Fresh Ideas: Potatoes, pumpkins, squash and trees
When I moved to Nevada, locally grown food was hard to come by. I remember seeing hearts o’ gold melons in Raley’s 20 years ago, and when the produce manager told me they were grown in Fallon, I was amazed. Not much was grown for the local market in Northern Nevada back then.That was not always the case. Agricultural products produced in Nevada in early 20th century included flour, potatoes, butter, cheese, milk and beef, fresh vegetables, berries, apples and peaches. This was back when local farmers grew food to supply Nevada’s mining boomtowns. But as boomtowns went bust and transportation from other states became easier, locally grown Nevada produce faded away.But things are changing again. Last week I attended a “food summit” in Silver Springs, and came away with some hope for the future of agriculture and locally grown food in Nevada. Organized by the Healthy Communities Coalition of Lyon and Storey counties, the meeting brought together small farmers, school gardeners, the operators of local food closets and food co-ops; and people like me, who just like have access to locally grown, healthy food.There’s a lot happening with local food. Take Lyon County for example. Agricultural products are the top commodity produced by Lyon County, yet the county was particularly hard hit by the great recession and still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state — this means many people there are hungry. But a network of community groups are helping to bridge the disconnect between the actual and potential agricultural production in Lyon County and people living in poverty, connecting low-income consumers with fresh, healthy local food. As Sarah Adler, USDA Rural Development State Director said in her opening remarks, “We are a resilient state and this is the proof of it: Lyon County is not hanging by a thread, it’s weaving a tapestry.”Lyon County has a thriving school garden program. It appears that Nevadans are cultivating not only food but a future generation of market gardeners and farmers. The title of this piece, “Potatoes, pumpkins, squash and trees” is what Ashley, age 8, says is growing in the community garden at Dayton Valley Elementary School. Smith Valley Elementary has an organic garden named Organic Paradise. Teacher Laura Fillmore brought along a dozen eighth-graders to talk to us about what they’re doing there. Marshall Capps, 13, told us that their garden “continues the culture of traditional agriculture” in Nevada, and Yoni Covarrubias, 12, said, “People go into the garden with a smile and come out with one too.”Smith Valley High School has a very active chapter of Future Farmers of America. The club has a floral shop on the high school campus with paid student employees, and they raise table grapes, honeybees, orchard fruit, sheep and turkeys. Carson City Supervisor Karen Abowd, who attended the conference, told me that Carson High’s own agricultural program now has 80 students enrolled and a waiting list.There still are challenges to be overcome in Nevada agriculture, though — most of the challenges have to do less with what you might expect — Nevada’s extreme weather, the fact that’s it a desert — than with access to markets. Nevada has lost most of the agricultural infrastructure — food processing, delivery, state regulations that would help, not hinder, local use of local agricultural products — needed by gardeners and growers. Farmers markets, local food co-ops and other strategies are filling that gap, but it’s slow.But the 70 or so people who attended the conference were full of ideas and enthusiasm and, it appeared, ready to meet the challenge. And as Anne Louhela of WNC’s Specialty Crop Institute said, “We’ve got to get back to eating food out of the ground and cooking it in our own kitchens — it’s much more fun than watching TV.”• Anne Macquarie, a private-sector urban planner, is a longtime resident of Carson City.