The University of Nevada at Reno's Desert Farming Initiative is promoting climate smart farming practices

The student-run farm helps promote the university’s sustainability mission through climate smart practices, research opportunities and event support.
Worker at the Desert Farming Initiative
The farm produces 10,000 to 30,000 pounds of produce each year. | Photo courtesy of the University of Nevada at Reno.

The University of Nevada at Reno is committed to sustainability and one way the university is working on reaching its sustainability goals is through local sourcing. Dining services partners with a handful of local vendors and also puts a marketing push behind their products, said Natalie Liggett, sustainability intern at the university.

The university also has a new contract starting with another local vendor and during the month of November, the sustainability team highlighted local purchasing as the month’s sustainability highlight.

“So, we definitely try to get them a good presence on campus,” said Liggett.

Another way the university uses local sourcing to promote sustainable dining practices is the student-run farm, dubbed the Desert Farming Initiative.

The Desert Farming Initiative began about 10 years ago and has grown to be a large presence on campus with career advancement opportunities, event support and various sustainability initiatives.

Here’s a deep dive into the student-run farm and the work it’s doing to promote climate-smart practices.

Demonstrating climate smart farming

The farm produces 30 varieties of certified organic fruits and vegetables using climate smart farming practices, according to Jill Moe, director of the Desert Farming Initiative. The farm generates about 10,000 to 30,000 pounds of produce each year, the majority of which is donated to food pantries and other community food security programs such as the on-campus food pantry. The rest of the produce is then sent to farmers markets that serve food insecure populations.

“Our mission is to demonstrate advanced climate smart farming and that includes working within our regional food system. So, it's not just looking at agriculture and it has kind of a broader view,” said Moe.

The climate smart approach the team takes in growing produce is rooted in five key strategies, said Moe.

The first, is a focus on soil health with the goal of capturing more water and reducing erosion. Some ways the Desert Farming Initiative is doing this is by reducing tillage by incorporating more perennial crops, hedgerows and permanent insectary features. The team also conducts annual soil testing to track the percentage of organic matter.

The second strategy is efficiently managing water resources. Moe and the team are using this strategy in several ways including field packing produce to reduce water usage, using drip irrigation and monitoring the water usage of key cash crops.

The next strategy is using integrated pest management. The farm is following an integrated Pest Management plan, which is tailored to known pests and disease.

The fourth strategy is to diversify farm enterprises and crop varieties. The team is doing this by balancing crop diversity with team capacity, incorporating more perennial crops and intercropping cash crops.

The last strategy is to engage in farm planning and adaptive management. The farm is doing this by collecting data and training staff for better year-to-year comparisons, and by using smaller equipment and efficient hand scale approaches as much as possible.

Research opportunities and career advancement

Another key aspect of the farming initiative is research opportunities, and the farm often teams up with academic faculty on research projects. Some of those projects are rooted in sustainability.

“And an example of that is how can we reduce the use of plastic in the farm context,” said Moe. “One way we've been looking at that, is there's a plastic mulch that's used on vegetable beds to help retain moisture, and also prevent weed growth and that sort of thing. It also results in a lot of plastic waste that's not recyclable.”

So, the team is looking at ways to solve that problem such as using paper mulches instead of plastic.

The initiative offers competitive academic internships at the farm, in which students are able to work closely with the team on various research projects and other avenues.

“[We have everything from] tribal students working with us on traditional food and medicinal plants, to organic farming practices, soil moisture monitoring, and plant propagation,” said Moe. “And then we have classes that engage with us directly, so we have kind of now on a regular schedule.”

The farm also provides various career advancement opportunities such as the Nevada farm apprenticeship program which seeks to train the next generation of farmers. And the farm offers farmer mentor programs such as the Regional Food Business Center, which is based at UC Davis, but the desert farming initiative is helping run the program in Nevada. The program is set to launch by February.

“It will be really looking at how to promote local food businesses in every regard. So that includes farms, cooperative grocery stores and nonprofit organizations that support food system resiliency,” said Moe.

The farm also provides food for university events, particularly for sustainability-centered events. For instance, the farm has provided the makings for a salad bar in the cafeteria for an event promoting local purchasing.