With 90% of its Crop Pre-sold and a Land Lease Rate of $1 Per Year, a Vertical Farm Rises in Wyoming
January 16, 2013 | Trish Popovitch
If you’ve ever ventured west into the beautiful rolling hills and breathtaking rock formations of windy Wyoming you may note an absence of green fields. Home of wandering elk herds, wild mustangs and ubiquitous antelope, Wyoming boasts the freshest air and streams in the nation. Fertile soil is another thing entirely. That’s why the ‘outside of the box’ thinking of the folks at Vertical Harvest, a three story vertical hydroponic greenhouse operation that will be located in the town of Jackson, means so much to the equality state.
Vertical Harvest is the creation of Penny McBride and Nona Yehia. McBride is an environmental consultant and Yehia is an architect specializing in the relationship between the environment and architectural design. A while back, McBride was contacted by a case worker looking for employment for her disabled client. The lack of jobs for disabled people bothered McBride and cofounder Yehia, whose brother is differently abled. They knew firsthand the difficulty in finding gainful employment. A greenhouse that saved space and water, created jobs for local disabled people and provided food for the isolated Wyoming community seemed like a win-win.
Jackson Hole town council called for a project to fill a small lot next to the parking structure that supports the local theater. It was decided the vertical greenhouse idea was a great way to use idle space, provide jobs and create fresh local produce; a little more lettuce and a little less useless space if you will. They decided to lease the lot to Vertical Harvest for a measly green revolution supporting $1 per year. Then it was just a matter of finding the funds and creating the design that would turn a 30 x 150 feet lot into 23 acres of vertical farmland.
With the assistance of globally renowned greenhouse engineering firm Larssen Ltd. and the sponsorship of Slow Foods of the Tetons, this community based vertical farm will feature the latest in greenhouse design. Originally a 501(c)(3), Vertical Harvest is now registered as an LC3. Commonly referred to as a social capitalism model, an LC3 is a for profit company that focuses on socially responsible practices. The LC3 option was first recognized back in 2008 and has become a viable option for many forward thinking companies.
Innovation is a word often associated with Vertical Harvest, but as McBride explains all their project components, from the business plan reviewed by dozens of professionals, to their thoughtfully designed greenhouse model and growing choices, are based on traditional farming practices. What is innovative about this Wyoming vertical farm is their holistic approach to business. Creating a successful business is one thing, but combining it with local community support and employment for a vastly underserved population is where the innovation really comes into play.
“We know we’re not going to be wildly profitable,” explains McBride. “But we think that we will be able to have a profit while also improving and being beneficial to our community.”
Vertical Harvest will hire eight to ten part time employees and two full time employees all extensively trained and earning above the minimum wage. Working with statewide Community Entry Services group and the Wyoming Department of Work Force Services, the greenhouse will provide jobs to the disabled of Jackson Hole. This is the first vertical greenhouse concept that will celebrate the fact the workers have disabilities. Indeed, the greenhouse is being designed around its future employees.
The completed greenhouse structure will consist of three levels that will use the latest hydroponic technology to grow crops. Dedicated to vine crops, the top floor will resemble a traditional greenhouse providing locally grown tomatoes throughout the year. Most of the space on the first and second floors will be allotted to the custom designed growing trays. They will feature a variety of crops including micro greens, lettuce, strawberries, and herbs. Growing carousels will move the crops along a vertical conveyer system allowing the plants maximum exposure to good light while making them accessible to the workers.
Upon completion, the greenhouse will utilize radiant heat and solar power as well as traditional heating and cooling techniques to sustain an even temperature year round. A solar shade that fits across the large windows will assist in temperature control keeping in the warmth and closing out the cold when necessary.
A public atrium inside the greenhouse will allow the community to watch the employees at work and see the crops growing without disturbing the process. A small retail store on the ground floor will house local produce at affordable prices. Locals could forget about having their table greens imported from California and Mexico.
Overall, Vertical Harvest has received massive support from the local community, but every project must have its critics. Questions have been raised regarding the expense and efficiency of extending the growing season from four to twelve months. Some feel the greenhouse would compete with established traditional farms in the area. Others have expressed their concern that McBride and her team are not traditional farmers. In general, the support has been generous and far reaching. And, as McBride points out, growing plants in a greenhouse is: “not rocket science.”
Like all startups, Vertical Harvest expects to run into the odd problem but overall the team is confident about their concept, its profitability and the greenhouse design, not to mention the support they have received from other Jackson Hole businesses. 90 percent of the food Vertical Harvest intends to grow has been pre-sold to local restaurants and stores. As with any business venture, making the project profitable and sustainable is a must but McBride feels surplus profit could be sacrificed for the good of the local community; meaning good wages for workers and reasonable prices for consumers.
“Maybe we are making less money but aren’t we getting something back in the future?” prompts McBride. “We are creating long term mutually beneficial relationships with our community and the planet that is actually helping to sustain us.”
Funding for the project has taken the traditional form of fund-raising events, pledge drives and small business grants. The overall projected cost of the greenhouse is $2.35 million. The founders have already raised $800,000. After a recent pledge drive on the popular Kickstarter website, Vertical Harvest now has the funds to buy their growing carousels. If they receive a grant from the Wyoming Business Council this coming spring, construction is expected to begin in March of 2014.
After the greenhouse is up, running and producing, McBride would like to spend some time focusing on educational programming. She hopes to partner with local schools and colleges to develop a curriculum based around the techniques on display at the vertical farm. McBride expects the growing carousels will be commercially available in the near future so others may follow in their pioneering footsteps.
Vertical Harvest would be the first vertical greenhouse designed specifically to support disabled workers while increasing local food production. If successful Vertical Harvest has the potential to demonstrate how growers with a holistic approach to business can change the buying habits and employment practices of America’s rural communities.