Growing Under Neon Light

Lissa Townsend Rodgers
November 1, 2017

Along with bright lights and flashy entertainment, the Las Vegas Strip is known for food—specifically, fine dining. But the ingredients for those spectacular dishes travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles, losing flavor and generating pollution and waste along the way.

Urban Seed wants to change that. With greenhouses practically in the shadow of the Luxor hotel, they're developing methods to move the farm closer to the table. "We're going to be 1.9 miles away from some of the plates we're servicing," states Rachel Wenman, Co-founder and Vice President of Urban Seed. "Las Vegas feeds 40 million people annually—our guests are consuming [great quantities of food], and we're figuring out solutions to make it sustainable."

Urban Seed currently has only two greenhouses in Las Vegas, but the plan is to quintuple that number over the next year. Urban Seed grows their plants aeroponically: "There's no topsoil and there's no water." explains Dr. Suzanne Stone, Director of Horticulture and Research. "We're growing without soil and we're growing with a closed-loop system of water, so all of the nutrients and water [are] recycled. The plants take what they need, we take the water back, clean it, sterilize it and get it back into circulation." The plants are grown on a modular frame, making the Urban Seed method easy to assemble and adapt to different farming scales.

But what about the taste? "You think romaine lettuce its boring, but you eat our romaine—it's bitter, then it's sweet; you get the crispness, you get the water," beams Emily Brubaker, Head of Sales and Distribution. Indeed, a salad made with Urban Seed greens needs no dressing, aside from a splash of oil and lemon juice- to add more would compromise the multi-layered flavors of spicy-sweet mustard greens or the soft crunch of the Little Gem lettuce.

"Traditional farming is beautiful and sacred, but we're trying to come up with a solution that will feed nine billion people."

-Rachel Wenman, Co-founder and Vice President of Urban Seed

Urban Seed wants to be similarly close to the kitchen process itself. Advisory Board Chairman Jolene Manina has assembled a group of advisors including Michael Mina, Mary Sue Miliken and Susan Feniger of Border Grill, alongside chefs from restaurants including DW Bistro and Herringbone. Manina says they posed questions to the chefs such as, "What are the items they'd like to see?" "Items they can't get?" "Items they are constantly using?" "How many times a day are they getting deliveries?" This close involvement also includes chef visits to Urban Seed's R&D facility, located 45 minutes outside of Vegas. "We take chefs down the aisles, have them taste everything and see what they like, see which varieties meet their needs," notes Stone.

But Urban Seed's plans extend beyond Sin City. The growing methods, as well as the engineering and construction of the greenhouses, are designed to adapt to other areas and farming setups. "This is the best place to launch something like this, because this is the worst-case scenario," laughs Wenman, noting that if Urban Seed can work in the desert, it can work anywhere. "Traditional farming is beautiful and sacred, but we're trying to come up with a solution that will feed nine billion people."

Could Urban Seed's methods be applied to, ahem, other plants? "Our focus right now is food. We know a lot of great minds are thinking about cannabis right now," says Wenman, noting that she does believe "our engineering team and our technology could supply intelligence to that industry," particularly some of the supplemental lighting technology they're been developing. And Wenman sees the innovation flowing from both sides. "When you have this many people thinking about it, better ways to grow plants. . . the more people, the more minds-the next 20, 30 years are really exciting."

In the meantime, Urban Seed is among those leading the charge for sustainable, urban farming and "new ways. . . to be growing food in the furture," asserts Wenman. "We keep innovating, keep tweaking, keep figuring out new ways to do things."