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July 25, 2014

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LOCAL GOVERNMENT:

An urban farm in Las Vegas? Supporter looking at 50 acres, seeking startup money

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Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press

Hydroponics, a method of growing plants in water instead of soil, can bring farming into the urban areas where consumers are concentrated.

Desert Breeze Park

With traditional family farms in decline across the country, James Garza wants to reinvent how food is grown and distributed to local communities, starting with a farm in the middle of the desert.

Garza is leading an effort to build a large-scale urban farm in the Las Vegas area, setting his sights on 50 acres of undeveloped land at Desert Breeze Park near Cimarron and Spring Mountain roads.

Although the operation would grow tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, watermelons and two dozen other staple foods, it would bear little resemblance to the farm Garza spent his teenage years on in South Texas.

There would be no soil and no heavy equipment. All plants would be grown hydroponically, with their roots immersed in nutrient-infused water in a carefully controlled greenhouse environment.

“We’re throwing out the tractor and bringing in the laptops,” he said.

Garza said hydroponics allow for much faster growing times, year-round operation and more efficient yields while using one-tenth of the water of traditional soil-based methods.

He sees it as the future of urban farming and a solution to help get more fresh fruits and vegetables into local refrigerators.

His plans don’t stop with just growing the food. Garza said he wants to create a sustainable, nonprofit organization that gives back to the community through education and donations.

It’s a model he’s been developing for several years in his role as chairman of the Eastern Nevada Food Bank.

Food from the farm would be distributed in multiple ways, with some going to the Clark County School District, local food banks and other nonprofits. The rest would be sold to restaurants and grocery stores and through farmers markets.

“We’ve got to get salad bars back in schools,” said Garza, who estimated $1.75 million worth of produce could be grown per acre per year. “We want to work on addressing food insecurity with locally grown foods on a large scale.”

Beyond the growing facilities — windowless, one-story painted metal sheds — Garza also wants to build a public market for small businesses and a hybrid community center and office space to house Southern Nevada Public Farms, the nonprofit overseeing the operation.

He acknowledges that securing startup funding for the project will be difficult, but he’s confident initial phases can be started with as little as $1 million.

“We could be picking a tomato two years from now, but it’s hard to say,” Garza said. “It’s going to take teamwork and collaboration throughout Southern Nevada.”

He’s applying for grants from several federal agencies meant to encourage job production and manufacturing and to support farms. He’s also looking for private philanthropic support.

One of the biggest challenges will be acquiring the land, which will be discussed at Tuesday’s Clark County Commission meeting.

The 240-acre Desert Breeze Park was initially targeted because its public status means it could be leased to nonprofit organizations, and its large swaths of undeveloped land can be ideal space for the growing operations and community center, Garza said.

“If we don’t have the land cost, it would be much easier to start giving back to the community quicker,” he said.

But legal entanglements could force the project to a different location, which Garza plans to discuss with commissioners this week.

Mostly he’s looking for a letter of support from the commission to include in a federal grant application due March 14 that, if successful, would give the project access to a $1.3 billion pool of funding from 10 federal agencies.

Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak said he thinks if Garza is able to secure funding, a spot in the county could be found for the farm.

“It’s all pretty much contingent on them getting the dollars from the federal government,” Sisolak said. “There’s no outlay of county money other than the property. I don’t see why it couldn’t work. It seems like it would be a good fit for everybody that would create some jobs.”

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