You’ve likely noticed the surprisingly “rural” piece of land at the corner of Mayberry and West McCarran. You may have seen cows or sheep grazing there over the years. And, more recently, vegetables growing in neat rows alongside a farm stand. What you’ve seen, in the midst of a suburban Reno neighborhood, is Reno Food System’s Park Farm at Betsy Caughlin Donnelly Park.
The Park Farm is a five-acre demonstration farm designed to serve the community by training farmers and increasing local food production. Reno Food Systems encourages the public to stop by and tour the farm throughout the growing season. Farm interns (most recently high school students from the Future Farmers of America program) work on the property and receive hands-on experience growing high-density, organic crops in Northern Nevada's arid climate through natural and regenerative methods.
This unlikely location for a working farm came to be because Betsy Caughlin Donnelly wanted it so. Donnelly grew up in the historic Caughlin Ranch House located in the park that was then a 6,000-acre working ranch. In 1990, she gifted a 30-acre parcel to Washoe County, with the stipulation that it be used for public open space or agricultural purposes. Enter Reno Food Systems.
Putting Underutilized Public Space to Good Use
Founded just last year (they were formerly known as the Polygrarian Institute), Reno Food Systems is a non-profit organization committed to cultivating community-based food systems through education, research and civic engagement. In 2018, they partnered with Washoe County Parks to create the five-acre vegetable farm along Mayberry Drive, just east of the historic ranch house property. They also have a Garden Club – open to the public – that meets quarterly to share farm and garden information, network with other growers and, as Park Farm Manager Lyndsey Langsdale puts it, “Get nerdy about gardens.”
Reno Food Systems and Washoe County are something of a dream team. The county has land dedicated to open space and public use that it needs to maintain with limited resources. Reno Food Systems seeks public land for public garden projects, which it hopes to bring to other Reno neighborhoods. And these garden projects are not at the expense of walking paths, playgrounds or dog parks, as they are adjacent to them on underutilized county land, making local food production visible and accessible in the community.
At Betsy Caughlin Donnelly Park, there are six acres of landscaped grounds and walking trails with benches, 20 acres of pasture leased to a rancher, and now, a five-acre farm, too. Reno Food Systems plans to replicate this model of urban agriculture across the community.
“We call this project a ‘park farm’ because we envision many more urban micro-farms popping up in under-utilized public spaces in Reno and Sparks,” Langsdale explains.
In the future, Reno Food Systems would like to bring park farms to Rancho San Rafael Regional Park in northwest Reno and Anderson Park in south suburban Reno.
How Their Garden Grows
Langsdale is one of the six Reno Food System’s board members and the Park Farm Manager, in charge of planning, planting and harvesting. She formerly co-owned and operated Lost City Farm, an urban vegetable and flower farm on Center Street. Langsdale, members of the Reno Food System Board and a handful of farm interns and volunteers do all the work required to turn a plot of dirt into a food-producing garden.
In Park Farm’s first year of crop production, Langsdale and her team had to balance what does well in the relatively short Northern Nevada growing season and what locals want to buy and eat. “Turnips grow very well here,” Langsdale explains, “But not many customers bought them. Tomatoes and green beans are hot sellers but require a lot more labor.”
Last year, Langsdale’s team planted 1/3 of an acre at Park Farm, and this year it will be a full acre. On the property there will also be pygmy goats (managed by board member Mike Hafey) and bees kept by local beekeeper Dan Baily of Dharma Bees. The remaining farm acres contracted to Reno Food Systems still need to be tended to, including managing irrigation ditches and ensuring vehicle access. Langsdale and board member Neil Bertanado decide which plants go where and how to incorporate pollinators and perennials.
Farming as Career
On a Thursday in early April, Langsdale has to squeeze in this interview. Running a farm this size is more than a full-time job this time of year.
“This is our busy farm planning season,” she explains. “I’ve started seedlings at my home that will be transplanted to the farm in May. Soil and irrigation need to be prepped now too.”
Part of the mission of Reno Food Systems is bringing more growers into the local food ecosystem. Their intern program is intended to train “the next generation of conscientious farmers, innovative educators, and sensible leaders” who will grow food as a career.
Funding for the farm – both hard costs and labor – has come from federal and foundation grants, including the Department of Agriculture, and individual donations. They have also received in-kind donations from area businesses for supplies, including Western Nevada Supply, Tholl Fencing, Nevada Environmental Consulting, LLC, Curtis Bros. Construction and Full Circle Compost. All money that farm stand sales generate goes right back into the farm.
In 2018, its inaugural year, Reno Food Systems also put on the Reno Garlic Fest, a celebration of local garlic and all the things you can do with it. Event vendor fees helped cover hard costs, but they hope future event can raise more money to support future farm projects. The event returns this year to Pat Baker on July 20 as part of Artown.
The Impact of Growing Food in the City
- Food Sales: In 2018, the Park Farm sold $2,800 in fresh produce to 227 community members and several local restaurants, including The Deluxe, Pizza Collective and Thali.
- Food Donations: They also gave away a lot of fresh, organic produce — around 430 pounds of it. At the end of each farm stand they took leftover produce to the St Vincent’s Dining Room where chefs turned zucchinis and kale into tasty hot lunches for 200-500 community members. They also donated produce to Food Not Bombs which serves weekly free hot meals.
- Farming Awareness: Because it is in a visible location, it is hoped that the Park Farm will raise awareness of urban agriculture and generate interest in growing the practice in other neighborhoods. Because it is a demonstration farm, the public is invited to come, watch, ask and learn so they can implement organic urban farming practices on their own.
Reno Food Systems’ Park Farm is a wonderful way to utilize and preserve open space, educate the public about Northern Nevada gardening practices and create nutritious food for all of us to enjoy.
- Want to grow your own or learn more about gardening? Attend their next Garden Club meeting on May 19, 4:00 p.m. at the Park Farm at 3295 Mayberry Dr. Bring a dish for the potluck.
- Buy local produce at the Park Farm Stand, July to October and at the Riverside Farmer’s Market located at the McKinley Arts Center.
- Attend the Reno Garlic Fest July 20, complete with garlicky food dishes, wine and beer, live music, family activities and lots of local garlic.
- Choose restaurants that use local produce. This year, Park Farm produce will again supply produce to The Deluxe, Pizza Collective and Thali restaurants in the West Street Market, as well as the Great Basin co-op DROPP program and Laughing Planet.
- Follow Reno Food Systems on social media – Instagram and Facebook