Although it was just before Thanksgiving on a recent visit to Desert Bloom Eco Farm, Christmas was already in full swing. The seasonal light-adorned farm is just about as middle-of-nowhere as it gets, off Nevada State Route 160 on the way to Pahrump, with a mountain ridge to the west and only desert landscape everywhere else. Four large, well-meaning dogs greet guests at the driveway while an irate goose honks somewhere in the background. A row of evergreens marks where the garden ends. There’s only one road in and out. If you weren’t looking for it, you might not realize that this patch of desert supports a completely self-sufficient farm that grows some of the best local produce available to Las Vegas consumers.
Desert Bloom Eco Farm now provides such restaurants as Todd English Pub, RM Seafood and Rx Boiler Room with organic fruit, vegetables and eggs. It also has a community supported agriculture program for individuals. It began as a hobby for Stephen and Claudia Andracki, who bought the land and learned how to farm—literally from the ground up. Chef Rick Moonen met the couple through a mutual wine-loving friend and spent some Sundays enjoying their desert enclave, at the time just a budding garden. After seeing the success the Andrackis were having with raising organic ingredients, Moonen encouraged them to start selling some produce to his restaurant.
First came the egg. Moonen was on the hunt for a local source for fresh eggs—he was working on a green eggs and ham dish, as Claudia recalls.
“I told them to get Araucana chickens,” he says. “I wanted green eggs, because I thought they sounded cool, and the eggs they produced were just amazing. I’m spoiled the rest of my life on eggs because of that.”
Shiny black slabs on the side of a shack indicate the Andrackis’ reliance on solar power, and their water is sourced from a well on the property. They also use satellite for stuff like entertainment and have a generator in case of cloudy days. (They’re living off the grid, but it’s not the 1890s.)
Often it’s Claudia herself who is getting her hands dirty, planting the rows and rows of seeds and seedlings. On the Andrackis’ 10 acres of land, three are used for growing. The long gardens alternate rich, dark-brown soil with lines of green vegetables tops. When I visited, the winter produce was making a good showing: broccoli rabe, Encore lettuce and arugula so peppery it actually lived up to its English name, rocket.
Claudia makes the 50-minute drive once a week to deliver the eggs that Moonen has on permanent order, along with whatever produce is in its prime. That can be a surprise some weeks, but Moonen appreciates it because it keeps the kitchen in tune with seasonality. Plus, it encourages creativity.
“We don’t know what we’re getting a lot of times or how much we’re going to get,” he says. “If you can’t run it as a special, then you have to use it as a garnish. Sometimes you get so much you have to preserve it.” When the basil was in full force, it arrived as a garbage bag full of the verdant leaves and ended up as pesto. Fruit gets preserved or is given to the bartenders to play with.
Claudia doesn’t return empty-handed from town. Moonen’s kitchen saves all the scraps from prep—no fat, garlic or onions, but rather bits of sweet root vegetables and lettuces, all of which go back with her to feed the chickens who lay the coveted eggs. Whatever they don’t eat gets composted and added to the gardens. The symbiotic relationship between the farm and restaurant is a “closed-loop system,” which is a natural fit for a sustainability advocate like Moonen.
“[The Andrackis] have the same mentality as me. They believe in the same things, in the same core values,” Moonen says. “We’re like part owners of the crops now, and we just share in whatever it can produce. Coming out here and visiting is reconnecting with all that.” The closed-loop system is one hallmark of sustainability that Desert Bloom Eco Farms is trying to build upon even further.
What’s happening in the greenhouse is nothing short of amazing. It’s humid, and the sounds of trickling water compete with strains of “Silver Bells,” but there are tubs stacked on racks throughout the room, with lemongrass, eggplant, basil, even a budding banana tree poking out of them. Beneath them, fish live in separate tubs on the bottom racks. It’s called an aquaponic growing system, produced by one of the couple’s other business and developed over the years by Claudia’s father. Like hydroponics, this is a soil-less way to grow vegetables or plants, but instead of chemicals or nonorganic fertilizer, aquaponics uses fish.
Claudia breaks it down in layman’s terms: “So you grow your fish, you put your fish in your fish tank, you feed your fish, the fish do their business, and that’s the fertilizer we use to feed our plants. The ammonia gets converted into nitrogen, the nitrogen is consumed by the plants, the plants finish cleaning the water, the water returns back to the fish. We don’t have to empty it out; it equalizes on its own. It’s a natural system.”
“This is low maintenance,” Stephen adds. “We’re not measuring pH or nitrates. We just have to feed the fish every morning and make sure the systems are working. We do this because we’re self-sufficient and off the grid, but this is a solution to world food supply. Everything growing in here is powered by those fish.” (Watch a video of aquaponics in action at VegasSeven.com/DesertBloom.)
“This is the real deal, the fantasy of a real chef, to have this kind of connection with a farm that’s tainted by nothing,” Moonen says. As someone who has built his reputation as an advocate for sustainable seafood, this closes another loop in Moonen’s work. “They don’t even want to put fertilizer; they create their own. All they have to get is fish food.”
In the outdoor gardens: beets, carrots, turnips, radishes, Encore lettuce mix, kale, arugula, broccoli, broccoli rabe, cauliflower, spinach and Swiss chard.
In the aquaponic greenhouse: lettuce, basil, tomatoes, celery, lemongrass, eggplants, peppers, oregano, arugula and spicy mustard greens.