By Brian Bahouth
In Detroit, decades of economic contraction left more than 200,000 vacant lots in its wake, and in response, city officials adopted zoning changes to accommodate and encourage urban agriculture and help reclaim blighted areas through greening and gardens. Baltimore city officials updated zoning codes and animal husbandry regulations in 2013 in an effort to reduce vacant blight and increase food access for the city’s poor, and Baltimorians now choose gardening lots from an online catalog of urban parcels. In Sparks, Nevada the city government enacted an ordinance in 2014 that has inspired many to keep bees and raise chickens and garden. In 2015 the Reno city government adopted temporary zoning regulations that make provision for urban agriculture. And now, a bill in the Nevada Legislature would more formally institutionalize urban agriculture across the state and allow municipalities to establish agriculture zones in their master plans.
Senate Bill 429 passed the Senate by a unanimous vote on April 21 and now heads to the Assembly with bi-partisan support. During a meeting of the Senate Government Affairs committee on April 10, state Senator Yvonna Cancela (D-Las Vegas) described the terms and intent of the bill for committee members and emphasized that the legislation is permissive and in no way mandates local government action.
“The term urban agriculture describes all types of urban farming activities from small community gardens to larger commercial production of crops. Hi-tech greenhouses located on small plots of land in the middle of cities have the capacity to produce nutrient dense crops and provide easy access to fresh affordable foods, as well as teach people about the benefits and importance of fresh food and how it’s grown.”
Several who work and volunteer for Urban Seed gave compelling testimony in support of SB 429. Urban Seed is based in Las Vegas and uses groundbreaking technology on vacant land near the Las Vegas Strip to shorten the distance between farm and plate. From the Urban Seed website:
“We are reinventing and revolutionizing the way we grow and provide food from produce to packaging. Starting in Las Vegas and moving across the world, our proprietary systems allow us to grow nutrient-dense produce locally giving every community the opportunity to access fresh food.
“Over the last decade our team of experts in farming, engineering, food and technology have had a relentless mission to change the way the world is fed.”
Cynthia Thompson is President of Urban Seed and during a meeting of the Senate Government Affairs committee on April 10, Thompson offered testimony in support of SB 429.
“Most people may not know that over 95 percent of our fruits and vegetables in Clark County are imported,” Thompson told lawmakers. “They don’t just come from California, they come from Chile, they come from Holland, they come Mexico, they come from Argentina.”
Growing food closer to where it is consumed helps conserve scarce natural resources, among numerous social benefits, and according to Cynthia Thompson, successfully growing food in unlikely Las Vegas means that more money stays in the local economy and that urban food can be grown almost anywhere.
“You know that over a billion dollars that leaves just our community every year for fresh fruits and vegetables. We believe in five years we can grow 25 percent of Clark County’s needs right here in Clark County. We believe Nevada can be a leader in urban agriculture and urban agriculture related technology. We believe the world will take a close look, when someone is solving the problem of providing food to a local community in the middle of a desert.”
Emily Brubaker is a former chef who worked on the Las Vegas strip and offered testimony in support of SB 429.
“Seeing how much produce comes out here for the restaurants or even the grocery store and how much of it goes to waste due to the fact that it has to travel a very far distance for us to be able to call it fresh, is fairly upsetting,” Brubaker told lawmakers. “When I was in the restaurant, it was 20 to 30 percent of produce lost, which with companies like Urban Seed will eliminate that loss and bring fresh produce to our community.”
But Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead, and for a variety of foreboding factors lake level is at its lowest point since the Hoover Dam first obstructed the flow of the Colorado River in 1933. On average 4.17 inches of rain falls on Las Vegas a year. State Senator Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) is a rancher and member of the Senate Government Affairs committee and asked the Urban Seed representatives about consumption of rare southern Nevada water for agricultural uses.
“I guess that would be my biggest concern, especially in urban Las Vegas. That truly would become a consumptive use … you’re depending on return flow credits … I’m just curious how that was going to work,” Goicoechea asked.
Rachel Wenman is a Vice President at Urban Seed.
“At Urban Seed we do it with actually 98 percent less water,” Wenman said. “The typical lettuce head takes 13 to 15 gallons of water to produce. The way in which a lot of the technology has been built, not just with Urban Seed, but in urban agriculture in general allows for 90 percent savings. At Urban Seed, we grow a lettuce head with 22 ounces of water through its whole plant cycle.”
For Rachel Wenman Nevada’s arid environment is an opportunity to lead in urban indoor agriculture, and no surprise Las Vegas is home to the 5th annual “Indoor Ag Con,” now one of the leading indoor agriculture conclaves in the world.
“We have an opportunity in Nevada to lead the world in this technology,” Wenmen said. “There’s not a lot of states that have laws like this in place yet or provisions establishing urban agriculture in its laws. This will make Nevada competitive and will make us one of the greatest solutionists I think in our generation.”
Some 40 million people visit Las Vegas every year, and Rachel Wenman said groups are becoming more food source conscious when they choose a destination for meetings.
“Everyone wants to be the ‘green hotel,’ they want to be the ‘green casino’, and the reason is yes, there is a push for it,” Wenman said. “Everyone wants to have the best produce. They want to supply the best to their guests, but also that they are seeing the companies that come to town for conventions are now requesting locally grown produce, and where they are getting their produce from. And so now they are really trying to figure out a way of how they can grow their own produce.”
In New York, Detroit, Baltimore and other cities, a change in zoning regulations has spelled a distinct increase in urban agriculture activity. Pawl Hollis owns and operates Rail City Garden Center in Sparks, and following the adoption of ordinances friendly to urban agriculture, Hollis said many more people now raise chickens, keep bees and garden. Mr. Hollis noted growth in edible landscapes of plants like kale and strawberries.
“It’s gone crazy, now with reintroducing straw bale gardening where they can garden in the straw bale, containers, raised planters,” Hollis said. “People are going crazy. It’s a big part of our business to supply them with plants, seed, soil, all the things they need, insect pest control … everybody’s doing it.”
Hollis said a change of zoning ordinances has helped introduce people to the food production potential of urban agriculture.
“It fits right in with the goal of having people produce their own food. They can produce quite a bit. On a four by four raised bed, you can produce enough for a family of four for a long time.”
Inspiring creative energy is manifest in the worldwide urban agriculture movement, and technological ingenuity is certainly part of the urban agriculture equation, but so are creative, enabling laws. As many as 17 states and the District of Columbia have urban agriculture statutes on the books, and through enabling legislation like SB 429 and the thinking of individuals and companies like Urban Seed, meaningful and potentially profitable amounts of local, sustainable food could be grown on vacant urban lands in Nevada.