Basket Half-Full

Healthy produce, grown here in the desert? A handful of farms are making it happen.

The flimsy black sunshade above a raised garden bed at Cowboy Trail Farm in northwest Las Vegas doesn’t look like it gives much protection from the brutal desert sun, but the tidy rows of fruit-heavy tomato plants beneath it beg to differ. So does Marilyn Yamamoto, the farm’s founder.

“We really feel it when we’re working underneath,” she says, adjusting her yellow visor. Charlie, her Australian Shepherd-Border Collie mix, pants nearby in his thick black coat. It’s still morning, yet the temperature is about to spill into triple digits.

“It’s a big challenge to grow in the desert,” Yamamoto says. “It’s a matter of hanging in there.”

She is one of a small number of Las Vegas growers who operate Community-Supported Agriculture farms, or CSAs. The CSA movement, which began in New England in the late 1980s, was designed to benefit consumers and local farms through a closer relationship. CSA customers purchase seasonal shares in a farm, and in return receive weekly baskets of fresh produce.

Fewer than a half-dozen of Nevada’s estimated 28 CSA farms serve the Las Vegas area, and that number is unlikely to grow, according to those in the business. Along with coaxing the summer harvest to fruition during the region’s hottest months, the crux issue with operating CSAs in the desert is the hefty water bills.

Janet Knight uses municipal water for her crops at L.O.V.E. On Your Plate, and says a tangled web of water-usage regulations confronts every CSA.

“I’ve spoken many times with Las Vegas Valley Water District. They have no agricultural rate, because [historically] we don’t grow things here,” Knight says. “The expense in analysis for the few who are doing it isn’t worth it to them, so you pay a very high price for water, and you have to take all measures to conserve.”

As long as agricultural producers pay the same for water as huge casinos and golf courses, producing our own food will be a challenge for the Valley, says Robert Morris, who was a University of Nevada Cooperative Extension horticulture specialist for nearly 30 years. “If the powers that be get behind the producers,” he says, “you can see it blossom; but if government does not decide to support it, it will be anemic.”

With or without this support, Morris acknowledges that the area is unlikely to develop into a major agricultural center. Historically, the Valley never had a high crop-production rate because of extreme temperatures and poor soil, he says. The small-scale producers who did eke out a living couldn’t compete with the low prices set by out-of-state competitors. Morris says this remained the status quo until the early 2000s, when the demand for fresh, local produce gave rise to alternative markets.

“The CSAs would probably not have evolved to the point where they are now without the development of the appreciation of local food production,” he says.

Yet in order to match the established desire for local produce, someone still has to do the dirty work. Running a successful CSA requires steady, daily attention and allows for little time off, especially during the sweltering summer months, which Michael Hackney of Valley Farms says are a CSA’s busiest. His days start early, often at 6 a.m.

Besides rising early and toiling in the blistering heat, a worker at Quail Hollow Farm in Moapa Valley must also travel more than 100 miles each week in order to transport the CSA baskets to Las Vegas, says farm owner Laura Bledsoe. What keeps her going is one of the core missions of a CSA: to provide locals with an alternative source of healthy food.