Urban farmers spur a small agricultural renaissance in the valley
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The desert is not a good place to grow food. It’s too hot. There’s not enough water. The sandy soil supports mostly cacti and creosote.
But while the desert environment poses real challenges, Southern Nevada can actually be a great place to cultivate food-producing plants. With the exception of tropical species that require high humidity, a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs are being grown here for private and commercial use, giving some Las Vegans extra options for more healthful eating.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, chef and gardening instructor Doug Taylor is giving a tour of the front yard of his home in a centrally located Las Vegas neighborhood. The tour was coordinated by Great Basin Permaculture (GBP), a local nonprofit that promotes balance and self-sustenance through sustainable gardening and design standards. As the 10 or so visitors follow him through his urban orchard, Taylor picks and hands outs figs from one of his 50 fruit trees. Accompanying the figs are peach, persimmon, orange, apricot and pomegranate trees, among others. His yard is not noticeably large, yet it doesn’t feel crowded, even with guests. This year will be Taylor’s seventh as cultivator of a food-producing home garden. Of the above-mentioned obstacles to successful gardening in this desert, poor soil conditions present the most immediate challenge. Taylor admits it took about two years of developing his soil with mulch and compost for his urban orchard to be consistently viable.
There are perhaps relatively few front yard “food forest” cultivators as ambitious as Taylor, but as the activities of nonprofits like Vegas Roots Community Garden, GBP and Create A Change Now (which starts food gardens in area elementary schools) are increasing their reach, the grow local movement is literally setting down roots across Southern Nevada.
Jessica Penrod, co-founder of GBP, says, “People are more interested in growing their own food in Las Vegas than I’ve seen in the 17 years I’ve been here.” She explains that while it’s not unreasonable to want a food forest in your front yard, it’s going to take patience.
It’s also going to take thoughtful use of the valley’s limited water resources. “Planting drought-tolerant varieties of food-producing plants, providing direct irrigation and maintaining a healthy layer of mulch helps to minimize this challenge,” she says.
Selecting seed that will work in Las Vegas can be as easy as sourcing them from almost any area around the globe near 30 degrees north or south latitude. These areas have comparable climates and growing conditions. From Cairo to Cape Town to Chongqing, if it grows there, it will likely grow here.
There’s also seed found here once cultivated by natives. Taylor tells the story of how his colleagues at Quail Hollow Farm found red seeds on a hike in a random cave nearby. They planted the seeds and harvested impressive watermelons unlike anything he was able to identify in seed catalogues.
Now in his 30s, Taylor grew up in Hawaii and says local food was the standard way of life there. “It wasn’t trendy or something you bragged about. It was just practical. You get hungry and you go outside to pick a banana,” he says. He finds it strange that our parks and streets are planted with thousands of trees, none of which produce anything you can eat.
“Sure, fruit trees everywhere would be messy,” he says, “but it’s food, and after people got used to it, it wouldn’t be a problem.”
Taylor is executive pastry chef for the Batali and Bastianich Hospitality Group, which operates a handful of chic Italian restaurants on the Strip. It was here he was introduced to the importance of local sourcing in the tradition of the Italian table.
Trying to maintain the restaurant group’s standards of sourcing foods locally was a daunting task. As Taylor explains, “When we opened up the restaurants we said, let’s see how much of an Italian table we can create in Vegas. We had no idea if there were any farmers, and we found more than we thought, growing produce we weren’t prepared to deal with.”
According to Taylor, there are about 40 restaurants on the Strip sourcing their ingredients from local farms, and every year these growers do their best to keep up with demand. He adds that the Strip’s consumption of produce is so massive they could never begin to fulfill its needs.
“I tell the farmers to not try to grow everything, but to do just a few things well, like an heirloom baby carrot. It’s purple on the outside and has red rings on the inside. It’s only in season for like three weeks, but that is something a restaurant can get behind, put on the menu for a couple of weeks, brag about their use of local farming and have something that excites the chef.”
So far it’s proven an effective strategy, beneficial to restaurateurs and local growers.
Taylor also works with the University of Nevada’s Cooperative Extension program. His duties include teaching classes on gardening, as well as connecting restaurants to farms within about a 150-mile radius.
“We have a massive market that spends about $1.2 billion a year on produce. My goal is to capture 1 percent of that for our economy and our local farmers. We started in 2007 with one farm that grew herbs, and now we have over 60.” Taylor says the annual yield of his home orchard would bring in $60,000 to $70,000 if he chose to sell it. Fortunately for his friends and neighbors, he gives away all that his family can’t eat.
Miles away, situated at the top of a hill in Henderson, is Bloomin’ Desert Herb Farm, at the home of Randy and Rosalind Gibson. The Oklahoma transplants’ front and back yards are densely and beautifully planted with edible flowers, medicinal herbs, peppers and plants cultivated for their use as spices. A tour of the garden is visually stunning. Mints, sages, citronella, lemon verbena; the olfactory experience is nearly overwhelming, too.
The Gibson garden is technically in the same desert biome as Taylor’s orchard, but it’s in a slightly different microclimate, at a higher elevation and on the outskirts of the valley. It gets colder and windier here. The area also experiences varying levels of precipitation from other parts of the valley. But being closer to undeveloped wild desert also means there are more lizards present, which keep insect populations in check. “There is a pecking order with one kind of insect eating another, but the lizards eat them all,” Rosalind says.
She is a retired high school science teacher and principal with a background in herbal medicine that stretches back some 30-plus years. She selects herbs for their garden for specific blends to address a variety of health concerns. She explains, “I have never been much of a doctor person, but I am a science person, and I have a great respect for what these plants can do.”
With his strong, hard, chiseled features and long gray hair, Randy has the reassuring presence of an oak tree. Reared in rural Oklahoma, he speaks with a disarming Southern drawl and holds a deep appreciation of the natural world: “Being in that situation, you are accustomed to living off the land. Everything around you, you’re trying to figure out how to harvest and put on the table.”
Contrary to widely held misconceptions, Randy assures us that Southern Nevada is indeed a viable place to grow food. Gazing upon his garden, he says, “If you look at these plants here, you can see a lot of personality in the different leaf shapes, the different colors in the blooms and fruits. It’s an expression of life itself. The whole thing is about making the soil right. If you do that, everything grows in abundance.”