A hoop house offers visitors a warm respite from chilly Oklahoma winds. A peek inside reveals a green oasis of kale, green onion, broccoli and is that citrus fruit? all protected from outside temperatures so that fresh produce can be grown even in winter. Chickens cluck in a coop around the corner, and pecan trees grow strong in the distance, aided by the latest research on pest and disease resistance.
Today's tour group learns about crops traditionally grown on a large commercial scale, crops like corn, wheat and cotton, as well as nontraditional but highly valued crops like pecans. The entire day is about helping the participants discover methods to grow food for themselves and others in their backyard or on small acreage.
This is a vision of the future Charles Rohla, Ph.D., is working toward.
Rohla is the Noble Research Institute's Center for Pecan and Specialty Agriculture manager. The Center is one of four centers of excellence developed by the Agricultural Division during last year's strategic planning process. The centers are designed to focus the division's activities on specific research areas for the benefit of agricultural producers and consumers. The Center for Pecan and Specialty Agriculture's aim is to pull together the Noble Research Institute's resources to fill a need for research in the pecan industry and to provide an avenue of learning for those interested in producing food for themselves or retail outlets like farmers markets.
"While other organizations and individuals are doing this type of research and education, they focus on individual items. Just crops or just livestock." Rohla said. "We're unique in focusing on both together. We want to show people the whole gamut from growing to the plate."
So far the Center, which officially began Jan. 1, 2015, has presented a two-part workshop, "Backyard Food Security," to introduce ways to produce and preserve food on a small scale. Plans in motion involve much more.
Steve Upson, soils and crops consultant, is a leading expert in horticulture and hoop houses. Upson will contribute his experience and knowledge to the education and demonstration activities of the CPSA.
Sitting at his desk in the Agricultural Division building, Rohla examines an aerial shot of the Noble Research Institute campus in Ardmore, Oklahoma, and points out an area north of Memorial Pond. "This is where we're planning to build the showcase of the Center," said Rohla, smiling and tapping his finger.
The showcase comprises various sections, beginning with an educational view of large-scale commercial crops, then turning to demonstrations of small-scale specialty food production projects, which gradually progress by the amount of land needed.
Near the entrance, corn and wheat stalks will wave in the wind to visitors, inviting them to come learn about the crops essential to general food production. Then the tour gets a bit more personal by displaying options for backyard food production edible landscaping, fruit trees, a chicken coop, rabbit hutch, garden, small greenhouse, hoop house and shed. The deeper into the Center the tour progresses, the more land will be needed to accomplish the demonstrated projects.
The projects will benefit everyone from the most novice producers who'd just like a fresh tomato or two to those who want to make a living from selling food they've produced. "Everything will be connected so tour groups can see all the aspects of specialized agriculture," Rohla said. "We want to show people ideas in real life, not just on a computer screen, and they can pick the ones that might work for them."
The need for this showcase stems from a rising nationwide interest in where food comes from. More and more people are buying small acreages outside city limits, searching for a place to make the fruits of their labor literal. "They have ideas of what they want to do," Rohla said, "but they may not know what they can do or how to go about doing it."
Rohla's mind whirls at all the possible ways to meet this need. The endeavor brings together all three of his educational degrees his bachelor's in animal science, master's in agricultural education and Ph.D. in crop science as well as his emphasis on pecan research. "We're also fortunate to have Steve Upson working in the Center," Rohla said. "Steve has a strong expertise in horticulture and is a leader when it comes to specialty agriculture production, especially hoop houses."
Education through tours, demonstrations and other programs will be an essential part of the Center. Rohla envisions a place for people to come and experience this variety of agriculture. "There will be lots of opportunities for education and hands-on learning," Rohla said. "People will be able to get out in the field and see different stages of growth and lots of different options of crops and livestock to grow or raise."
Research will play an integral role, too. While specialty agriculture in this case can include nearly anything grown or raised for personal or direct-to-consumer use, Rohla said they may also look into ways to grow foods not traditionally grown in the Southern Great Plains bananas, figs, and citrus like kumquats and lemons. "The books say it can't be done, but there might be ways to grow them," he said. "Some Noble Research Institute cooperators already are, on a small scale, in hoop houses. Maybe there are ways to improve that production, even here in Oklahoma and Texas."
He's also quick to point out a particular specialty crop, the pecan, as one the Center plans to pay special attention to.
University of Chapingo students Fernando Gutierrez-Montiel (left) and Uriel Vite-Orozco plant pecan trees that will be part of CPSA's genetic research.
Pecans have been an important food source for hundreds of years, and the Noble Research Institute has been involved in pecan research for decades through native and improved pecan orchards on the Red River Farm and McMillan Road Farm. Recently, these healthy nuts, packed with vitamins and antioxidants, have gained more attention from consumers in the U.S. and abroad, especially China, which consumes more than a third of the U.S. crop.
Compared to other agricultural industries, the pecan industry and research efforts are young. And the few established pecan researchers are reaching retirement age. The pecan industry has great potential, but producers have many questions yet to be answered.
Questions about why it takes so long for pecan trees to reach maturity and why trees across the U.S. seem to be on the same alternate bearing pattern. One year all trees may produce great and the next none do. And how can diseases and pests be managed? How can we unlock the natural potential of the pecan?
With scientists across disciplines who are experts in their research areas, the Noble Research Institute is uniquely positioned to help answer these questions, Rohla explained. He meets regularly with scientists in both the Plant Biology and Forage Improvement divisions to discuss pecans. "It's great because I tell them the problems pecan producers face," he said, "and they help me solve those problems."
When the Noble Research Institute researchers make discoveries, the information is used to advise and assist agricultural producers. It also aids collaborative projects with universities and governmental agencies so solutions found can yield more widespread results.
Just this year, the Noble Research Institute began participating in a multistate research project that was initiated by a pecan grower. Researchers in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Georgia will all be doing the same experiment to study the environment's role in the experiment.
These kinds of collaborations will be critical to the Center for Pecan and Specialty Agriculture. The Noble Research Institute already works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and University of Georgia on pecan research, but the CPSA will strive to advance the collaboration.
Rohla is putting together an outside committee, which will be instrumental to the Center's success. The committee will be made up of university specialists, governmental agency workers and agricultural producers involved in pecan and specialty agriculture production. These people will help determine the types of projects the Center should demonstrate. "We want to make sure we're showing people production practices and options that they want to see and that will work well in this area," he said. "The outside committee will help us ensure we're giving people what they want and need."
For now, there is much planning and preparation to do, but Rohla is excited about what is ahead.
"There's a lot of work to be done," he said, "But I'm excited. We're all excited. This is the beginning of something extraordinary."