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October 17, 2017

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Unifying food: Urban Seed reinvents farming in the desert

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Justin Vaseur

Urban Seed broke ground on a farming facility just west of the Las Vegas Strip July 29.

It’s 101 degrees, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the cool scene: white dresses and pressed button-downs, Champagne and the Las Vegas skyline shimmering like a mirage. The crowd’s chill demeanor in this heat has a lot to do with the reason we’re here: Urban Seed broke ground on its indoor farming facility, and politicians and celebrity chefs alike are toasting the future. But there’s more to congratulate the organization for than its roster of friends. As Chef Mary Sue Milliken of Border Grill reminds the gathering, Las Vegas is the world’s playground, and our model water practices position us to be the world’s example for environmentally friendly farming.

Blending tried-and-true and proprietary methods, Urban Seed plans to save 50 percent more food from the trash bin than traditional farms and use 95 percent less water, while taking up a fraction of the space. “Our goal,” Urban Seed President Cynthia Thompson says, “is to do the next 93 greenhouses we build with a zero carbon footprint, and we’re almost there.”

At 4770 Wynn Road, Urban Seed’s first phase will be a 3-acre, eight-greenhouse operation with a production facility and event space, and demand will guide expansion. “Because we use boutique greenhouses, we have the ability to grow a lot of food in a small footprint,” Urban Seed Vice President Rachel Wenman says. “Our plan is to remain 1 to 10 miles away from the consumer.” The first harvest, slated for winter 2016, will include rare pineapple crush strawberries, tomatoes, beets, radishes, chives, microgreens and multiple lettuce and spinach varietals.

Thompson and Wenman credit their crack team with how far they’ve come — partnerships with Strip chefs, recognition and support from politicians and the community, patents on a growing process they firmly believe might save the world. Keith Bell, a former aerospace engineer, is name-checked more than most during our pre-groundbreaking chat. Bell, Urban Seed’s COO, spent years developing the practices that could make the future of food sourcing in the valley a local affair. Thompson explains, “Keith was looking at the hydroponics industry and realized there was a massive need for tech to be taken to the next level, so he spent six years developing our system.”

The system consists of old practices such as growing on A-frames and new ones including using modular structures for scalability, constantly filtering water and collecting data on the whole operation to monitor and improve things like nutrient absorption and bacteria elimination. And it’s done without the controversial interventions used by factory farms, which can result in contaminated soil and depleted water resources, diminished biodiversity, and devastation to plants and animals caused by harsh chemicals.

“It’s not one thing that makes our practice new, it’s 15,” Thompson says. UNLV scientists will test the nutritiousness of Urban Seed’s harvest, and it’s working with academic departments (including robotics) to continue innovating.

Although the organic lifestyle might seem out of reach, Thompson assures that Urban Seed is for the whole community, with plans to supply local farmers markets and grocers, to partner with nonprofits such as Three Square and Green Chips, and to launch an onsite demo kitchen and educational programming. Las Vegas native Wenman emphasizes community whenever she describes how she came to the company.

“When I first heard about Urban Seed, I said, ‘Locals are going to freak out’ … and there’s so many different groups: chefs, foodies, students, parents … locals from all walks of life coming together because of a desire to find a sustainable and healthy food source,” Wenman says. “It’s been really unifying.”

People unifying over food. That’s saying something, given that critiques of the city often deal with issues of community and sustainability. As Thompson says, “Las Vegas is the perfect place to do this disruptive project, because if you can grow here, you can do it anywhere.” The groundbreaking has less to do with Las Vegas’ challenges, though, and more to do with Urban Seed’s unique “chance to change the way the world is fed.”

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