by Enrico Villamaino

The University of Nevada-Reno’s (UNR) College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources (CABNR) established its Desert Farming Initiative (DFI) in 2013. The mission of the DFI is to engage in education, research and outreach to advance and strengthen sustainable agriculture and food systems in Nevada that can be transferred and replicated in other desert climates.

Charles Schembre, who has served as the DFI’s program director for the past two years, recently spoke with Country Folks Grower to discuss the initiative’s current slate of projects.

“When we choose which programming to pursue,” Schembre explained, “we try to break new ground. There’s not a lot of data established in many aspects of high desert food production, so we try to engage in programs that will help the small to midsize direct-to-market farming operation.”

The DFI’s “Nevada Melons” program targets a single product with a longtime history of production in Nevada.

“Melons grow well in Nevada’s hot, dry climate. We’ve known that since the late 1800s,” Schembre noted, adding, “In particular, the cool nights and hot days lead to increased sugar production.” Taking a cue from Las Vegas, playfully known as “Sin City,” DFI has labeled Nevada melons as “Sinfully Sweet.”

According to the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, the average American consumes 27 pounds of melon per year. Seeking to make melons the official state fruit, the DFI is committed to establishing best production techniques and melon types for enhancing the production of Nevada-grown melons. The project looks to use crop trialing to improve crop performance, increase yields and melon quality and identify optimum production techniques.

Eight varietals of melon are included within the campaign, including watermelon, Crenshaw, casaba, honeydew and cantaloupe. One of the goals of the program is to discover which melons prove to be the highest performing so they may have the greatest potential in the climates of Nevada.

A technical advisory committee is charged with identifying best varieties and production techniques and providing consultation on crop production during the season.

In addition to studying the melons themselves, the DFI is also compiling data on related factors. “We’ll be looking at plastic mulch,” said Schembre. “Different sizes and applications, and four different colors, will be used. Hopefully we’ll be able to conclusively tell our farmers what works best… It may not sound like much, but knowing whether to use blue plastic or green plastic could make a difference to overall production.”

Plastic mulches have been used commercially since the early 1960s. They directly impact the microclimate around a plant by regulating the amount of heat and light that is absorbed and reflected. This is known as the “radiation budget.” The radiation budget can vary depending on the mulch’s color.

Pest management will also be a focus of research. “Squash bugs are so intense here. They can devastate a melon crop,” Schembre said. Squash bugs, also known as “stink bugs” because of the foul odor they emit when compressed, are a common pest of the cucurbit family: squash, zucchini, pumpkins and melons. Leaves on plants infested with squash bugs may develop small specks that turn yellow, then brown. Vines then start to wilt, and parts of the plant blacken, turn brittle and die. If infested plants survive, their yield can be greatly reduced.

The DFI hopes to be able to better understand the nature of squash bug infestations as well as develop protocols for prevention and treatment.

The Nevada Melons program is a three-year study. Schembre hopes to have a batch of preliminary data for review by the beginning of the winter season.

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