BOTTINEAU, N.D. – An ever-increasing number of consumers want to buy foods grown locally and/or under organic conditions. That has resulted in the Sustainable Vegetable Production Program at Dakota College in Bottineau.
According to Keith Knudson, instructor in the department, “the quicker you get it from the point it is grown to the plate, the fresher it stays and the better the flavor of the food.”
Dakota College has a wide array of facilities on campus designed to give students a unique hands-on experience in many different areas. The college offers a certificate for a one-year career/technical education program and a two-year Associate of Applied Science (AAS) education program, with areas of study including greenhouse technology, floral design, sustainable vegetable production and aquaponics.
“We offer a very well-rounded program,” Knudson said, as he strolled through the outside nursey plots. “The students need to understand our present system, because there are some very important fundamental things that happen right out in our soil, and they need to know those things to understand the other areas of study such as aquaponics or green house production.”
To enhance this training, the college offers new greenhouses, high tunnels, outdoor fields and the aquaponics system, he noted. These facilities make it possible to teach and do research on a wide assortment of subjects.
For instance, last year they grew potatoes on campus under a plastic cover instead of hilling them up with soil. Since the ground is covered with plastic, they can’t rely on rainfall to completely water the potatoes, but rather have a drip irrigation system buried just under the surface of the soil, to augment the rainfall. Fertilizer for the potatoes is in the drip irrigation water and is known as fertigation. Since Dakota College campus is organically certified, they must use an organic fertilizer for potato production.
They had a very successful potato crop last year using this method and are replicating the trial again this year. If it continues to show positive results, some commercial potato growers may start using this method.
“We work with a lot of small farmers or specialty crop growers and this may be a way for them to increase their yields and better utilize whatever small acreage they have,” he said.
Ways are also being explored to increase greenhouse production in the state and bring the costs of greenhouse-raised-produce down. One area of interest has been created around the Great River Energy electrical generating plant.
There have been brainstorming sessions on how this hot water, instead of going into the holding pond, could be circulated through a system and used to heat greenhouses, even in the middle of winter. This would result in vegetable harvests from those greenhouses on a year-round basis.
“So, there are opportunities like that in North Dakota that we could really grow on to increase our food production system throughout the year,” he said.
In another area, the college has built “high tunnel” structures. These can add an additional month of growing time to plants in the spring and maybe up to two months in the fall after the normal frost date.
One of the drawbacks for seeking a career in this area has been the notion that this small-scale farming results in little economic returns to those engaged in it. But Knudson, who is also the Farm Business Management instructor for sustainable vegetable production, said vegetable production can be very profitable with a properly designed and managed system. He provides support for vegetable growers throughout the state.
He used the example of a farmer who gets a 200 bushel per acre corn crop and sells it for $4.50 per bushel. That would bring in $900 per acre for that corn crop.
“Typically, in our world, we like to look at between $15,000 to $18,000 from an acre because we are dealing with specialty crops. We are trying to figure out how we can get the most off from every little piece of ground that we can.”
Even the small foot print of a high tunnel can bring in a high income from the production that is sold. A typical high tunnel should raise from $8,000 to $10,000 worth of produce in a season, he noted.
Finally, Knudson outlined the many benefits a student will receive through training at Dakota College. They will work with a fully functioning USDA Certified Organic farm right on campus. By working with the 4 Seasons Community Supported Agriculture farm, students will actively participate and experience every aspect of the farm, from placing transplants inside high tunnels, to marketing – using social media. With the already mentioned greenhouses, high tunnels and outdoor fields and a wash/pack facility, students will have access to all of the tools of the trade.
For more information on the various sustainable vegetable production careers offered, contact Dakota College at www.dakotacollege.edu or call 800-542-6866.