UNCE program spotlighted at NACO conference
University of Nevada Cooperative Extension horticulturist Bob Morris and UNCE employee Doug Taylor, the executive pastry chef for renown chef Mario Batali’s B and B Ristorante in Las Vegas, gave a presentation to county officials from around the country during the National Association of Counties convention in Reno this week.
Morris and Taylor were there to discuss how their Producer to Chef has sparked a boom in small family farms in Southern Nevada by creating a link between specialty growers in the Mojave Desert and megaresorts in Las Vegas with world-class dining.
Morris told visiting policymakers how he began conducting tours of the 600-tree UNCE Orchard for local chefs and other buyers in 2006 and taught them that high-quality fruits and vegetables could be grown in the desert. In 2007, Morris turned his attention toward convincing local farmers to grow the type of crops valued by the chefs of the high-end Las Vegas restaurant industry. By 2008, Taylor had come aboard as a part-time UNCE employee to further develop the farmers’ relationships with the chefs.
"Part of the problem is that at these megaresorts, you can’t find the kitchen, let alone find the right person to talk to about what you’re growing and what the chefs might need," Taylor told the convention participants. "We opened the doors for them, and the farmers found that chefs were willing to pay top dollar for good product."
Since 2008, Morris said, the number of small farms within 120 miles of the city selling to Las Vegas restaurants has increased from 12 to 40, and several new products have joined the program, including China Ranch dates, natural grass-fed beef, locally roasted coffee, locally grown herbs, chicken and duck eggs produced in Las Vegas, and pistachios from Pahrump. Taylor says he sometimes travels to the countryside in the morning to pick the produce he’ll prepare that night.
Diners love to hear that items on the menu are so fresh, Taylor said.
Morris and Taylor have also set up a weekly indoor farmers market, Molto Vegas, that draws not only chefs but local residents. Three producers have become brokers in their offseason, working to bring local products into the city for the farmers market, restaurants and Whole Foods.
Taylor recalled how he would receive produce by truck from other parts of the country and find it to be not good enough to produce the level of quality expected in the type of restaurant he worked in. The local produce, however, was much better, with fruit containing high levels of natural sweetness that made his pastries much more flavorful.
What’s more, the food did not have to be trucked such great distances, an energy savings that fell in line with the green initiatives advocated by influential chefs as Batali. Also, Taylor said, being so close with farmers actually allowed him to sit down with them prior to planting to help chose which products he wanted the farmer to grow. And the money stayed within the local economy.
The demand is certainly there, Taylor noted. Nevada now collects more taxes from retail and dining sales than from gaming, and the average visitor spends more than $250 a day on food and drink while visiting the desert resort town. Las Vegas is now quickly associated in people’s minds with such great chefs as Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck and Bobby Flay. Even some Reno restaurants are getting with the program.
“Each farm offers something different and exciting each season," Taylor said. "We are building an agriculture community. The demand is present, the hotels want it and our community wants it. We will have fresher food because it’s local, we will know the hands that feed us, and we can control what goes in and what comes out of the ground."