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It’s called Urban Seed and it's a farm – a modern-day farm that's made up of high-tech greenhouses. The goal is to have six 6,500-square-foot greenhouses located on a small plot of land smack in the center of Las Vegas. Even in the middle of this desert urban landscape, Urban Seed aims to produce 25 different crops, from bell peppers to beets to alpine strawberries.
"The whole world thinks Vegas can't grow food," says Rachel Wenman, VP of Urban Seed. "We really feel that if you can grow food in Las Vegas, then you can grow food anywhere."
And, while growing food in the desert might seem strange, it's not a totally new idea. An Australian farm is growing produce using solar-powered greenhouses and desalinated seawater. The Sahara Forest Project has constructed saltwater-cooled greenhouses in Qatar and is working on a new farm in Jordan. And in Las Vegas, the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension has a 1-acre outdoor research orchard. Meanwhile, an outfit called Las Vegas Herbs grows hydroponic microgreens in a 5,000-square-foot greenhouse.
Urban Seed’s approach to farming is unique and definitely worth watching. It has developed a proprietary aeroponic system to produce large amounts of food using limited space and resources. Plants are stacked inside of A-frames, which consist of a closed loop that recaptures and recycles excess moisture. Crops are then grown with roots suspended in the air, with water and nutrients delivered via fog. Each crop gets its own custom nutrient mix to mimic optimal growing conditions.
Why is this important? Think about sustainability! A conventionally grown head of lettuce uses about 13 gallons of water, while at the Urban Seed greenhouse, lettuce will grow on just 22 ounces. That impact alone is noteworthy. And it gets even better.
In a 24-square-foot area, Urban Seed will be able to grow more than 500 heads of lettuce in 30 days, compared with roughly 50 lettuce heads that might grow during that time on a traditional outdoor farm. The math is simple -- that's 10 times more.
"In the same amount of space indoors, you can raise 10 to 100 times what you can do outdoors," says Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor emeritus at Columbia University and author of "The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century."
The key benefit to growing indoors is the controlled environment: no variance in weather, water, temperature or humidity; no pesky insects; no pests raiding the field for food. As we have seen across the globe, supermarkets from Europe to Japan have installed greenhouses, some on rooftops, some alongside their stores. It’s time for U.S. supermarkets to take the lead in this area.