Gov. Brian Sandoval’s recently released economic development plan for Nevada identified “water in an arid climate” as one of seven industries that can be advanced through partnerships with higher education.
Research at the University of Nevada, Reno is looking at how to diversify agriculture in Nevada beyond its traditional bounds of alfalfa and cattle, with an emphasis on exploring which plants to grow in arid climates, how best to grow them and new, innovative ways some plants can be used.
While a recent Brookings Institution report on Nevada’s economy predicts only a small increase (0.3 percent) in agriculture-related employment during the next five years, the bioenergy, alternative crops and urban community farming subsectors can play an expanding role in Nevada’s agricultural employment in the near future.
Biofuels and biomass
Biofuel production is expected to double during the next decade, creating a nationwide need to increase the production of biomass and biofuel feedstocks.
While Nevada and the arid West are not expected to be major producers of such feedstocks, increasing production of such feedstocks in the state could help provide for local markets, such as the mining industry, and increase our economic diversity.
Research into biofuels and biomass production and processing is under way at the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources (CABNR); and the College of Engineering, where scientists are evaluating forage and hydrocarbon-rich feedstocks that can be grown with minimal water compared with the traditional Nevada crops of alfalfa, potatoes and wheat.
For example, camelina, a short-season oilseed crop, is being investigated. It requires far less agricultural inputs, including water, than other oilseeds and is quite adaptable to the Great Basin’s various seasons and climates.
CABNR is evaluating other native species with low water needs, such as gumweed, rabbitbrush and sagebrush, for their potential to produce “biocrude” and woody biomass, including their processing and conversion to fuels and “green” plastics. Local production of liquid biodiesel and aviation fuels would significantly enhance Nevada’s economic diversity, reduce air pollution and increase our energy security.
Providing for our own
Although Nevada ranks 49th in the nation for agricultural and livestock exports, valued at just less than $19 million in 2010, the market value of agricultural products sold within the state was more than $530 million in 2009.
Thus, Nevada agriculture is a significant supplier of agricultural products to Nevadans.
The university is helping the agriculture industry develop sustainable, effective agricultural practices and products in our arid climate serving to:
Diversify Nevada’s economy and support agriculture-dependent rural communities,
Improve environmental stewardship by developing renewable energy resources for transportation and mining, and
Create a stronger local food supply, for which there is an increasing demand, making Nevada more self-sufficient and less reliant on outside sources.
The University of Nevada, Reno’s High Desert Farming Initiative, led by the NSBDC, College of Business and CABNR in collaboration with community partners, encompasses applied research and demonstration projects using hoop houses, greenhouses and organic farming techniques.
The goal is to grow lower water-use plants, lengthen growing seasons, improve produce quality, reduce transportation costs associated with imports and broaden agribusiness opportunities.
Following an initiative started 10 years ago by the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, there now are about 1,200 acres and a dozen growers of teff, a low-water, rice-like grain, in Nevada.
Teff, an alternative crop native to Africa, requires one-third to one-half less water than alfalfa, as well as substantially less fertilizer than wheat or other small grains.
As a market product, teff is finding a niche among the health conscious and athletes because of its superior nutritional value, as well as those who are gluten-intolerant and can’t eat wheat products.
According to recent estimates, about half the teff sold as grain or flour in the United States is now grown in Nevada (nationally, a top producer of the grain), with a gross value of close to $1 million.
Teff is just one alternative crop that the university is exploring, as the market for alternative crops is expanding nationally.
John Cushman is a foundation professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Nevada, Reno and the biofuels-biomass group leader within the university’s Renewable Energy Center.