several restaurants in the region.
The demand for his products have steadily increased, partially thanks to farmers markets, O’Farrell said.
Linda Marrone, the executive director of Nevada Grown who also oversees farmers markets in Carson City, said the events have grown each year since they were established three years ago. She said she tallies between 500 to 1,000 attendees and 30 venders, including about a dozen farmers, at the farmers market each week.
The number of farmers markets across the country is ballooning, too.
There were 5,274 farmers markets in the United States in 2009, a 12.6 percent increase from 2008. In 1994 there were 1,755 markets nationwide, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
“People are much more aware because of all the E. Coli scares, the pesticide scares, the whole obesity thing,” she said. “There have always been people who care about cooking and buying the best food they can and eating locally and eating in season.”
You are what you eat
Nancy Dineen goes to work around 8 a.m. Her office: a farm in her backyard.
Dineen and her husband Barry bought a house and five acres of land on the outskirts of Dayton five years ago. Today, they’re raising chickens, turkeys, sheep, pigs and a variety of fruits and vegetables. They named it Nancy’s Green Barn Farm.
As she checks her chicken coops for fresh eggs, a couple dogs roam around the backyard among the free-range poultry while a flock of sheep whine for food.
It’s heaven for Dineen who insists she was, “born to plant.”
Considering the various costs that go into maintaining a farm, Dineen’s tiny farm isn’t a big money maker. Barry, a former police officer, still teaches criminal justice classes at California universities and is planning on retiring soon.
She used to attend farmers markets on a regular basis, but has found a more lucrative business: Community Supported Agriculture.
So far 10 people have signed up to pay the Dineens $20 per week and they in turn deliver a bag of fresh produce and eggs to their customers’ doors on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They also sell their chickens, pigs and turkeys – even rabbits (and not as pets).
Dineen avoids food filled with antibiotics and doesn’t spray her vegetables with chemicals.
Her goal is simple: “I want people to try stuff without all the garbage in it.”
Venders who come to local farmers markets vary in size and scope. Many of them are backyard growers with a passion for gardening.
Sue and Marv Young sold produce from their Carson City garden for eight years. Both are retired from their state jobs and after last year decided to retire from the farmers market circuit, too.
Sue Young still gardens and sells some produce, including eggplants and peppers, to friends.
“It was not a major source of income,” Marv Young said. “It’s primarily because my wife loved gardening and we had to do something with our produce.”
Susan Dyke, who lives in North Carson City, started her own potpourri business, Garden Scents, in her backyard and eventually developed a custom drying shed for her product.
But 2009 was her last year selling at local farmer markets.
“When you fight Nevada, fight the weather and you fight your garden and by the time you get to the farmers market, you’re just pooped,” Dyke said. “I let it go before I started hated doing it.”
An uphill battle
Locally grown food is O’Farrell’s bread and butter.
But just four years into his farming venture, O’Farrell admits it’s an uphill battle.
He said consumers see price tags before they notice where the food is made. Still, last year was the first time his farm did “better than break even.”
“You mass produce food, you can do it a lot cheaper, the problem is you get the same problems with mass-produced anything,” he said. “It’s like comparing a mass-produced piece of furniture to a hand-made piece of furniture.”
So O’Farrell is growing food and urging others to try it for themselves, even if it means a small backyard garden.
“On a small scale it’s tough to do it commercially because of the seasons,” O’Farrell said. “People could produce more of their own food, you could have more small-scale things.”
He said his goal isn’t to expand the farm. It’s to get more people interested in growing their own food.
“It used to be self-sufficiency was a given,” he said.