At an elevation of 6,237 ft. above sea level and with winters that can last until May, Jackson isn’t the ideal spot for farming. And it’s not an easy place for food trucks to deliver fresh produce in the heart of winter. So, Vertical Harvest co-founders Penny McBride and Nona Yehia decided to remedy the situation. It took eight years to flesh out their dream of creating one of the world’s first vertical greenhouses, but their hard work paid off when they officially opened in March of 2016.
With neon pink lights illuminating its entrance and rotating conveyer belts filled with fresh produce, the Vertical Garden Greenhouse in Jackson, Wyo., is one of the first of its kind. Taking up only 13,500 sq. ft., it stands three stories tall and can grow an annual amount of produce equivalent to five acres of traditional agriculture. It’s allowing restaurants, grocery stores and consumers to locally source their produce at an affordable rate year round. Additionally, it’s created jobs for adults with developmental disabilities. Located in the heart of this tiny outpost at the foot of Grand Teton National Park, it’s quite a spectacle.
Hydroponic Farming Good for Crops and People
Vertical Harvest runs off of hydroponic farming, which according to its site is a “method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions that are delivered to the plants in irrigation water eliminating the need for soil.” The process re-circulates water, which allows the process to use 90 percent less water than traditional farming (USDA). There are a few different types of methods that deliver nutrients without soil, but hydroponics was the most suitable for the Jackson project.
“Aeroponic farming can be completely mechanized,” says Nona Yehia, the chief of operations and co-founder of Vertical Harvest, who moved to Jackson in 2003. “We wanted something that was a little more hands on, so hydroponic was a good fit for us”
Hydroponic farming has a multitude of benefits that range from saving land and water resources to providing year-round, locally sourced produce that doesn’t require chemical pesticides. Another advantage to hydroponic farming is that by distributing the precise amount of nutrients the plants require, they have the potential to grow twice as fast as traditional farming crops.
Prior to starting the greenhouse’s construction, a great deal of research was done to ensure that McBride and Yehia could successfully create and sustain a greenhouse in Jackson’s climate. A Technical Assistance Grant provided by the Wyoming Business Council allowed Vertical Harvest to conduct a yearlong feasibility study to make sure that there was a place for a greenhouse in the ski town. After getting confirmation that they could successfully locate a greenhouse, Larssen Ltd., a firm with 20 years of experience in the field, designed Vertical Harvest to be able to maintain an internal temperature of 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
Vertical Harvest Blossoms During Winter
For a town that experiences long, frigid winters, having the ability to produce year-round crops is an incredible amenity. Vertical Harvest can yield up to 100,000 lbs. of fresh produce annually. That’s exciting news for residents and local restaurants and grocery stores that in the past have had to pay high rates to get produce in the winter.
“Anybody can buy our produce through the grocery and we really try to price our produce in between regular produce and organic,” says Yehia. “We want it to be available to as wide of a cross section of the community as possible.”
Wes Hamilton, originally from Orlando, Fla., has been in Jackson since 2000. He’s the executive chef for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and maintains nine different profit centers there.
“Vertical Harvest was brought to me about four years ago by our marketing director who approached me about having a party at one of the restaurants for a fundraiser for Vertical Harvest,” says Hamilton. “I said, ‘Don’t throw it at our restaurant. Throw a party on the parking garage rooftop that the greenhouse is being built next to.’”
He then organized the first fundraiser event, which led to an advisory role. These days, he’s not only a customer, but he also sits on the board of directors for Vertical Harvest giving his opinions on sales, marketing and operational aspects of the company.
Hamilton is part of a culinary circle made up of 12 restaurants in the area that have made substantial donations to the company in order to secure an allotted amount of the crop yield. He says that ultimately he has saved money by transitioning to purchasing a portion of his produce from Vertical Harvest. Instead of importing crops that can be two weeks old at the point he receives them, he’s able to have Vertical Harvest deliver the produce the day its ready.
“I get 100 percent yield out of every bit I get from Vertical Harvest,” says Hamilton.
The products available at Vertical Harvest are limited, but certain requests for specialty produce are taken. Basil, baby arugula, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, various types of lettuce and an assortment of microgreens such as sunflower cress, daikon cress and rock chives are grown regularly at the greenhouse.
Highlighting the Importance of Locally Sourced Food
One of Vertical Harvest’s main goals is to highlight the importance of locally sourced food. Its intent is not to compete with local farmers but rather to replace the outsourcing being done to acquire produce in the winter seasons.
“We are not going to the farmer’s market,” says Yehia. “We know that’s a very valuable resource for our local producers in the summer time. We are replacing produce that Jackson imports from places like California, Florida and Mexico.”
“We are just the newest farmers in a very active, local-farmer movement here in Jackson,” says Yehia.
Hamilton agrees, explaining how he always tries to purchase crops from a variety of locals in the area in order to spread money around and support all produce production.
“From the get-go, Vertical Harvest was meant to be a lightning rod to showcase all local products, not to undercut any of them, but to provide exposure to what everyone is doing,” says Hamilton.
Employing People with Disabilities
Bringing more affordable produce to the town of Jackson would’ve made the project a success in and of itself, but that’s not the only inspiring accomplishment Vertical Harvest has achieved. Vertical Harvest has provided employment for a group of local Wyoming residents with intellectual and physical disabilities. Caroline Croft, who was an employment facilitator in Jackson at the time, heard about the potential project and reached out to McBride and Yehia about future employment for 18 people she represented with intellectual disabilities.
“That really resonated with me because I have a brother with developmental disabilities,” says Yehia.
These employment opportunities not only help offset the 78 percent unemployment rate for people with disabilities in Wyoming, but also teach them skills that can help them in the future. Employees go through a training program that teaches them skills such as planting, harvesting, crop management and costumer service.
See the Vertical Harvest’s Living Classroom
Vertical Harvest is a public amenity that encourages visitors to come view the process and experience the mechanics behind hydroponic farming. There is a ‘living classroom’ on the ground floor where educational initiatives are going to be held. Additionally, the ‘living classroom’ is where Vertical Harvest can grow specialty crops at people’s requests.
“In the coming year, we really hope to start tapping into our curriculum as a school system and expand on the wellness program at the hospital,” says Yehia. “We want to b able to develop a curriculum on our own, so we can engage as much of the community as possible.”
“So far it’s been great!” says Hamilton. “The usual bumps in the road for a start up, but the quality of product is fantastic and they’re working hard to beef up the production numbers because the demand has been so high that they’ve had to turn down a lot of people. Overall they have great products grown right here in Jackson.”
“It’s a start up and there’re a lot of transitions,” says Yehia, “but we have an amazing team working here that is so dedicated to the project in so many ways and our ultimate goal is to see if we can share this model with other communities.”