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Room for growth

Hydroponic Herbs
Christopher Smith
Christopher Smith

How local is “locally grown” food? Not very — but these enterprising farmers are changing that

Every day of the week has a purpose. Fridays are for winding down. Sundays are for crosswords and football. Mondays are for getting back to work. And Saturdays are fast becoming synonymous with the farmers market. The modern farmers market — that is, food producers gathering to sell directly to urbanites — started in the 1990s, and it’s since become a highlight of suburban and city life. According to the Farmers Market Coalition, in 1994, there were 2,000 farmers markets in the U.S.; today, there are more than 8,600.

They’ve even taken root in dry Las Vegas. Here in the valley, you can buy locally grown fruits and vegetables at six farmers market events every week, from Fresh 52 in Tivoli Village to the Las Vegas Farmers Market at Floyd Lamb Park in Tule Springs.

But how local is “locally grown”? A glance at the websites of both the Downtown Summerlin Farmers Market and the Las Vegas Farmers Market reveals that most of the actual produce being sold comes not from Nevada, but from neighboring states such as California and Utah. Businesses actually based in Nevada instead specialize in things like candles and honey. In fact, according to the Nevada Department of Agriculture, only two percent of the food consumed in our state is actually grown here. That’s no surprise — we live in a desert, after all. But some Nevada farmers are changing that statistic with an entrepreneurial mindset and technology that makes farming in the desert a realistic proposition.

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Rodney Mehring took on Blue Lizard Farm seven years ago in Lincoln County, 150 miles north of Las Vegas. At just one-and-a-half acres, Blue Lizard is a microfarm. On that small portion of land, Mehring has established a profitable business, growing vegetables and leafy greens, and selling them almost exclusively to Harvest by Roy Ellamar, a farm-to-table restaurant in Bellagio. Mehring’s secret is hoop houses.

A hoop house is “essentially an unheated greenhouse,” Mehring explains. Instead of being heated internally the way greenhouses are, hoop houses use a combination of solar energy and shade cloth to regulate the internal temperature. In this way, hoop houses stay cool during the 110-degree summer highs, but also warm when temperatures drop by more than 50 degrees at night. Hoop houses also retain moisture and keep the air inside humid — an important factor in the desert — and protect plants from strong winds.

“Our type of growing, we try to maximize space in the hoop houses, (and maximize) crops per square foot,” Mehring says. He does just that: In a year, one of his hoop houses can produce up to 400 pounds of spinach, one of his most popular crops. He produces 15 tons of greens annually, including mixed lettuce, baby red Russian kale, and purple mustard. Mehring started out with one small hoop house, but today he has five large ones and is in the process of buying five more.

 “There’s a lot of support for these microfarms,” Mehring says, referring to federal grants for hoop houses. (There are 82 hoop houses in Nevada that have received grants.) Mehring has become something of a hoop house spokesperson in the local farming community, and he’s not alone in his enthusiasm.

“There are some studies that show hoop houses increase the time-to-market and yield for some fruits and vegetables,” says Jennifer Ott, project manager at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Desert Farming Initiative, which promotes sustainable desert agriculture. “With California as our neighbor, Nevada farms have big competition when it comes to quantity and timing. The average California farm is significantly larger than the average Nevada farm. California farms can also be first to market or can extend much longer than Nevada farms,” Ott explains. Using hoop houses, Nevada farmers can help even the playing field.

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Another technology gaining ground in Nevada is aquaponics. In an aquaponics system, fish and plants are raised together, allowing the plants to feed on the waste the fish produce. This waste includes ammonia, a crucial ingredient for plant growth that’s lacking in Nevada soils. In turn, the plants help keep the fish’s environment clean. That ability to raise two products for the price (and in the space) of one is what has made the system so popular. Aquaponics also uses a fraction of the water traditional agriculture requires: just 10 percent, according to the Aquaponics Association.

Aquaponics is more popular commercially at farms up north, such as Chippewa Creek Farm and Hungry Mother Organics, both based in Reno. Here in Southern Nevada, farmers are using a sister technology: hydroponics. Hydroponics eliminates the need for soil, replacing the nutrients provided by the fish in an aquaponics system with nutrients and ammonia added directly into the water. The nutrients are then absorbed into a substrate of ground coconut shell that forms the base of the media where the greens are grown.

Las Vegas Herbs is a hydroponic microgreens farm started two years ago by John McCarthy, Svetlan Valdes, Julian Rizov and Vesselka Rizova. Using hydroponics, McCarthy and his partners can rely on the seed itself to provide most of the nutrients for the microgreens, which are sold at seven to 14 days old, still alive and in their containers, to restaurants and casinos. This enables them to grow a large crop very quickly; each 10-inch-square tray contains up to 2,000 seeds, and they harvest two or three times a month. Right now, they’re selling 3,000 trays per month. They now have 50 clients; they expect to triple that number by the end of 2017.

“We’re growing miniforests that are two inches tall,” McCarthy says. In the 5,000-square-foot greenhouse not far from the M Resort, the greens are inundated with light for up to 18 hours a day, which makes for faster root growth and a faster harvest time.

Like hoop houses, hydroponics requires a small amount of space and uses a fraction of the water traditional agriculture uses. This makes it ideal for a desert environment like Nevada’s but, as McCarthy notes, it’s a sustainable alternative to agriculture everywhere.

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“We have diminishing farmland and increasing population, and hydroponics is the only answer,” he says. “It is the future, there’s no way around it.” Indeed, the indoor agriculture industry, including hydroponics, is growing quickly. According to white papers published by Indoor Ag-Con, an industry conference held annually in Las Vegas, there’s a $9 billion potential market for indoor agriculture products, hinting at the growth potential of hydroponics.

But some farmers in the region have been slow to embrace these new technologies. The price of investing in them can be prohibitive: the cost of artificial lighting for a hydroponics greenhouse can rival the cost of the actual greenhouse itself.

“The demand is there, but there are not a lot of people who are willing to take the risk,” Mehring of Blue Lizard explains. “Farming is a risky business. … There are a lot of people with binoculars seeing how we’re doing.”

But if the growth in farmers market culture has proved anything, it is that investing in local production is the way of the future. 

“I believe that the demand for local food will continue to grow, and farmers will find ways to adapt to their desert environment as they have for thousands of years,” says Ann Louhela, president of NevadaGrown, a nonprofit that works with farms in the state to foster sustainable agriculture. “Communities and regions as a whole adapt their agricultural practices to the climate they live in.”

Mehring and McCarthy are leading that trend. McCarthy of Las Vegas Herbs plans to invest in a new hydroponics greenhouse to begin growing strawberries, a fruit in high demand at upscale restaurants on the Strip. Berries pose a challenge to the Nevada environment: High winds and sudden drops in temperature often kill berries before they can be harvested. A hydroponics greenhouse, however, can take on these challenges.

Mehring, too, is looking to start growing fruits in Blue Lizard’s hoop houses soon, and is optimistic that the enterprise will be as profitable as his greens business has been. “Local is as important as being organic,” he says, “maybe even more important.”

So the next time you’re at the farmers market, take a good look at the fruits and vegetables in your basket. Chances are that most of them come from California — but perhaps not for long.