NEVADA FARMING 2.0
Harvesting the great indoors.
WRITTEN BY ANN LINDEMANN
PHOTOS BY JEFF ROSS
Imagine farming in a place where rainfall and sunshine are irrelevant, toxic pesticides are unnecessary, and the crop yield always is abundant. Where is this 21st-century utopia? A growing number of agricultural entrepreneurs say it’s indoors.
Indoor farming operations are flourishing in urban areas such as Chicago, where fresh herbs and salad greens grow in a 90,000-square-foot warehouse near the Chicago Midway International airport. At the South Pole, the National Science Foundation has its own hydroponic farm. And arid Israel — where land is limited, population dense, and political risk high — is becoming a worldwide model for nontraditional farming methods.
And by planting crops vertically, growers everywhere are packing in more plants per acre than with field farms — a great incentive for densely populated areas.
Indoor agriculture is about growing edibles in controlled environments, be it greenhouses, hoop houses, or warehouses. Within these indoor confines, growers use a variety of methods and technologies. Hydroponics involves growing crops directly in water, while aeroponics operations suspend plants in the air and simply mist the roots with a mineral-rich liquid solution. Aquaculture “grows” fish rather than plants.
Here in the United States, the indoor agriculture trend is gaining considerable attention, but, like a teenager, it struggles with its identity. Mention hydroponics and many folks envision clandestine indoor marijuana-growing operations. Indeed, a great amount of valuable agricultural intel has been gleaned from such ventures. Many would argue that “a plant is a plant.” Some new indoor farmers are distancing themselves from their pot-growing counterparts due to inherent public relations challenges, while others keep a foot in both camps.
“Because indoor agriculture is such a young industry — and naturally entrepreneurial — the definition is broad and changing,” says Nicola Kerslake of Newbean Capital, a Reno-based venture capital firm.
Kerslake founded the Indoor Agriculture Conference here in Nevada. Entering its third year in 2015, the event brings together influential scientists, farmers, and entrepreneurs.
Supplementation or replacement?
Kerslake firmly believes that indoor agriculture isn’t about replacing traditional agriculture, but rather supplementing it.
“It offers another tool that farmers can use [in meeting] the challenge of husbanding resources, especially water, and maximizing yield each year,” she says. “Indoor agriculture typically uses a fraction of the water and pesticides used in field farms, and indoor farmers use technology to control when produce is harvested, meaning less food waste.”
Richard Jasoni, an associate research ecologist in the Desert Research Institute’s Earth and Ecosystem Sciences division in Reno, agrees.
“More efficient farming practices are important in Nevada, mainly from the perspective of water saving,” Jasoni says. “Indoor agriculture can help with water saving; there also are some (practices) in the [outdoor fields] that can be done to conserve water. There is certainly a mix of ways to make agricultural practices — indoor and outdoor — more efficient.”
Jasoni recently took his research out of the lab and into the classroom as part of DRI’s GreenPower K-12 Outreach Program. Four microgreen growing systems have been installed in Earl Wooster High School’s aquaponics laboratory. Microgreens are plants that are harvested shortly after the first true leaf sprouts.
“They are gaining popularity in many restaurants,” he says, “and provide a perfect short-term, hands-on agricultural experience.”
Equally valuable, Jasoni says, is that the students at the Reno high school get to apply scientific concepts and develop inquiry-based investigations. (See related story in this edition.)
Bonnie Lind says Nevada is ripe for the benefits of commercial indoor agriculture. As the former renewable energy specialist for the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development, Lind spent the last few years exploring how to diversify the state’s economy by using available resources. In particular, Lind researched and promoted the viability of large-scale commercial indoor agriculture in the state. Now she has branched out with an exciting, new job with a company building a large, indoor agricultural operation (a fish farm in Minden, Nev.). (See related sidebar in this edition.)
“Las Vegas alone spends about $2 billion a year out of state for its food,” Lind says.
She adds that the goal is to keep those dollars in the state. Additionally, when food is grown in state, transportation costs are lower and the carbon footprint is reduced.
Lind believes Nevada is perfectly suited for indoor agriculture. There is a high demand for quality produce year round, while the outdoor growing season can be short. Las Vegas is a mecca for five-star restaurants, and Reno has a vibrant local-food trend already in motion.
“It’s so much fresher, too,” Lind notes. “Instead of being picked, packed, and delivered from someplace else like California, [it’s grown in Nevada] and you’re gaining three to five more days of shelf life.”
Here in Nevada, agriculture innovators are exploring the exciting possibilities of this growth industry with several different methods and technologies.
“It’s really exciting, and I really believe this is how we are going to change the world,” Lind says.
Sand and sun
A cactus growing next to a strawberry? It’s possible with the subsurface sand hydroponic system in use at NV Ag’s 4,000-square-foot test greenhouse in Wadsworth, Nev.
There, the company plants are grown in sand, watering them from underneath. With this system, plants decide how much water to take from the sand profile; therefore, two drastically different plants could conceivably grow side by side. Basically, the plants live in sand, and the water rises one foot above the water line to reach the plants’ roots.
Patented in 1999 by Jonas Sipaila, this EPIC system has been used around the world. However, according to an NV Ag video, it’s a perfect fit for Nevada, where there is “plenty of sand and plenty of light.”
Currently, NV Ag is growing beans, tomatoes, basil, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, and even guavas and sugar cane with this zero-discharge irrigation system that can be utilized in greenhouses or out in fields. Outside, NV Ag is experimenting with vertically grown melons.
Spencer Scott, the company’s director of general operations, says vertical growing methods coupled with this unique hydroponic irrigation system make great agricultural sense.
“This way we can increase the density, and that’s critical for food production,” Scott explains.
The EPIC system is innovative on several levels. According to Scott, most hydroponic systems depend on computerized injection systems that use vast amounts of nutrients and water.
“Here, the plants regulate their own nutrient and water consumption,” Scott says. “Our water consumption is 50 to 85 percent less than any other systems that we know about. And, depending on the crop, [the plants] only need to be watered every eight or nine days.”
He notes that the tomatoes are a popular item at the Great Basin Community Food Co-op in Reno.
And the taste?
“Impeccable,” Scott says.
The growing guru
In a 5,700-square-foot South Reno warehouse, hydroponics wizard Pat Gallagher reigns over 400 lush Cherokee purple tomato plants at Fenway Hydroponics. He harvests about 4,000 pounds of tomatoes a month, and these beauties regularly land on the menus of Reno’s Great Full Gardens Café and SouthCreek Pizza.
“This building is basically an R&D facility, but eventually I’d like to be supplying healthy hydroponic food to the masses,” Gallagher says. “It’s time — the United States is about 10 years behind every other country in terms of hydroponics.”
Gallagher has been growing marijuana for more than 20 years. Fifteen of those years were concentrated on growing hydroponically with a unique bucket system that he invented. He has supplied such systems to celebrities such as Snoop Dogg, the band Korn, and hair-product giant Paul Mitchell.
Gallagher pitched the system’s food-growing potential to none other than Martha Stewart, who subsequently honored his invention in an American Made competition.
The former owner of The Hydro Store in Reno, Gallagher admits that the majority of his customers were not interested in growing veggies. Still, he says hydroponic systems costing less than $200 can be a perfect fit for folks who simply enjoy eating homegrown salad greens.
Testing the possibilities
It turns out that Northern Nevada may be the perfect testing site for cracking the code on farming in arid regions and exploring the great indoors. To that point, the High Desert Farming Initiative has brought all the right entities to the table, including the University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Business and College of Agriculture, Biotechnology, and Natural Resources. Also participating are the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension and a handful of community groups.
“This is our first year,” explains Jennifer Ott, HDFI’s project manager. “We have three goals, including student engagement, applied research, and outreach.”
One can spot the program’s testing site, featuring two heated greenhouses and eight hoop houses, located just off I-80 on Valley Road on UNR’s campus. Among other produce items, HDFI is growing Asian greens, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
“We also supply thousands and thousands of pounds of produce to the UNR dining facilities, and local US Foods managers also purchase our produce,” Ott says. “We want to be self-sustaining.”
Ott explains that HDFI is funded through vegetable sales and supported by the university’s CABNR and College of Business.
She says that relatively low-tech hoop houses could be the best answer for Nevada farmers struggling with the state’s short growing season.
“Season extension with hoop houses, four weeks or more on either side of the growing season, can help farmers to make Nevada’s agriculture industry more competitive,” she explains.
“There are certain crops that are more profitable, and we are trying to dial that in.”
She says that, in the end, it’s all about addressing the challenges of the business side of farming as well as the agriculture community’s environmental sustainability.
“We are interested in building partnerships and providing research and information that are applicable for real farmers,” Ott adds.
Ann Lindemann is a frequent contributor to edible Reno-Tahoe. She struggles with growing plants inside or outside and appreciates those people who don’t!
Grad student researches hydroponic growing.
The University of Nevada, Reno graduate student Chenin Treftz likes berries, especially the kinds that are grown locally. So when it came to deciding upon her doctoral thesis subject, Treftz had no trouble.
“Northern Nevada is so arid, it’s hard to grow fruit, so I wanted to see if it’s feasible to grow fruit hydroponically inside,” she explains. “We found that yes, it is definitely possible.”
Her second question was whether the nutritional quality of such a method was up to par. She says her research revealed that the hydroponically grown strawberries actually are healthier than their traditionally grown counterparts.
“They have higher bioactive compounds than conventional berries,” Treftz says.
She adds that the hydroponically grown berries benefit from the optimum amount of pH and nutrients.
Last but not least, Treftz examined consumer acceptability. She recruited a group of berry-loving college students who participated in a taste test.
“They ranked the berries on color, size, aroma, taste, and flavor,” she says. “So far, we’ve found the hydroponic (berries) are not quite as sweet as the conventionally grown berries, but that could change down the line.”
Greenhouse technology inventors call Nevada home.
Not surprisingly, technology is an integral component of successful indoor agriculture operations, and some of the brightest minds in the industry are in Northern Nevada.
For one, SunScience Corp., in Reno, specializes in a plant-growing system that utilizes a sophisticated hydroponic design coupled with an integrated computer system. This “smart system” can remotely monitor and control how plants grow, managing soil temperature, humidity, and water. From traditional greenhouses in cold climates to hard-to-lease warehouse spaces, the possible adaptations of this technology are endless.
Also in Reno, entrepreneur and engineer Eric Jennings of Pinoccio was spurred by the age-old quest to conserve water and developed an inexpensive microcontroller for small-farm use. With the addition of a humidity sensor, the device could be used in indoor agriculture systems as well.
On a national scale, companies such as Philips are developing energy-efficient LED lighting that not only can target crops in a warehouse setting, but also can duplicate the optimum lighting levels for various crops. For instance, saffron can be grown here in a way that mimics the environment in the Middle East.
Nevada’s Sea Dream
Giant indoor fish farm coming to Carson Valley.
After her tenure with the State of Nevada, former renewable energy expert Bonnie Lind turned her attention to Microdel Ltd., an Israeli company that is developing and poised to finance and own a $58 million indoor fish farm smack dab in the middle of the Carson Valley.
Microdel chose a world-class equipment manufacturer, which is providing the equipment and know-how to design, build, and operate Nevada’s Sea Dream. After breaking ground, it will take a year to construct the facility, then eight months to grow its Mediterranean sea bass and 12 months to grow the Atlantic salmon.
“It’ll be starting pretty boutique, with about 4,000 tons of fish a year,” Lind says.
She dispels naysayers’ negative comments about aquaculture in this way: “I think that there are a couple things changing,” she says. “Technology is improving, the consumption of fish is increasing, while the stocks of fish are decreasing. People are looking for a sustainable, pollution-free product that is available for year-round consumption.”
Jonesing to get your feet wet with a small-scale indoor ag set-up? Here are some stores, nurseries, workshops, and seminars to get you started:
Western Nevada College’s Specialty Crop Institute
Check out the college’s website, http://www.Wnc.edu/sci for details on the next hoop house construction workshop. Or contact Ann Louhela at 775-423-7565, ext. 2260, or Ann.email@example.com
University of Nevada Cooperative Extension
Evaporative Control Systems Inc.
Purchase Sipaila’s patented self-watering EPIC planters at http://www.Shop.ecsplanters.com
Garden Shop Nursery
Carries vertically integrated towers
3636 Mayberry Drive, Reno, 775-825-3527, http://www.Gardenshopnursery.com
Worth the drive, Peaceful Valley offers all kinds of indoor agriculture equipment and supplies. Also important, the staff can provide helpful advice. At the least, check out its informative website and newsletter.
125 Clydesdale Court, Grass Valley, Calif., 888-784-1722, http://www.Groworganic.com
Reno Hydroponics and Organics
5635 Riggins Court, Ste. 21, Reno, 775-284-8700, http://www.Renohydroponics.com
Anything Grows Hydroponics
190 W. Moana Lane, Reno, 775-828-1460
2578 S. Curry St., Ste. 2, Carson City, 775-884-4769
10607 W. River St., Truckee, Calif., 530-582-0479, http://www.Anythinggrowshydro.com
Pat Gallagher, Pathydroman@gmail.com
High Desert Farming Initiative
Jennifer Ott, Jottnv@yahoo.com, http://www.Highdesertfarming.org
NV Ag, LLC
The company just struck up a relationship with Raley’s and will be growing hard-to-find, interesting varieties for the grocery stores. Also, NV Ag plans to start a CSA for Reno neighborhoods. For details, contact Spencer Scott at Spencscott@yahoo.com
Microdel and Nevada Sea Dream project
An Israeli company plans a $58 million environmentally sensitive aquaculture facility on Bently Ranch near Minden that would produce 3,200 tons of salmon and sea bass annually. It’s estimated that the facility, which will initially employ about 30 people, will generate revenues of $32 million annually within two years after it starts operation. Sierra Gold Seafood in Sparks is working on a distribution agreement with Microdel. For details, visit http://www.Microdel.co.il/fish.asp
Nevada Indoor Agriculture Conference
Slated for March 31 – April 1 in Las Vegas, the third-annual Indoor Agriculture Conference will feature presentations and discussion panels with top industry leaders, vendor booths and networking opportunities. For details, visit http://www.Indoor.ag
For an interesting indoor garden for the home, check out Urban Cultivator. The system — sold at Czyz’s Appliance in Reno (http://www.Czyzsbrandsource.com) — allows you to grow herbs and microgreens inside your home. For details, visit http://www.Urbancultivator.net