Las Vegas-Area Farmers Reap Benefits Of Overcoming Obstacles

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Mint and micro broccoli line the garden beds next to the Boulder City home of Diane Greene, owner of Herbs by Diane, the small-scale, year-round business that supplies local produce to restaurants and residents in Las Vegas.

She harvests every day in the summer, trekking to the garden and microgreen-filled greenhouse as early as 6 a.m. to pluck the greens before the summer heat damages the plants.

In the overbearing desert summer, Greene and other farmers have grappled with monsoons and blazing heat atop the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts.

The threefold combination has amounted to mixed results for local farmers in the Las Vegas community.

Greene told the Las Vegas Sun she sells herbs and greens to restaurants and casinos, but they shut down early in the pandemic.

She also sells through Garden Farms’ online market — a shift from the in-person markets she used to attend before the pandemic.

“I thought it would be more popular than it has been,” she said. “But it’s picking up.”

At the virtual market, Greene sells herbs like basil, chives and oregano as well as mixed or individual microgreens, products she said are popular among vegan customers because of the greens’ plant protein.

The microgreens are grown in a neighboring greenhouse, but the other herbs and vegetables thrive in her outdoor garden, which is why an early harvest either by her or her volunteers is essential to keeping her stock up.

To provide protection against the heat, Greene may drape the plants with shade cloth, a semi-opaque dark fabric that filters sunlight while hindering a direct blast.

Greene said she has volunteers who work for food. But it has been difficult hiring full-time workers to assist with the gardens and greenhouse.

Before the pandemic, Greene worked with 10 other employees, but many left Las Vegas at the pinnacle of the pandemic due to safety and health concerns, she said.

This mirrors a hiring shortage in restaurant workers in April, Greene said, when several owners struggled to keep businesses afloat with so few employees.

“Nobody wants to work,” she said. “It’s just like the restaurants.”

Amanda Christiansen, owner of Cluck It Farm, said she experienced similar troubles finding full-time farmers for her mixed vegetable and egg farm.

Some workers would only be available for a few days at a time, while some she hired failed to show up. More often, however, she got no applicants at all.

This summer, she and her husband worked approximately 80 hours per week out of necessity to the farm’s operations, including daily vegetable harvests and maintenance of their Community Shared Agriculture program, the singular way the farm sells its products.

The farm has one delivery driver, the only other full-time employee on its staff.

Their 13-year-old son, who is back in school now, assisted full-time in the summer, as did Christiansen’s mother, who now lives in Tennessee.

“Everyone’s completely overworked,” Christiansen said. “That’s not the lifestyle that we ever want to live. So we don’t know how long it’s going last. I think that that’s going to be over soon, but for now, we just don’t choose to dwell on it, so we’re going to figure it out, I guess.”

Wendy Wilson, assistant manager of Garden Farms, which hires farm workers and connects them to local farms or private gardens and hosts education programs with nearby elementary schools, said the employee turnover rate has been high during the pandemic.

Initially, hiring workers at the start of the pandemic was easy because in March 2020, many residents sought to grow their own vegetables with assistance from Garden Farms’ workers, Wilson said.

But by around January, workers began leaving at a higher rate, approximately every four to six weeks, Wilson said.

Out-of-state workers, in particular, were available for short pockets of time before moving on and seeking federal assistance like unemployment benefits, she said.

“I’m not sure how long this can be sustained for mom-and-pop businesses,” she said. “We’re a pretty small business, and I’m sure a lot of people are feeling the same way.”

Working in the summer heat and on a solo basis can be taxing and isolating, said Sarah Beatty, who started working at Garden Farms in June 2017.

She said she suspects workers may not anticipate the unpleasant toll gardening and farming could have — though in the right head space and with an entertaining podcast, work goes by more quickly.

Beatty also said her hourly wage, raised the more she worked, is sufficient in sustaining her life in Las Vegas. However, her savings from a previous job helped her through her $10 per hour starting salary, she said.

“When I first started in the middle of summer, I did not understand what I was signing up for,” she said.

Rare rain fell over Las Vegas in mid-July, causing floods and waste pollution.

Myrene Delos Angeles, co-owner of Sundown Mushrooms in Las Vegas, said rainfall is not much of a concern for their indoor mushroom farm, which grows varieties like oyster, piopino and chestnut depending on the season.

Sundown Mushrooms received its business license during the pandemic, Delos Angeles said. She and her partner — both of whom temporarily lost their jobs in a restaurant and casino, respectively, early in the pandemic — directed their unemployment insurance toward the business and started running it together full-time in December.

Seeking more environmentally conscious additions as Sundown grows, Delos Angeles said that in the future, she will collect water from heavy rains to assist in the cool, damp atmosphere mushrooms thrive in.

“The drought is really concerning for us, not just for our farm, but just the town in general,” she said. “It doesn’t really affect us that much because mushrooms don’t require a lot of water compared to our fellow farms that grow vegetables.”

Sarah Stallard, farm manager of Las Vegas Livestock, said the wet weather brings enjoyment for the pigs she cares for, who love to roll around the muddy puddles after rainfall.

While flooding does occur, the pig pens have a drainage system that limits trapped moisture, she said. And though rainy days are play time for the pigs, wet weather is more difficult to manage because it is harder to keep the animals dry and ward off bacteria.

But a lack of rain does not mean devastation for the farm either, Stallard said. The pigs are fed with food waste from local restaurants and casinos rather than home-grown grain. Using a food source already in existence rather than one that requires water to be produced makes Stallard feel less concerned about the drought, she said.

“We’re trying to actually get a negative carbon footprint,” she said. “Pigs can eat things that aren’t fit for human consumption, and we cook it to get rid of bacteria, so we’re able to take a lot of different products, and that really allows us to not be affected by drought as much.”

Although restaurants and casinos that supplied them with food scraps closed in March 2020, Stallard said school districts, which also closed due to COVID-19, provided them food the kids would not eat. Now, Stallard said she is freezing and building up the farm’s feed stock.

“I love that we are working on a sustainable sector,” she said. “I always read all the news about global warming. It’s nice to know that we’re trying to do something about it.”