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Growing the State

September 16, 2020
man examining growing leafy greens
Adam Bunker of Papa Joe’s Produce in Sheridan chairs the Wyoming Food Coalition’s “Vibrant Farms, Local Economies” working group. (Courtesy photo)

Research and extension efforts help cultivate new crops and opportunities.


By Micaela Myers 

What do a statewide food coalition, wine grapes and Peruvian popping beans all have in common? All are spearheaded by University of Wyoming personnel for the betterment of the state. All also involve UW Extension and/or research and extension centers.

In all, UW operates four research and extension centers—in Lingle, Sheridan, Powell and Laramie. The variety of projects taking place through Extension can lead to diversification of crops and the economy. Extension educators also work with the state’s youth to foster the next generation and with farmers and ranchers to bring down barriers for a prolific future.


Wyoming Food Coalition

Across Wyoming, farmers and ranchers produce quality local food. Wyoming residents want these products but often have to go out of their way to find them or only have access during summer farmers markets. The Wyoming Food Coalition, organized with help from UW Extension, aims to change this dynamic, helping producers band together for a powerful collective voice that will lead to real solutions.

“Our team joined the coalition out of an overall vision to help bring fresh, healthy, locally grown food into Wyoming homes,” says Adam Bunker, head of business development for Papa Joe’s Produce in Sheridan, which is owned by Joe Wesnitzer. “To us, there were two big things that rose to the top and framed our involvement: the need to ‘grow’ more farmers by encouraging and supporting local producers so there’s more food available and the need to help connect producers with the customers in their local communities.”

Bunker chairs the coalition’s “Vibrant Farms, Local Economies” working group, which aims to expand and support Wyoming’s local food industry with things such as development of commercial kitchens, efficient processing and packaging, and producer standardization, plus connecting new farmers to financial support and education.

“As producers, Joe and I are at the foundation of Wyoming’s food system,” he says. “We grow leafy greens, mainly lettuce, year round in our hydroponic greenhouses. We also raise Scottish Highland cattle and grow a variety of seasonal produce. In the past, we’ve connected with customers almost exclusively via direct sales at the farmers market; however, our newest greenhouse has more than tripled our capacity, and we’re expanding into business and retail sales as well.”

Alone, they have a small voice and limited resources. But together, producers share resources to tackle challenges, to develop food systems and to use their collective voice to support positive state policies.

Cole Ehmke, a specialist in agricultural entrepreneurship and personal finance in UW Extension and the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, saw the need for a coalition that could encourage a more diverse, thriving and equitable food system. He arranged for an AmeriCorps Vista position—yearlong volunteers—to facilitate the initial efforts, which included a meeting attended by more than 80 stakeholders and Wyoming first lady Jennie Gordon in December 2019.

“The coronavirus showed the importance of strong local food systems, so the coalition’s work on behalf of producers, as well as consumers and the environment, is much needed,” Ehmke says.

“We believe that the Wyoming Food Coalition is very well positioned to make some very real, very positive changes for Wyoming’s food systems in the coming year, and it’s precisely because of the tremendous work that folks have already been doing over the course of many years,” Bunker says. “We’re very proud to be working with such amazing people from across the state who are invested in Wyoming and their communities.”


man looking at growing grapes
Northwest Area Agriculture and Horticulture Extension Educator Jeremiah Vardiman shows off grapes grown at the Powell Research and Extension Center. Through vineyards there and at the Sheridan Research and Extension Center, researchers study which varieties of table and wine grapes grow best in Wyoming.

Vineyards of Wyoming

When you think of Wyoming, vineyards are likely not what comes to mind. But, in fact, a variety of table and wine grapes can successfully grow in Wyoming. Grape geneticist Sadanand Dhekney established two vineyards at UW research and extension centers in Sheridan and Powell before he departed last year. Northwest Area Agriculture and Horticulture Extension Educator Jeremiah Vardiman has continued the project with a Wyoming Grape Guide published this past spring.

“There are table and wine grapes in Sheridan. Powell is also producing wine grapes,” Vardiman says. “The wine grapes tend to be more robust and able to handle our conditions better. Those are showing more promise.”

In 2009, the Wyoming Grape and Wine Association reported about 75 members and estimated 25-30 acres of grape production with an annual production of 45 tons. Today, the numbers are likely higher, and Vardiman hopes to offer workshops to support grape growers and promote vineyards in Wyoming.

“We’re trying to take our knowledge from the research and provide it to residents in the state to try to get folks interested in planting and growing grapes,” he says. “For people who are growing them already, we want to be a guide to help them be more prolific with their vineyards.”


New Beans Pop Up

Peruvian popping beans, also called nuña beans (Phaseolus vulgaris L.), have arrived in Wyoming. Native to the Andean region of South America, these nutritious beans get their name from their unique ability to “pop” when heated for a short time. While other common beans, such as pinto beans or black beans, require hours of soaking and slow cooking, nuña beans can be prepared in as little as 5 minutes. In addition to having simpler preparation methods, nuña beans are a good source of dietary fiber, protein and many vitamins and minerals.

UW researchers, Department of Family and Consumer Sciences Assistant Professor Jill Fabricius Keith and Powell Research and Extension Center Professor and Director Jim Heitholt  are working with Washington State University, University of Hawai’i, U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service East Lansing, and USDA-ARS Pullman on cultivation and distribution of the nuña bean in the United States. Nuña beans are traditionally photoperiod sensitive, meaning they require a strict schedule of 12 hours of sunlight, 12 hours of darkness to thrive and grow. This makes cultivation easy in the Andean Region but difficult in the western and northwestern regions of the United States. However, a Colorado line has been bred that is not as photoperiod sensitive, pops when heated, and retains a buttery nutty texture and flavor for consumers.

woman sitting at a table with bags and bowl of beans
Family and Consumer Sciences Assistant Professor Jill Keith tests different cooking methods and popping percentages of Peruvian popping beans, which—when popped—retain a buttery, nutty texture and flavor. She hopes the beans can be a specialty crop for farmers that would bring a premium price.

With funding from the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, Keith and her team of undergraduate and graduate students are looking into the popping percentage of the beans grown in Lingle and Powell, as well as testing them with consumers. The popping percentage refers to how many of the beans pop when heated.

“Before they pop, they look like a regular bean,” Keith says, adding that some appear like kidney beans while others are spotted. “When they pop, they look kind of like a peanut. They pop out of their skin and expand a little.”

Last year, they popped the beans in her lab using different oils and three different cooking methods—air popping, microwave and gas range. Then they invited 150 people to try them. Next, they plan to serve them at Wyoming farmers markets.

“As far as taste and texture, they don’t compare to any other bean. You pop them, and they’re crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside. In South America, they’re popped, salted and served that way like a peanut-type snack.”

The project’s funding comes from the specialty crop initiative.

“It could be a specialty crop farmers could grow in an area of their field that would bring a premium price,” Keith says. “For the consumer and nutrition aspect, it would be great to have a product that’s a bean or legume that could potentially be preferable to consumers, especially kids.”

Keith is pursuing funding that would allow her team to work with school districts to offer the bean as a nutritious popped snack.


Cultivating Future Chefs

Administered by UW Extension, the Wyoming 4-H program hosts a Showcase Showdown each year offering 12 different contests for 4-H members along with workshops and tours. One of its most popular contests is the Food Cook-Off, where juniors are given three recipes to practice and then choose one randomly to compete with, and seniors, ages 14 and older, are given set ingredients to use along with access to a pantry to create a dish. The top team gets to attend the National Food Challenge in Dallas, Texas. In 2018, the Big Horn County team made it to the national contest. In 2019, Albany County students Malea Christensen and Carey Berendsen qualified for the national event.

“I have been attending the Showcase Showdown since 2012,” says Christensen, a recent high school graduate and 10-year 4-H veteran in a number of categories. “You get to meet new people, form friendships, get to show off your hard work and sometimes qualify to go to national competitions. At national competitions, you compete with the best in the nation. This past year, I qualified for three national contests—one of those was the Food Cook-Off.”

The experiences taught her never to give up and to take criticism for self-improvement. “My 4-H experiences have taught me how to better communicate, to set goals to reach and to do things for the right reasons,” says Christensen, who started UW this fall majoring in molecular biology and planning to pursue medicine.

“One of my favorite things about cooking is watching people enjoy the food I prepare,” she says. “I also love trying out new recipes or altering new ones to see if I can make them taste better.”

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