Guest Post: Las Vegas Indoor Agriculture Opportunity

The following is a guest post by Nicola Kerslake about the possibilities for indoor agriculture in Nevada. If this interests you, check out the conference happening in Las Vegas on April 24th. It’s some pretty cool technology as Nicola describes below.

Las Vegas seems like an unlikely place to think of sustainable farming; we have little water, the soil is sandy and it’s wretchedly hot for parts of the year.  Yet, it is for these very reasons that the city is well suited to indoor agriculture.  Indoor agriculture is growing produce commercially using hyroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic systems inside greenhouses, buildings or containers.  Simply, it’s ‘what happens when geeks farm’, one of the taglines for Go Green Agriculture, a speaker at this month’s Nevada Indoor Agriculture Conference.

Though Las Vegas has several sustainable produce farms, such as organic Cowboy Trail Farms, most of Nevada’s agricultural sector is in ranching, and in growing alfalfa for cattle feed.  As a consequence, we import most of the produce consumed by Las Vegas’s 2 million residents and 39 million[1] annual visitors.  A recent report said “Nevada is importing approximately nine times current in-state production, in commodities already successfully grown in Nevada.”

That’s where indoor agriculture comes in.  As an example, vertical hydroponic systems typically consist of vertically stacked growing areas, containing crops fed by nutrient rich water, rather than soil; the systems consume 10-20% of the water used in traditional farming, without additional fertilizers or pesticides.  Some indoor farmers certify as organic.  The major advantage of indoor agriculture is that you can site it near customers; a container from Kickstarter-backed Freight Farms could sit in the alley behind a restaurant, providing leafy greens picked shortly before lunch service, rather than five days prior to allow time for shipping.

There’s a good deal of technology involved; newer LED lights supplement the sun with the exact light spectrum that the plant needs for each growth stage, systems are mounted on conveyer belts to render harvesting easier, and nutrient blends can be customized to emphasize desired flavors.  At Pahrump-based Hydro Greens, hydroponic basil is sufficiently potent that casino customers adjusted their recipes to use a third of the amount of regular basil.

Though the basic technology for indoor agriculture systems has been around for decades, there’s been a fall in costs to economic levels over the past five years as commercial operations have proliferated, solar panel prices have fallen and LED lighting has become readily available.  It’s an approach that’s been adopted in Japan to grow food in areas ravaged by the 2011 tsunami, by established Texan farmers and by startups alike.  FarmedHere, for instance, has grown from a 4,000 sq ft start up a few years’ ago, to opening a 90,000 sq ft facility, the world’s largest vertical farm, last week.  According to Toronto stock exchange listed Village Farms, half of the tomatoes in grocery stores are now from hothouse production.

As in most high growth industries, there is much to hack.  To date, most attention has been focused on the physical systems; from Hyundai’s hydroponic domestic fridge to Verticrop’s 12-stack high commercial system.  To get to the stage where any restaurant or casino could install its own farm, we need cheaper control systems, to monitor everything from nutrients to plant height.  These control systems need to be sufficiently simple that a sous chef can pick them up in a few hours, and sufficiently flexible that they can work with numerous software platforms.  In short, we need the same kind of revolution that we saw in home automation.

Nevada has a decent shot at becoming a player in this market.  Few cities boast the size of food and beverage market, or quorum of world class chefs, that we have here in Las Vegas.  Food revenues at casinos alone were $3.3 billion in 2011[2].  We have world class research in the field at Desert Research Institute, where, for instance, Navin Twavarki is developing aeroponic growing techniques.  Our regulations are far more local-food friendly than those in many jurisdictions across the country.  In summary, indoor agriculture could easily be an awesome part of our downtown revival.

Nicola Kerslake is a co-founder of the Nevada Indoor Agriculture Conference, which will offer practical advice, from industry leaders and funders, on establishing an indoor agriculture operation.  The event takes place on Wednesday, April 24 at Fifth Street School in downtown Las Vegas.  Nicola blogs at www.realassetsjunkie.com.


[1] Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority figure

[2] UNLV Center for Gaming Research figure