FARM TO TABLE, NOT I-15 TO TABLE: URBAN SEED IS GROWING A FOOD REVOLUTION IN LAS VEGAS
October 23, 2016
Think of this as a status report on the state of growing our own vegetables right here just off the Strip. On Aug. 7, I reported on the food revolution underway for chefs and restaurateurs in Las Vegas. Until now we’ve relied on food trucked across the desert on I-15 or flown in from around the world to meet the ever-increasing demand from ever-increasing tourist counts.
It’s all about to change. The groundbreaking of the first farming facility was July 29, and now with the site cleared and the office building open, Urban Seed is ready to get its first two super greenhouses built by year end and follow with another 10 in 2017. That’s 100 greenhouses in the next five years. Clark County approvals on variances for parking, loading docks and signage are underway, and the first two greenhouses are on order for installation.
It’s a reinvention and revolutionary way to grow and provide food from produce to packaging. Our chefs, hotel food and beverage directors and restaurateurs cannot wait. Urban Seed’s amazing technology, which has been a decade in the making, will drastically change the way food gets to our tables.
Until now the United States has imported billions of dollars of fruits and vegetables, and produce can travel more than 1,400 miles before it reaches consumers. Urban Seed on Wynn Road in the shadow of the Strip and The Orleans will have delivery in a 10-mile zone within 5 hours of harvesting. We’re talking farm to table and not I-15 to table.
The variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs and microgreens is impressive, including year-round cabbage, cucumbers, basil, cilantro, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, melons and strawberries. The chefs, among them Michael Mina, Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken and Geno Bernardo, can’t wait. They’ll be able to make their own sauces for sale “Made in Las Vegas.” This winter will see Urban Seed harvesting 20-plus varieties of produce.
Urban Seed CEO Thomas Winn told me: “We start with two of the greenhouses. Each of them have about a 6,500-square-foot footprint, and they’ll be connected with a vent area where all the air flow comes through the center. Visually, it will look like one big building, but it will really be two buildings connected.
“Delivery is set for December, and it will take roughly 30 days to be physically erected. We’ll actually start planting before that in the seeding area because we want to be able to transfer the seedlings of small plants into A frames the first moment possible. We’ll have 23 varieties right from the get go.
“That’s really unique in the industry. If you look at even the top, top urban farms, aero farms, anything like that, it’s all greens. It’s very rare that you see strawberries, beets, lettuce. We’ll be the first commercial system to do root vegetables in this way in the entire market.”
Lettuce and tomatoes
If seedling plantings start in mid-December, it means that micro-greens will be grown within two weeks. Vice President Rachel Wenman added: “The lettuce is really a 60-day cycle, but we get part of that out of the way before it goes into the greenhouse. Tomatoes are in the 60-day time frame, too. We’ll be picking first harvest about 28 days from the time the greenhouses go up. The chefs will be here by the end of December to pick, try and taste our very first crop.”
Jolene Mannina, vice president of culinary partnerships, explained: “We have a culinary advisory board, so they have the first rights to the produce. We’re already going through their estimated produce usage right now, so we have a good understanding of exactly what they’ll take up. There’s a line of restaurants and chefs that is going to be ready, as well, to get in on those first few greenhouses.
“The unique thing is that these 6,500-square-foot greenhouses produce a ton of food per square foot. From these first two, we’ll produce over 300 tons of food per year. On this first site with the five other greenhouses planned for installation next year, we’ll produce over 1,500 tons of food on these 3 acres.
Said Rachel: “What we will show in December is that to our knowledge we will be the most efficient and most per-square-foot food solution in the market in the country and doing it right here in Las Vegas. The new seedlings are planted the moment the earlier ones are transferred to the A frames inside the greenhouse.
“They will never sit empty in the process. We’re seeding and getting started on a constant basis, so as the harvest is picked, the new produce takes its place. It’s constantly growing. We’re never wiped out without produce.”
The plants grow through the holes of A frames fed with nutrients, warm air and water mist. Rachel continued: “Traditional farms can get around 50 lettuce heads in about 24 square feet. We’re able to do 550 lettuce heads in 24 square feet. Our yield per square feet means we don’t have to use a ton of land.”
Thomas added: “We’re able to bring each of our plants to a fuller DNA capability, making them a lot tastier. We’ve spent 10 years in the development of the technology and beta-site testing. We’ve grown plants already, and our grower has 40 years of experience that predates these A frames, everything from how to do the best propagation to best light cycles.
“All of that testing was right here in Las Vegas. To get to the final generation, this was an evolution of the design that got us to the point that we are. Once the seeds are in, they will grow literally out of thin air.”
I asked if it was safe for me to describe the growth of the plants with a “superfood” nutrition: “It’s not strong enough, but we don’t want to make such big claims that everybody says I don’t believe that. We’d rather under promise and over perform, but we’ve already proved it to ourselves. Now we’re about to prove it to the world.”
The dream for Urban Seed began six years ago but goes back to 30 years of visions to change the way we farm. The current Urban Seed team sat down for the first time 18 months ago. Rachel explained: “What’s really unique about this team is everyone in their respective industries has been experts, and they’ve all had a common vision of wanting to do good with their knowledge and intelligence.
“It’s not just bringing farming to Las Vegas. About three months in, we really grasped that we’re not just bringing farming to Las Vegas. We are changing the way the world is fed. We want that to be a Las Vegas story and really bring the community in from our infancy.
“We’ve been building it for the past year and a half with the community, and now it’s far more than the unveiling. Everyone has worked out the pricing, the logistics, how’s it going to work. I think that’s what feels so different and special about it. It’s really a community company.”
The Wynn Road facility will eventually house seven greenhouses, with 80-plus planned for other Las Vegas locations in the next two years. The first seeds will come from out-of-state suppliers, but eventually the harvest here will produce our own seeds, so the Urban Seed produce will have a full Las Vegas history.
It ends the five-day lag from produce being picked in California and trucked to Las Vegas — 65 to 70 cents of every $1 spent in Las Vegas on produce is transportation cost. Urban Seed will save some of that cost while ensuring fresher and tastier produce. Additionally, hotels won’t be each throwing away 44 tons of containers, cardboard boxes and packaging a week. Urban Seed can drop off the food in a container and pick it up for the next delivery.
“Our philosophy is we will not be the low-cost provider, but we do intend to be competitive and deliver a superior product because it’s going to get to them faster,” explained Rachel. “It’s going to have higher nutrition, higher flavor, more shelf life. We’ll beat everybody in terms of quality and hopefully shave a little bit with price.”
Rachel summed up: “It’s why part of our branding is that we wanted to whisper, ‘Las Vegas saves the world,’ because we’re going to change the way the world is fed. We’re going to teach the world how to farm.”