Alternative Crops Pose Challenges For Parched Farmers

Sep 17, 2015

Earlier this week, we heard from a Yerington farmer trying to raise ducks as a way to supplement his income. In fact, many Nevada farmers are trying innovative strategies to beat the drought. Reporter Julia Ritchey met with an onion farmer who's looking to the future.

"So the onions come through single file on each lane, and when they pass under that box, there's a series of cameras there and the cameras take several pictures of each onion..."

John Snyder is giving a tour of his onion packing plant in Yerington. Red, white and yellow onions are quickly carried on a conveyor belt where a sophisticated optical sorter determines which onions go where.

Snyder says they expect to produce about 30 million tons of onions this season, a pretty typical year. Snyder's family has been farming and ranching in the valley for more than 100 years.

"We were very traditional growers, we grew alfalfa, small grain, some oat hay, up until the mid-1980s. We started doing row crops," he says.

He now grows about 400 acres of seed garlic, 400 acres of onions and several other types of fresh vegetables.

Like other farmers, Snyder is trying to find different crops to use water more efficiently and diversify his income. Although alfalfa still accounts for 90 percent of what's grown in the area, farmers, like tech developers, are looking to innovate.

But innovation can be expensive and tricky.

"It's a very tough situation for someone who wants to get into, let's say you want to start growing lettuces or broccoli or any of these vegetable row crops that we typically talk about. Boy trying to find labor is very, very tough."

That's Jay Davison, a crop specialist at the University of Nevada's Cooperative Extension. He conducts research and consults with agricultural producers on alternatives to alfalfa. 

"We're constantly looking for drought tolerant crops, but crops also, perhaps, that make at least as much money as alfalfa and hopefully more," says Davison.

He says when factoring in the costs for planting, harvesting and packing, the return on investment can be quite small and not worth the trouble.

"Then of course you have a pretty high cost initially because you're switching machinery, and you've got a whole bunch of infrastructure costs as well," says Davison.

That’s true for Snyder. He grew carrots this year and says they did very well at local farmers markets, but the income generated is still too small to justify doing more.

"One of the things we do is we look at the return on our different crops," he says. "Right now, our garlic, which isn't too affected by it, we'll continue with that. We'll probably allocate most of the available water we have left to our onion crops."

Beyond that, they'll put any leftover water toward alfalfa to keep it alive. Snyder's farm has used about half of its water permits this year and has put in more underground pipelines and drip tape to, as Snyder puts it: “Just looking at other possibilities at how we can more efficiently use water and land.”

As Snyder wraps up his tour, he points to some bins where 50-pound bags of sweet onions are drying out before shipment. He explains that the price of onions can vary greatly, anywhere from $4 to $40 a bag.

"It's very volatile," he says. "And it just depends on what happens to other onion crops across the country."

Farming, Snyder says, is kind of gamble. He’s not sure which vegetables he’ll plant next season. He’s still experimenting.