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December 20, 2014

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Horticulture specialist Bob Morris says you can grow anything in the desert

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Saeed Rahbaran

Bob Morris is working on his Dari. The local horticulture specialist retired from the University of Nevada, Reno last year after working for close to three decades in Las Vegas, developing the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Orchard on the northern edge of town, starting the farmer to chef program and developing growing techniques for fruits and vegetables most people would never attempt to raise in the desert. In mid-April Morris embarks on a new adventure, a one-year post with the University of California, Davis that will send him to Afghanistan to work with local farmers. First, he took us on a tour of the orchard and taught us to grow mangoes in the Nevada desert.

The Details

Beyond the Weekly
Keep up with Morris in his column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal or on his blog
Extremehorticulture blog.

You’re a horticulturist in the middle of the desert. What do you focus on? My specialty is to take plants that do not particularly thrive in the desert and get them to grow here and, if possible, to make money on them. There’s a number of challenges in the desert, in this specific desert, and it’s not just the climate. The soils here are absolutely horrendous.

Does that challenge attract you? It does. It attracts me. It doesn’t attract some horticulturists. Some horticulturists are going to look at it and say, I’m only going to grow plants that specifically should be grown in the desert. I don’t. In fact, the classes that I teach, I give them a challenge. I tell them, you can grow anything you want to in Las Vegas. Name one plant that you don’t think’ll grow here, and I’ll tell you how to grow it here. So they’ll come up and say, mangoes. I’ll say, okay, first of all, build a greenhouse.

You’ve let local chefs evaluate some of your produce. What kind of marks has it gotten? The first chef evaluation I did was on asparagus. I took them to Giovanni Mauro, formerly at Nora’s Wine Bar, and they evaluated them up there with sheets I had given them. I was looking for which asparagus I should grow, ’cause I had 12 varieties, and they all came back as excellent. I said, this doesn’t do me any good; you gotta tell me which ones are best. And they said, no, they’re all fabulous, but you’d pair them with different foods.

You do a lot of traveling for work. What do you do when you travel? I’m usually sent to certain regions of the world, and I usually prefer hot, arid climates, ’cause that’s what I’m used to. Normally, I work with small-scale producers, trying to get them to put more money in their pockets by rethinking how they’re producing and to consider a different paradigm. And that paradigm is not to compete with the large-scale producers, but to extract money from people’s pockets by giving them something that they can’t get in the marketplace. … I tell producers: Stop competing for the lowest possible price you can get for a product. Start competing for the highest possible price. So it’s a whole paradigm shift in how you think.

In your travels, I imagine you get to taste rare produce that we never see here. I wish that were true. But most of the world has gone the same way we’ve gone. I’ll take that back. When I do get that opportunity, it’s at the farm level. It’s never at the restaurants, because the restaurants would as soon open a can of something and serve it than they would use something fresh and local. There’s a certain prestige in buying a canned pot meat from the United States and serving it, when they have locally produced food that’s just down in the market.

Do any individual items stand out? I had the best lamb I have ever had in my life in Lebanon. And it’s a particular breed of sheep that they produce there. It is absolutely delicious. I actually have a small farm in the Philippines, so we produce a lot of tropical fruits there, including our own coffee that we produce ourselves. We pan roast it. It’s a variety that’s not produced really anywhere else. … And it’s a different flavor entirely. … It’s a different coffee experience.

You recently retired from the University of Nevada. What work have you done in Las Vegas that you’re most proud of? The biggest one is seeing the expansion of locally produced fruits and vegetables in backyards and also in small-scale production here. That’s probably more meaningful to me than anything else, and getting reports back and seeing the farmers markets blossom. Seeing producers that you’ve worked with in the past now selling there and actually doing things on their property that I wanted to do before I retired from here. Now, they’re experimenting with things, and they’re telling me things that are growing for them that I didn’t even know would grow here. Full circle.

Your new position starts next month. What will you be doing? An opportunity came up—since I’ve been doing international work and I really love international work—to help at the ground floor to initiate an extension program, extension agents, in Afghanistan. … What we’re trying to do is train Afghanis to be like me. What I want them to do is to be able to take technical information there and take it to the producers and show them how to do things and to get their local producers producing higher-quality products to get more money in their pockets.

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