The word desert is not often associated with vibrant, freshly grown fruits and vegetables. However, recently, a group of local and out-of-town food system specialists went on a four-hour tour of the Las Vegas Valley to harvest a variety of produce, grown both indoors and outdoors, which they would turn into a meal later that evening. Located in the Mohave Desert, this urban region in southern Nevada receives a little over four inches of annual rainfall and has very challenging soil conditions. Growing fresh produce is undoubtedly a challenge, but numerous community gardens thrive in the valley, growing a surprising variety of crops that do well in the desert. The group of specialists spent the day visiting a number of different places to examine and collect local produce, even in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees. Dr. Wayne Roberts, global food policy analyst and author, was impressed at the levels of community support for urban agriculture seen in the Las Vegas Valley. The first stop on the tour was Zion Garden Park, an award-winning community garden located at Zion United Methodist Church and surrounded by the highest food insecure neighborhoods within the Las Vegas metropolitan area. The one-acre community garden features 64 raised garden beds which are leased to community members who plant, manage, and harvest the raised beds with the oversight of the Zion Garden Team. A great story was recently published by the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service which highlights the development of Zion Garden Park over the last year. At this stop, the urban foragers assisted William and Rachel Smith, owners of one of the raised beds, with digging up sweet potatoes they planted in the spring. The Smith's had planted just one sweet potato a few months earlier and that afternoon, the group harvested nearly twenty large, beautiful sweet potatoes from their raised garden bed. Sweet, ripe, Sugar Baby watermelons and mint were among the additional produce gathered at Zion Garden Park.
After spending a little while in the desert warmth, the group looked forward to heading indoors for the next stop, which was at Indoor Farms of America, a local agriculture company that specializes in aeroponic growing technologies. Using up to 97% less water than traditional farming, Indoor Farms of America grows a range of fresh produce, including herbs, leafy greens, and strawberries, in their warehouse located just a few minutes from the Las Vegas strip. Indoor Farms of America Co-founders, David Martin and Ronald Evans, guided the group on a tour of their facilities, which featured rows of their patented vertical living walls planted with baby butter lettuce and lemon basil, of which some was collected for the upcoming meal. Helping to pick lemon basil from one of the living walls was Dr. Lori Stahlbrand, an expert in food systems and sustainability visiting from Toronto, Canada. Harvesting the aeroponically-grown produce indoors from the living walls was quite the contrast to having unearthed sweet potatoes from the soil in the afternoon heat just an hour before.
The next stop on the tour took the group back outside to the Botanical Gardens at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Their demonstration and research gardens, which spans over three acres, feature over 1,300 desert-tolerant plant species to include roses, herbs, cacti, palms, native plants, vegetables, and fruits. As the group toured the gardens, Extension's Public Health and Nutrition Specialist and Southern Nevada Food Council facilitator, Dr. Aurora Buffington, pointed out labels beneath each species identifying the botanical and common names of each plant. Shaded areas throughout the garden brought relief from the late afternoon sun as the group foraged the garden looking for last-minute ingredients. An abundance of rosemary lining the entrance to the herb farm caught the group's attention as they discussed what missing elements were needed to complete the evening's meal. The walk through the garden brought much insight into the types of produce that can be successfully grown in the drought-stricken Las Vegas Valley.
The tour concluded with a trip inside the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension to Corrie Bosket's office where he has been using hydroponic technologies from OPCOM Farm to grow leafy greens right next to his desk. Corrie, a resource conservationist and energy specialist, researches the water and electricity usage of indoor growing technologies as well as what types of produce can thrive in a soilless environment. Specialty LED lighting, automated pumps, and water-to-nutrient ratios contribute to overall plant growth and flavor profiles. The group harvested about twenty heads of red and green leaf lettuce as well as a few large leaf Italian basil plants, which were the final components needed for the much anticipated evening dinner. The hydroponically-grown vegetables required significantly less water than traditionally farmed produce, with the many heads of lettuce in the unit needing just a few gallons of water to go from seed to plate. In a place with limited resources, such as southern Nevada, growing food with the minimum amount of resources possible is necessary for a sustainable food system.
Throughout the day, a three-course dinner menu incorporating all of the locally harvested fruits and vegetables was created by Amber Bosket, a green technologies specialist and agricultural director at Zion Garden Park. After the tour, the group headed to the Bosket's home to prepare the meal using the fresh-picked ingredients. John Buffington grilled wild salmon he and his family caught while on a fishing trip to the Kenai River in Alaska and Amber baked a healthy, whole-wheat and honey carrot cake. Aurora prepared the roasted sweet potatoes and leafy green salad with the lettuce picked from Corrie's office just a couple hours before dinner. Lori and Rachel stuffed mushrooms with goat cheese and hydroponic Italian herbs and the Zion Garden's baby watermelons were tossed with the tangy lemon basil from Indoor Farms. As the food was being prepared, William played the piano and others engaged in discussion, reflecting on the day's events. The long day of harvesting, cooking, and enjoying a delicious meal gave the group a "fresh" perspective on the food system and what can be done in southern Nevada.