SHERIDAN, Wyo. - Vineyards in northern Wyoming? Or how about peppermint plots? And apple trees?
You bet, says University of Wyoming associate professor Valtcho Jeliazkov from the Sheridan, Wyo. Research and Extension Center. His study hub looks for the off-the-beaten-paths. Let's give it a test shot, why not?
“Specialty crops offer an additional opportunity for current Wyoming growers, for small farmers, and homeowners to expand into these cash crops and new markets,” said Valtcho “One can make money in specialty crops grown on a very few acres. In addition, extended season production systems (high tunnels) and greenhouse production systems, especially for vegetables may have a bright future in Wyoming due to the availability of relatively inexpensive energy sources, which is a significant advantage.”
Besides studies on the region's bread-n-butter crops, part of the research the good experimenters from Sheridan undertake are specialties, including grapes, peppermint and fruit trees.
Valtcho says despite Wyoming's short growing season, early frosts and lack of previous experimentation and expertise, more consideration to try and commercially grow specialties is on the rise.
“Obviously, we cannot compete with Southern California on strawberry production or with Southern Florida with tomato production, however there are specialty crops that grow better in more northern climates,” said Valtcho. “Peppermint is one such crop. It requires longer days during the summer to accumulate essential oil with desirable composition.
“Wyoming has advantage over the Pacific Northwest with much drier climate. This means disease pressure on peppermint and other mints would be much lower. And because peppermint has not been grown in Wyoming, our soils are not infested with the typical soil-born diseases such as verticillium wilt. Hence, we could establish organic production systems for peppermint in Wyoming much easier than in other traditional peppermint states in the Pacific Northwest. And this is the truth with other specialty crops.”
So, for the next two years both the Sheridan and Laramie centers will establish field experiments to analyze sustainable mint essential oil production in Wyoming, including peppermint and spearmint. Essential oil of the mints are used in chewing gum , toothpaste, mouthwashes and pharmaceutical products.
When Valtcho takes questions from the public or producers, including during field days, one of the common inquires are with grapes.
“It seems a great number of growers and the general public are fascinated by growing table grapes, for fresh consumption, jelly, juice making, establishing small vineyards, and the production of home-made wine,” said Valtcho.
Contrary to wife's tales that grapes can only grow in California's Napa Valley, the popular fruit has made their way to colder climates in the north for quite a while. Studies in New York, Minnesota and Canada have shown many varieties, including the “Bluebell,” can withstand Wyoming-like frigidity down to minus 20 degrees.
And reinforcements in grape investigation is due to arrive in the town nestled east against the beautiful Big Horns.
“We are very excited that Dr. Sadanand Dhekney is coming to Sheridan Research and Extension Center as a new faculty member starting beginning of Jan. 2012, said Valtcho. “Dr. Dhekney is a biotechnologist and genetic engineer and has been working on cold tolerance of muscadine grapes, a vine-like species grown in the southeastern region of the US. “I am sure he will make significant contributions to grape research in Wyoming and the region.”
The Sheridan center has a orchard of 56 fruit trees, the majority being 18 varieties of apple. Studies are also done with plum, cherry, crab apple and peach trees. The observations help determine which perform well in northern Wyoming, along with pest and disease insights. The McIntosh seem to handle the area's climate and varmints the best.
The University of Wyoming College of Agriculture and Natural Resources have four Extension and research stations in the state, including Sheridan and Powell. While the centers concentrate on research trials with mainstream crops such as wheat, corn, alfalfa, sainfoin and the forage grasses vital to the region, other lab coat-clipboard pondering include specialty crop and homeowner turf trials.
And as anyone attending their field days can attest, the Cowboy teachers do good work. Reach out to them if grapes, apples, or even peppermint, might be part of your ag bag in the future.
The Sheridan center is located at 663 Wyarno Rd. Telephone: (307) 737-2415.