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Matt Catalano (left) and Jax Hart have been apprentices in the Nevada Farm Apprenticeship Program since last October. Photo by Jill Moe.

Desert Farming Initiative Accepting Applications for Farm Apprenticeship Program

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June 17, 2024

Desert Farming Initiative accepting applications for farm apprenticeship program
University of Nevada, Reno program aims to help bolster local food system and support new growers

RENO, Nev. – Those aspiring to start or expand their own small-scale farm operation can now apply for a one-year apprenticeship at the University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources. The Nevada Farm Apprenticeship Program provides a $40,000 stipend to participants, based on an average of 32 hours a week, and is hosted at the University’s Desert Farming Initiative, which is part of the Experiment Station’s Valley Road Field Lab in Reno.

The program is accepting applications through July 31, and those chosen for an interview will be interviewed Aug. 20 or 22. Two applicants will be chosen by Sept. 1 and will begin the apprenticeship Oct. 1. Successful applicants will have farming experience or a degree from an agricultural education program, or demonstrated experience with fruit or vegetable production with intention to scale up into farming. Further information about the program, application instructions and program updates are posted on the program’s website.

Apprentices are guided through a science-based curriculum taught by a team of specialists from the College and partners in the agricultural industry, as well as receive hands-on practical farm training at the Desert Farming Initiative and partner farms, including Holley Family Farms in Dayton, Custom Gardens in Silver Springs and Park Farm in Reno, among others. The program emphasis is on certified-organic and climate-smart practices for small-scale outdoor farming.

The program is in its second year and is funded by a $256,000 three-year grant from the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, as part of its Regional Food Systems Partnership Program, along with contributions from the College. The program was sponsored by the Nevada Agricultural Foundation in 2024, and is also supported by produce revenue generated by apprentices in the program. It is the first and only agricultural apprenticeship program in Nevada that is registered with the Nevada Department of Labor. Jill Moe, director of the Desert Farming Initiative, says that the first year of the program was successful, and very busy – with lessons learned on all sides.

“This is an intensive program for our first-year apprentices, and they have learned a lot,” she said. “Our team is adding refinements to the program, and we are excited to get two new apprentices on board for this fall.”

Moe says the first-year apprentices, Matt Catalano and Jax Hart, are finishing up their apprenticeship Sept. 30. Through the apprenticeship, Catalano has been able to expand his existing mushroom operation, Rooted Farm, to include other specialty Asian vegetables. With a brand-new farm concept, Purple Leaf Farm, Hart is growing and marketing colorful and highly nutritious varieties of greens, carrots, peas and other crops.

Like Catalano and Hart, the new apprentices who will begin this fall will get hands-on experience in a variety of facets of the farm business. They will manage fruit and vegetable farming space at the Desert Farming Initiative, engage in the preparation and implementation of a crop and sales plan, market produce through wholesale and/or retail channels, handle farm accounting, and be responsible for farm production practices. They will work within temperature-controlled greenhouse space for starting seedlings, hoop houses for year-round production, and open fields where they get tractor experience. The whole experience will be managed under the Desert Farming Initiative’s organic certification and Nevada producer license, as well as rigorous food safety requirements.

After completing the one-year apprenticeship, the apprentices will be eligible to apply for a second-year incubator farming opportunity at the Desert Farming Initiative. Details on that opportunity will be available later in the year.

“This program is a springboard for people who are serious about pursuing a career in fruit and vegetable production,” Moe said, adding that it’s for those who intend to do small-scale farming, scale up their existing work in agriculture, or work in a farm leadership position. “There’s a lot to know. It’s not just understanding how to grow crops. It’s also creating a business plan, marketing, food safety, legal requirements, accounting, software, collaboration within the food system, managing people and more.”

The Nevada Small Business Development Center provides education in business principles and practices for the apprentices. The program also prioritizes underserved community members and is working with tribal communities and the College’s Extension unit to incorporate appropriate information and guest instructors.

Team members who are developing and implementing the program include Jordan Hosmer-Henner, the program’s food systems manager; Garrett Menghini, the program’s farm production manager; Felipe Barrios Masias, associate professor focusing on horticulture; and Kelli Kelly, agriculture and food systems business advisor with the Nevada Small Business Development Center.

“We want to provide practical information and hands-on training for those driven to be an agricultural producer in our state,” Moe said. “It’s about equipping them with the knowledge they need to have a successful, sustainable enterprise, while contributing to our state’s healthy local food supply and economy. It’s what a land-grant university should be doing, right?”

– @unevadareno –