Jesse Scott reaches down and wraps a wide hand around the base of a plant with floppy greens sprouting from its stem. In one fluid motion he pulls the vegetable from the ground. Scott's leeks are the size of sausages.
"Have you ever picked leeks before?" he says without a hint of irony. Yes, you can grow food here — good food, good enough to be served in some of the Las Vegas Strip's best restaurants. You look outside your window and you see palm trees and cactuses, but closer than you think, local farmers are raising crops you would swear were imported from California or the Midwest.
Scott is the manager of Buckhorn Ranch in Alamo, about 90 minutes from the Strip on U.S. 93, where he raises a herd of 1,000 goats and farms eight acres of vegetables and fruit in what he calls the ranch's "garden." Along with the leeks, there are tomatoes, asparagus, peppers, cantaloupe and watermelon. Garlic and onions are nestled into the soil, which spreads across the plot in a rich, earthy brown.
Five years ago, Buckhorn was a faltering cattle ranch, and Scott was a refrigerator technician in Palm Springs, Calif. Asked by a friend to take over the property, he turned the 125-acre ranch into a farm good enough to be tapped by Mario Batali. Every week, Buckhorn sells 400 to 600 pounds of fresh produce to B&B Ristorante, Carnevino and Enoteca San Marco, and every week, Batali's chefs craft pitch-perfect Italian flavors from produce grown in Southern Nevada. Although it seems counterintuitive, tiny corners of Las Vegas' biggest casinos are driving a local agriculture movement on the verge of taking off.
This isn't entirely new. "Up until the 1950s, there was a substantial amount of fruits and vegetables being grown in the valley," says Bob Morris, a horticulturist and associate professor who runs the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Orchard in North Las Vegas.
On the edge of the Las Vegas map, Morris makes a living learning what will grow and how to grow it. His one-acre orchard is a cornucopia of products and production methods. In one row, you'll find varieties of peaches, in another apples or apricots. Farther along are asparagus, tomatoes and 16 kinds of wine grapes.
Although Morris sells produce to Batali's and Alex Stratta's restaurants, off-Strip landmarks such as Rosemary's and Nora's Wine Bar and local consumers, the facility is primarily intended to be educational.
"Our objective is not to make money," Morris says. Rather, the facility is for "testing, evaluation and research."
That research is passed to local farmers who don't have the luxury of growing flops. In Scott's first year tending a plot at Buckhorn Ranch, nothing grew. This year, using covered hoop houses, Scott's tomato plants have been healthier and put out more fruit. "It's a slow process," he says, "but we're pleased with the progress."
But growing in Southern Nevada, with its brutally hot summers and scarce, expensive water, is only half the challenge. Sometimes, the hardest part is figuring out how to bring carefully raised fruits and vegetables from the farm to the table.
"Until recently, nobody knew produce was available locally," says Doug Taylor, executive pastry chef for Batali's Las Vegas restaurants. A Northern California transplant, he arrived in Las Vegas a few years ago imagining a barren stretch of desert with an adult amusement park. At first, that's exactly what he found. "To go from Northern California, the largest farmland in the world, to where there was nothing ... it was truly depressing."
Like most chefs, he began working with the large national suppliers that truck in most of the food that ends up on Strip tables. "I was so unhappy with the product I was getting," Taylor says. "It's not their fault; they have to supply a demand. But for our guests, that's not OK."
For restaurants such as Batali's, produce that ripens on trucks or in crates just isn't up to standard.
"Mario wants a really intense flavor," Scott says. "He can't get that flavor from supermarket products. Where you get it is from the local farmer."
And Buckhorn Ranch gets plenty from Batali, too. Scott not only sells fruits and vegetables to Batali's chefs, he also recycles their waste. Every week, he hauls away almost 500 gallons of kitchen trimmings from the restaurants and composts them to create the rich soil that allows him to grow in his eight-acre garden. "The compost is the heart," Scott says. "Our desert soil is basically dead. You've got to create the environment."
Ninety-six miles away, Taylor walks through the maze of kitchens that connects Batali's Strip restaurants. At one station, a cook prepares ravioli, one of 26 varieties of pasta the kitchen makes fresh. At another, a cook makes gelato, some of which may be flavored with vibrant peppermint grown just outside town. In a nearby fridge, a bucket full of almonds on the stem from 15-acre King Ranch in White Hills, Ariz., slowly becomes house-made amaretto. Beyond sit bottles of grappa with fully grown fruit inside them - an experiment from Morris' orchard in which bottles are affixed to trees when fruit is young and the fruit is allowed to mature inside the glass.
About three years ago, Taylor started looking into local producers, trying to track down sources for fresh-from-the-farm products he was accustomed to in California. With Batali's blessing, he started working with one farm. Today, Taylor and the other Batali chefs work with 56 local growers.
"When we first started it was like, 'What are you guys doing?'" he says of Venetian-Palazzo executives' reaction to his partnership with local growers. As they've seen the quality of the produce — and that it will sell — they've come around, he says.
Besides using the local produce in his kitchen, Taylor has dedicated himself to being the vital bridge between area farmers and Strip chefs.
"Las Vegas spends $1.5 billion a year on produce and agriculture," he says. "If we can capture 1 or 2 percent of that, it could change the whole community."
But keeping the money in the community isn't easy. Unlike restaurants in most cities, many of Las Vegas' high-end kitchens are housed somewhere in the maze of a casino's back-of-house. A farmer can't simply knock on the door and show a chef his wares. He needs to know his way in.
"There's a big hurdle with buying locally, and Strip restaurants, many of them have to buy through the casino," Morris says. "You have to then become a vendor for the casino. You have to deliver through this massive back door."
Becoming a casino vendor is extremely difficult. "You have to carry $1 million of liability insurance," Morris says. "You have to submit billing, and it's 30-90 days before you get paid. For a small-scale local producer, that's a long time."
The other hurdle keeping local growers out of most Strip kitchens is price. "Many restaurants have a price point that may not allow them to just sub local foods for what they're already buying," Morris says. It's the Strip's top-tier eateries that can, and do, splurge on locally grown, fresh-picked produce, passing any bump in cost on to customers who willingly pay for the quality they demand.
The Cooperative Extension's Producer to Chef program connects small-scale producers such as Scott directly to the Strip's big-time chefs. Taylor works for the program on the side, helping make valuable introductions that can lead to relationships out-of-town suppliers and chefs would never have.
Such relationships are evident in a warehouse on Dean Martin Drive. Every Thursday, a portion of Batali's dry-aging facility is transformed into the Molto Vegas Farmer's Market, which showcases products from Southern Nevada and just beyond.
Before it opens to the public, the market delivers to about 20 local restaurants, including Shawn McClain's Sage at Aria and the Palms' Nove Italiano. At 11 a.m., the Molto market opens to the public, and over the course of the next two hours nearly 700 people stream through, buying dates, peppers, herbs, melons, fresh tomatoes and much more, some of it picked that morning. Often, chefs stop by to talk to farmers and check out their wares. The space is donated. Entry is free. The vibe is friendly and optimistic.
Scott and Buckhorn Ranch sell $400 to $800 worth of produce every week at the market, often to customers who return again and again, but it's Scott's relationship with Taylor that keeps the farmer planting new products and experimenting with an orchard that should be producing apples by this time next fall.
During Scott's first year working with Taylor and Batali restaurants, the rancher was growing only squash. "He grew hundreds of pounds of squash a week," Taylor says, laughing. "We had to find ways to use it all."
Taylor could have said no thanks to Scott's surplus squash, but the relationship between the local producers and the Strip chefs goes beyond basic business dealings.
Farming isn't like many businesses, after all. "If you don't sell your product, you can't put it back on the shelf," Taylor says.
In some cases this relationship has evolved so chefs order before the planting season, making requests for a specific breed of pumpkin and coaching the farmers to raise the product they want. They may pay extra for that tomato, but they know it's going to be good, and the money they pay for it goes straight back into the farm.
Copyright 2010 Las Vegas Sun
MNN homepage photo: Chanc/Flickr