The contrast of grazing cattle and tidy suburban houses near the corner of McCarran Boulevard and Mayberry Drive in Reno was a twenty-year mystery for me until last Monday. Last year I noticed the cows had been pushed back and a modest farming operation occupied the land next to the historic Betsy Caughlin Donelly ranch house. This year the small farm has gotten larger and there’s a sign on a building that reads Reno Food Systems. As I drove past last week several people were working in the field so I stopped to ask a few questions.
The Betsy Caughlin Donelly ranch was once a 6,000 acre spread on the far-flung western side of Reno. The family ceased ranching operations in 1955, and now houses and various suburban development cover all but 30 acres of the old ranch. Washoe County owns the parcel on the southeast corner of McCarran and Mayberry where the Betsy Caughlin Donnelly house and park consumes six acres with paved trails and turf. A deed restriction ensures the remaining 24 acres are used for agricultural purposes, and the county continues to lease 19 acres as pastureland dedicated to hay production and grazing. Since 2017, Reno Food Systems has had permission to farm 5 acres of the land.
On the day I visited a friendly, well-informed man, Neil Bertrando welcomed me and listened to my request for an interview and then introduced me to farm manager Lyndsey Langsdale. Neil and I walked among furrowed rows of vegetables striped with drip irrigation lines to where Langsdale and a few others were pulling weeds. Langsdale looked up from under the brim of her sweat-stained straw hat and agreed to stop weeding long enough to chat. We sat under an awning at a picnic table next to the shed.
Listen to an interview with Lyndsey Langsdale.
Reno Food Systems broke ground in May of 2018 and built a barbed wire fence to contain the cows. They constructed a shed with a vegetable wash station and small outdoor retail stand. They planted a third of an acre plot and this year they tripled the area under cultivation and are currently farming about an acre out of five available.
Cattle have grazed on the allotment for decades. Yes, the soil is richer for it, but there is a significant downside for Langsdale and many others who spend a lot of time pulling weeds.
“We have a real challenge with the grass coming back and the weeds, more than any piece of land I’ve ever worked,” Langsdale said with a shake of her head. “We grow organically. We’re not certified organic, but we grow without synthetic fertilizers and herbicides and all that, so to get rid of the weeds you have to be creative and not be afraid to spend weeks, months of your life sitting on the ground and weeding.”
Langsdale has learned that repeatedly hand weeding is not a sustainable practice, so as they expand the area under cultivation, she’s using a method known as solarizing the soil with big black tarps to kill all the weeds before they plant crops.
“We bought these agricultural tarps and we tarped the whole second plot, which is the one in the middle out there with tomatoes in it, so we had a giant house-sized black plastic tarp on it for almost a year, and the tarp solarizes the seed bank. It allows the grass to germinate and then it kills it at the root level, but it takes a long time to do that, so we had that tarp on for a year. And it’s worked really well so far. We took it off and it looked good. I wasn’t sure if when we started to irrigate if the grass would just come back, but it hasn’t yet. So that’s definitely the way to do it. You just have to sacrifice a section for a year.”
Part of the farm is covered with a giant white tarp. Langsdale said that she is not afraid to experiment to gain knowledge and develop new strategies, especially strategies that result in less hand weeding. Langsdale explained that the area under the white tarp is hopelessly infested with unwanted plants and that she refuses to weed it anymore yet is still intent to cultivate the plot.
“We put the tarp down and then cut holes in it and planted the squash in the holes. We’re going to see how that works. We’re hoping to kill the weeds and the grass and allow the squash to grow around it. We’ll see. We asked around to some friends who have done it before, and they said it’s okay. We’re wondering if it’s going to be too hot and burn the leaves but we are interested in research and experiments here so we like to try new things and compare different strategies.”
When asked what is being grown this season, Langsdale clearly has every inch of the space under cultivation committed to memory.
Hear Lyndsey Langsdale list the vegetables being grown in the Reno Food Systems farm.
“We’ve got parsnips, turnips, beets, a few different kinds of beets, garlic, a few kinds of carrots, kale and chard and radishes and tatsoi, arugula, basil, cilantro, parsley, kohlrabi, collard greens, dill, a few different kinds of cabbage, leeks, a bunch of different kinds of tomatoes, green beans, peas, cucumbers, potatoes, peppers, mustard greens, all kinds of winter squash and pumpkins, a bunch of different kinds of summer squash, zucchini, musk melon, watermelon, a whole field of flowers, and then we’re doing a new herb garden up here,” Langsdale said pointing to the area between the shed and Mayberry Drive. “So that’ll have all the culinary herbs thyme and rosemary and sage, oregano.”
The vegetables are sold directly to consumers and to restaurants in the West Street Market, but at this point in the farm’s evolution, the operation is primarily funded through US Department of Agriculture grants.
“We’d like to sustain the organization on the sales of the produce at some point, but that takes a while to get to that point,” Langsdale explained. “We’re grant funded right now. The Department of Agriculture has a nice grant program for people who grow specialty crops. A specialty crop is anything other than a commodity crop, so anything other than corn, soy, wheat, that kind of big crop, so they have a specialty crop program, and we get funding for our organization mostly from that. Eventually, we would like to sustain the whole organization on sales.”
Sustaining operations through sales and grants is an important outcome of the farming activity, but the farm also has a central educational imperative with four interns working on the 2019 planting.
“The idea behind the property here is to be a place that can allow people who are interested in farming a hands-on experience. The university has an ag program that they don’t always get the opportunity to feel like what a small farm business would be like and how to get that going and how to acquire underutilized land to do a farming operation. Part of our model is what we call it the ‘Park Farm’ because it’s the park farm at Betsy Colin Donnelly Park. Perhaps we’ll get a piece of underutilized land at Rancho so then we’d have the park farm in Rancho Seco, or whatever other park or spot we can lease underutilized land.”
While I visited several volunteers and interns arrived and went to work in the field. Langsdale told me they have four interns, two adults and two high school students from the Academy of Arts, Careers and Technology High School who are active members of the Future Farmers of America (FFA).
“That’s for people who have an interest in farming and maybe would like to have their own farm business at some point,” Landsdale said when describing adult internships. “But they already have jobs and families and everything so they can’t really go to college or somewhere to learn how to do this. Our adult interns work about 10 hours a week when they can and just see what they think about it.”
A handful of volunteers help with weeding and other chores, and six Reno Food Systems board members perform other critical tasks. The friendly fellow who welcomed me, Neil Bertrando, is a board member and permaculture expert with a passion for, “enriching bioregions by building community and broadening the local genetic resources of practical plants and animals to relocalize resource supply networks.”
“I’m here full time,” Langsdale said. “We’ve got four interns and then Neil (Bertrando) who you met earlier. We have a board of six at Reno Food Systems. He’s one of the board members and he does a lot of the larger scale planning. He’s designing and putting in the herb garden so that’s what he’s working on today. He put in the sinks, the shade structure, organizes the shed every day because I mess it up. He does a lot of the business planning and works on grants. He does everything. But then we have four other board members that do the grant writing or keep track of our books.”
Urban agriculture and the economy
The proliferation of urban agriculture and the state of the economy are interconnected, and urban agriculture has flourished in the wake of economic misfortune. In Detroit and Baltimore and other economically challenged locations around the nation, vacant lots are being farmed in unprecedented numbers. In 2012, when property values in northern Nevada were at a low following the 2008 economic downturn, Lyndsey Langsdale and a partner gained permission to cultivate an acre sized plot near the Bruce R. Thompson federal building in downtown Reno, Lost City Farm as she called it. The cost: $1 per year.
According to Langsdale, in 2012, the owner didn’t necessarily want to sell the land or build anything on it while land values were low. Lost City Farm had a 3-year lease, and by 2015, property values were rebounding and the land owner, whom Langsdale had never met in-person, no longer wanted to allow Lost City Farm to operate.
“Urban agriculture follows very particular sociological trend throughout time and space, so you’ll see urban agriculture pop up in interest whenever there’s any kind of economic or social crisis that occurs,” Langsdale said. “If you go back, kind of the first one in American history was in the late 1800s. There was an economic crisis of sorts, and that was when the first kind of community gardens came about. The twin playgrounds were invented. Playgrounds and city gardens were built together in those times. Then, as soon as the economy peaks, the land value all of a sudden is worth way more than using it to grow food. Building a parking lot or building whatever is suddenly way more valuable than growing food.”
This cycle has repeated itself in American history, and people’s desire to grow food is connected to our collective sense of security.
“So then World War I, there was another peak. That’s when Victory Gardens came about, if you ever heard of those,” Langsdale continued. “There was a lot of people who needed something to do and no money to build anything, so people used to build their own allotment farms during the Depression and Victory Farms for neighborhoods. So then that again crashed after the economy came back up. There was another surge kind of around the ’60s, during the women’s rights and civil rights kind of time frame, so it has to do with the economy and also when people are feeling revolutionary, when they’re feeling like we need to take care of ourselves. We don’t want to depend on the state or capitalism to take care of us. So that’s when you’ll see urban agriculture spike. So during this last kind of economic crash, there was another surge. And that’s nationwide, you’ll see that same trend happened nationwide.”
Reflecting on the process of acquiring the land for Lost City Farm, Langsdale said that real estate development is more profitable than urban farming for property owners, and actual land use bears that out.
“When we were finding that property (for Lost City Farm), we had identified 10 properties within downtown, Midtown kind of areas, ten properties that were a half acre or larger that were vacant. We wrote letters to all ten of those asking if we could use a property. We only got a response on the one, but it’s interesting now to look back, there’s only two of those properties that haven’t been developed since then, and that was 2012 when we found those 10, and one of them is the Lost City. They haven’t developed it, but it’s going to be as soon as they’re done making some bucks using it as that staging area. And then the other one is off of Wells (Avenue), and it’s still vacant. But I can’t imagine it will be for very long. It’s a really nice piece of property,” Langsdale said.
But Langsdale is well pleased that Washoe County has allowed them to use the land and that the public/nonprofit partnership could be repeated elsewhere on county land. Reno Food Systems is more confident investing in land development with a government entity as a landlord.
“When we approached the county with this idea, they were really excited about it, so as a farmer who doesn’t have their own property and wants to farm in town, there’s a little bit more security asking to lease a public piece of property. Because in theory, the public owns it, and the public has a say in what goes on. We’d have to screw up pretty big to get kicked off this property. We’d have to probably irritate the neighbors really hard, and then the county might not renew our lease, but so far the neighbors are really aren’t really into it. So if the county wanted to vacate us, I feel like if we had enough public support, we can make a case for staying. They’re going to do what they’re going to do in the end, but it’s a little bit more, a little bit more control on the public property than with a private owner. When the private owners were not renewing our lease, there was nothing we could do.”
For those interested in purchasing produce from the farm, the stand on Mayberry Drive is open on Wednesday evenings. The farm also sells produce at the farmers market on Thursdays at the McKinley Arts & Culture Center, 925 Riverside Drive in Reno between 4:00 and 9:00 p.m.