Over the past year, the University of Nevada, Reno’s Desert Farming Initiative has launched a program which will allow organic farmers to work as a team with farmers who seek an organic certification.

Supported by a $500,000-plus grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Transition to Organic Partnership program, the Grow Organic Nevada program provides money for agriculturalists who want to start their journey toward organic production.

“Essentially what the program is, is an incentive to set up prospective organic producers, whether they’re new producers who are starting an operation or whether they’re established producers interested in transitioning to organic production,” said Rob Holley of Holley Family Farms in Dayton, Nevada, who is also an Organic Transition Program Coordinator with UNR.

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“We’re looking to set them up with mentors who are established producers to help them through the certification process — and help them with not just technical issues in relation to recordkeeping and the application but actually growing. And then there are actually financial incentives, up to $3,000 per year for mentors who are involved in the program, and there is a stipend for prospective producers as well, those interested in transitioning.”

Holley said the program will benefit Nevada farmers in particular.

“This last year, organic marketplace sales were $69.7 billion,” Holley said, explaining “$63.8 billion of that was food sales and that continues to increase every year.”

“Nevada has a robust agricultural industry driven primarily by the cattle and hay market. Those operations can benefit from organic production in that it opens up new markets and increases their potential value of their crops, whether it’s cattle, whether it’s fish, or whether it’s hay and grain that’s being sold into the commodity markets and into the food chain,” he said.

“And then on a smaller scale, you have specialty farms. I know there are numerous farms in the Elko area and throughout the state that grow fruits and vegetables and flowers on specialty farms, primarily sold locally. And the USDA Organic Program provides that same advantage to them. It provides a third-party inspection and verification process to attest to the organic practices,” Holley noted. “It also allows them to potentially gain an economic business, increasing the value of the products they produce.”

To get onboard with the program, agricultural producers must follow an organic system plan, Holley said.

“The organic system plan is the established document of what happens on that farm and provides the basis for the inspections that occur on an annual basis,” he said. “It’s the written living document that establishes your farm practices, products that you use on your farm, your seed or soil management practices, pest management practices, ecological enhancements.

“Going back historically, looking at the organic movement that started in the ’60s and ’70s, primarily in the ’70s, it basically was an ecological view of agriculture that not only benefits the producer in providing premium quality product from their land, but their practices also benefit the soil, the watershed, the wildlife habitats surrounding the farm and the ecosystem in general,” Holley noted.

“When you get down to small farms and ranches, it still is largely that way. There are large commercial farms that use organic practices as well. But the small family farms are as much the same as the organic farms of the ’80s and ’70s.”

Sharing how the program’s mentor dynamic works, Holley said they, “have an application both for mentees and for mentors, somebody who has over three years of experience in the organic certification business as a producer.”

“They just basically have to be an experienced organic farmer. They can apply for and be established as a mentor. And then when we receive inquiries from transitioning farmers, then we put that farmer together with an appropriate mentor who provides them guidance through the application process certification path, growing questions, farm management question, changes in their organic system plan — and then that mentor over a year’s time will receive a total of $3,000 for the first mentor mentee relationship.”

He said if the mentor then mentors another person, “they’re eligible for an additional sum of money.”

“If someone has the time and the ability to do it, they can mentor several people and be eligible for additional funds,” Holley said.

Holley said he grew up in Nevada agriculture, with both his grandfather and father working as gardeners and cattle farmers.

“I was a park ranger, including the 1990s, which was spent in the Elko area at South Fork Reservoir, but I always had an interest in agriculture. So when I had an opportunity to come back down here to Western Nevada where my family’s from, I became active in ranching again,” he said.

“In 2010, my wife and my three children and I started a specialty farm, a vegetable farm, in addition to our hay and cattle operation. That’s what piqued our interest in organics,” he said. That mentor and her husband helped him through the application and organic stewardship process, as well as certifications.

“I’ve been involved in organic production now for 14 years,” Holley said.

He said Nevada gas 37 producers certified organic, with 12 of those producing crops such as citrus, nuts, lavender and vegetables; three raise livestock for slaughter; and 22 are hay, grain and forage producers.

“There’s a lot of potential in the marketplace for hay producers from Nevada to market their products, generally out of state. A lot of our organic hay keeps the organic dairy industry going, organic cattle feeding. So, there’s a lot of potential in Nevada,” he said.

“The economic indicators are there that clearly indicate how each year, an increasing number of consumers are looking to organic products as a means of avoiding potentially harmful substances and chemicals in their food,” Holley said. “So I think in Nevada, where we have an increasing demand, there’s also an increasing marketplace for people willing to take that step toward organic certification.”

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