There's a narrow, tall glass building in the middle of downtown Jackson, Wyoming, that has changed the face of produce in this wintry town while making a massive social impact.
Vertical Harvest is a three-story hydroponic greenhouse that produces roughly 100,000 pounds of produce each year. That's the equivalent of 10 acres worth of food grown on one-tenth an acre of land. In addition, more than half of the company's 34 employees have developmental disabilities.
This shiny building has solved a fresh food problem and an employment issue and has become a prototype that other communities are eager to follow.
The idea for the venture came about in 2008 when three Jackson businesswomen were each pulled into the project.
Because winters here can start with snow as early as September, Jackson has only a four-month growing season. That means most produce has to be shipped in from relatively distant lands. So by the time it gets to Jackson, much of its nutrition and taste is gone.
The greenhouse idea
Sustainability consultant Penny McBride, who was thinking about creating a greenhouse that would provide a local source of produce for the town, approached architect Nona Yehia with the idea. Caroline Croft Estay, an employment facilitator for people with disabilities, heard what they were doing and had a suggestion. She was looking for consistent, meaningful work for her clients and wanted the greenhouse to employ them.
The trio began researching what they needed to do to make their plan a reality. And they needed a place to put it.
They met with a town councilman who showed them a small piece of property that was only 30 feet by 150 feet, that was left open after the construction of a downtown parking garage.
"We really wanted it to be downtown to service as many restaurants and grocery stores as we could and so that people could access it via public transportation," co-founder and CEO Yehia tells MNN.
"We wanted to grow as much food as possible and employ as many people as possible and that’s where the idea to grow up came from."
At the time they started researching, the Dutch were on the forefront of hydroponics and the greenhouses were mostly large sprawling buildings, Yehia says. So their concept was a relatively different one.
"Vertical farming was completely a new concept so it took us a really long time to get our heads around what that would look like," she says. It took them several years to come up with a design.
The inside of the greenhouse
They ended up stacking three greenhouses on top of one other to create three different microclimates. The building is a very complex ecosystem, Yehia says, with each floor having the perfect climate for different crops.
The top floor is exposed to sunlight from the glass roof and gets very hot, so it's ideal for vining crops. Right now, they're growing tomatoes, but it has potential for crops like peppers, strawberries and eggplants.
In the second floor, crops are sandwiched so they don't experience a lot of direct solar exposure. Here, they grow lettuce and microgreens. These are seedlings of standard vegetables and other plants that are only grown for about seven to 18 days and can contain up to 40 times more nutrition than their fully grown counterparts. Microgreens are easy to grow, can be artificially lit and are high in nutrition and taste so they're easy to sell — especially to chefs, Yehia says.
The ground floor of the building is a market where local food and gifts are sold, as well as the greenhouse's own produce.
There's also an intricate system of growing carousels that rotates lettuce plants vertically and horizontally from the first to the second floor. They rotate like a rotisserie chicken display along the southern facade of the building then move horizontally to an employee for harvesting and planting. The carousels are supplemented by LED lighting and fit neatly into a 3-foot vertical slot.
There are also insects on patrol throughout the building, including parasitic wasps.
"It's a farm, even though it's controlled indoor agriculture. We have people. We bring in bugs, so we have some of the same problems traditional farms have," Yehia says. "We're able to address it systemically with Integrated pest management of bug-on-bug warfare. Beneficial bugs patrol and look for bugs that aren't so beneficial."
Empowering special individuals
With the produce comes the people who grow and manage it.
"The most powerful thing about the whole model is the empowerment of people with different abilities that really brings this team together," Yehia says. "It's profound to see the rate of empowerment that our employees have experienced. That is the one thing that we didn't expect."
Several employees who started in entry-level positions are now senior associates, she says.
Of the company's 34 employees, 19 have some sort of disability. The company developed an employment model based on customized employed. They focus on each person and customize a job to fit their abilities.
"We're pairing innovation with an underserved population. Giving people a chance to share their different abilities with a community that has supported them all their lives is really where the power of this model lies."
Making fans locally and globally
After having been approached about the concept by cities around the world, the company is now planning to develop seven greenhouses in different communities around the country in the next five years. They hope to open the first one in the fall of 2020.
It will be the same concept of a vertical greenhouse employing people with different abilities, Yehia says.
"People who were washing dishes, bagging groceries, cleaning hotel rooms are now pioneering one of the fastest growing fields in agriculture," she says.
But the idea wasn't always a hit. It had plenty of detractors early on. Because the group was applying for a Wyoming Business Council grant, they had to go through a public approval process. First the town, then the state had to approve the project, and they had to make their business plan public.
Unlike most farms that are out on the fringes of populations, their plan put them in the middle of everything, which made them very visible.
"We believe we have to position these farms in the middle of cities and we have to reconnect the farmer and the consumer," Yehia says. "We really think we are part of the urban infrastructure. But by positioning ourselves in the middle of the community, we exposed ourselves to a lot of different opinions."
Although the struggle was often difficult and the naysayers sometimes had very loud voices, in the end, they were silenced ... especially when they saw the result.
"You have to be a pretty miserable person not to experience the joy and the empowerment you witness on a day to day basis in this greenhouse."