Neither the color green nor the “green” lifestyle is native to our Valley. Naysayers have reminded Las Vegas residents for more than a century that we live in a desert. Nothing grows here, they chastise us; our existence depends on imports from more suitable habitats. And as the drought worsens, pessimists continue to doubt our long-term sustainability. But Rachel Wenman, vice president of Urban Seed, a new local company that has been in development since 2010, envisions a Las Vegas landscape that is green—both literally and figuratively.
On July 29, the company will break ground on the first of eight hydroponic greenhouses set for a desolate swath of Wynn Road between Tropicana and Flamingo, the beginning of a five-year plan to bring 100 such structures to the Valley, as well as a production studio, commercial kitchen and event space. Thanks to their incandescent green glow, the greenhouses will be visible from the Strip. Those facilities and the production studio will be part of Urban Seed’s forthcoming educational and charitable foundation. And Urban Seed’s champions and employees—who consist of more foodies than tech nerds—fervently believe they will launch a worldwide farming revolution while making Las Vegas an environmentally responsible source of high-end produce.
“We’re able to feed the plants exactly what they need, every single time,” Wenman says. “Each system was developed per plant, per system, all completely efficient. So it’s going to develop a tastier product and a more nutritious product in the last city on earth that anyone would ever think of to develop a nutritious product.”
“I said, ‘Urban farming is coming to Las Vegas. This has to be a local thing. This has to be a local story.” – Rachel Wenman
Like most startups looking to change the world, Urban Seed is pinning its hopes on revolutionary technology. After the company’s chief operating officer and president, mechanical engineer Keith Bell, informally met with hydroponics experts seeking new vessels for their projects five years ago, he designed one that was a huge hit with the group. “In the meantime,” Bell says, “I’d taken a look at what hydroponics was all about. Obviously, it was big in the marijuana industry, but my first love is food. And that was an industry that was growing 273 percent per year.”
Despite that potential, Bell saw the state of the art as inefficient. “Everything was made out of Home Depot stuff: a bucket and a bit of PVC, and a submersible pump,” he says. So he founded a company to develop technology for the industry from scratch. “The actual form is an ‘A’ shape, and that’s been around since the 1920s,” Bell concedes. “But I designed, with my design team and my engineers, a whole enclosed system from the ground up.”
Bell had been developing the system in Nevada, Arizona and California. But during a conference in Las Vegas, the entrepreneur decided our Valley was an ideal location to start the company. “It’s a food desert,” he says, echoing a common refrain. “If the trucks stop running to Las Vegas, you’ve got about three days’ worth of food. And if the Teamsters decide to go on strike, you’re in deep shit.”
With Urban Seed’s greenhouses, however, produce can be grown right here. A closed-loop system recycles water, and the technology reduces the amount of water needed in our dry climate by 90-95 percent or more, for example—22 ounces of water grows a head of lettuce, compared to 13 to 15 gallons a head by traditional farming methods. Greenhouses just a few miles from top restaurants maximize a product’s freshness by enabling deliveries once or twice a day, while nearly eliminating its carbon footprint. And chefs will be able to oversee the growing process. Clearly a city with such a concentration of world-class restaurants would be the perfect market for this product.
That connection wasn’t lost on Wenman, an entrepreneur with more than a decade of business development and marketing experience in the local hospitality, real estate, philanthropy and technology fields. When Urban Seed approached her last company, MRKTengs, to handle marketing, Wenman saw unique opportunities within the local restaurant scene.
“I said, ‘Urban farming is coming to Las Vegas,’” she says. “This has to be a local thing. This has to be a local story.”
Wenman’s first step in creating that story was to work with local culinary promoter Jolene Mannina to assemble a board of advisors that includes celebrity chefs Michael Mina, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, as well as local favorites Rick Giffen, Bryce Krausman, Nicole Brisson, Brian Howard and Geno Bernardo. The majority of funds were raised by local and culinary leaders to make Urban Seed a homegrown, yet global technology.
“We’re not just doing what we think should be done,” Wenman says of the initiative. “We’re doing what they want to be done as chefs and restaurants—everything including making sure that we are pricing competitively, that delivery is done in the right way and that we’re growing the products that make sense to the chef.”
When one of Urban Seed’s culinary partners expressed the need for root vegetables, the engineers built a system to grow them in these greenhouses. When board members explained how casino loading docks and kitchens work, the team designed proprietary trays and cabinets made out of special materials that keep products cold during delivery without continuous refrigeration, reducing loss and waste. And, of course, proximity to kitchens benefits the chefs in numerous ways. “It’s gonna be grown about 5 miles from the restaurant,” board member Krausman of DW Bistro says. “A lot of food cost is transportation and travel time. So that’ll help us manage our costs as well.”
“I would love if we changed the way menus are written,” Wenman says of the company’s long-term potential. “[Imagine] a salad section on the menu that lists price and hours off the vine, and restaurants compete [on a basis of] how fresh their salads are.”
That sounds better than just “green.” It sounds downright delicious.