- Associated Press - Friday, January 1, 2016

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Food grows in unlikely places - sometimes in the middle of a desert.

Nevada had 4,137 farms and ranches in 2012, 1,000 more than in 2007. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture counted 4,200. Most are in the north, but 792 were in southern Nevada.

State officials, chefs and many residents would like to see those numbers increase.

“When you look at food security, if the borders were sealed off for some reason, we have 2 percent food security,” Nevada Department of Agriculture Director Jim Barbee said, meaning that Nevada grows only 2 percent of the food needed to feed residents. The rest is trucked in from California and elsewhere.

During World War II, melons were trucked out of Moapa Valley for shipping. Lincoln County grew food locally to support workers at its mines until the 1950s. But once refrigerated trucking became easy and cost-effective, most people stopped growing their own food and started to have it trucked in, importing almost $300 million in fruits and vegetables to Nevada in 2011.

It wasn’t until the recession that support for local food re-emerged, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension educator Holly Gatzke said.

Now, “high-end chefs have gotten back into caring where their food comes from,” Gatzke said.

Strip restaurants and other trendy Las Vegas establishments have been a blessing for farms, creating a consistent demand for product.

For years, many farmers struggled. Distributors typically look to buy products at a lower cost and expect more consistency than many farms can provide. Farmers markets often don’t generate enough revenue to justify the cost of gas to get to them. And small growers frequently don’t have the capacity to get their products into larger grocery stores.

The Great Basin Community Food Co-op helps farmers in northern Nevada sell their products, but southern Nevada has no equivalent.

In a state known for gambling, Nevada puts farmers up against poor odds. Water is scarce and expensive. It takes time and patience to breathe life into soil thick with caliche and with a high pH. The weather can be fickle; the sun beats on plants in summer and bitter frost creeps in during winter.

Market studies have shown shifting demographic trends for those buying local food. Historically, it was women age 45 or older with advanced degrees who bought locally. But now, millennials and Generation Xers are showing an interest. That’s promising to farmers, but until there’s more demand on the consumer side, few are likely to take the risk to ramp up production.

Brett Uniss, executive chef at Andiron Steak & Sea, hopes more locals will begin to grow their own food. After working at high-end restaurants in Napa, cooking with locally sourced ingredients became second nature. So when Uniss started working at Honey Salt near Summerlin, he decided to source ingredients himself. He visited farmers markets and scoured the Internet to find farmers in Pahrump and Mesquite. He secured tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants from a network of 75 small gardens tended by children at valley schools.

When it came to sourcing meat, Uniss hit a wall. He tried to buy pigs from a ranch in Pahrump, but the animals would have had to be shipped out of state or to northern Nevada for processing, because there is no USDA-certified meat-processing facility in southern Nevada.

Instead, Uniss solved the problem creatively, striking a deal with a dairy in Fallon. The farmers cart pork from a nearby ranch to Las Vegas on their milk truck every other week.

“She puts her pigs on a milk truck, and the milkman delivers pigs for me,” Uniss said.

While the setup works, it certainly isn’t ideal to have to do such maneuvering to procure locally sourced ingredients, Uniss said.

“I hope in the future not everybody has to find their own personal milkman to deliver their meat,” he said.

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Information from: Las Vegas Sun, https://www.lasvegassun.com

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