For Vertical Harvest in Jackson Hole, The Sky is the Limit
It’s a brisk December day in Wyoming as my feet crunch across the earth’s icy crust to a parking garage in the heart of downtown Jackson, the famous ski town surrounded by jagged peaks of the Teton Range. Snow swirls around me, and the Narnia-like landscape sparkles in crisp white. But despite the bitter cold, I’m on my way to a budding urban garden — with a twist.
Bracing against the biting wind, I look up at the three-story glass greenhouse clinging to the south-facing side of the concrete parking garage. Within weeks, this will be a sea of green — brimming with lettuces, basil, parsley, cilantro, and nutrient-dense micro-greens. On the top floor, sweet sun-soaked cherry tomatoes and bulging beefsteaks will provide pops of red — all flourishing as frigid temperatures frost the bare branches outside.
This is Vertical Harvest, a three-story urban hydroponic greenhouse that will grow fresh produce year-round, creating greater food security for this isolated community. But for the co-founders, Nona Yehia and Penny McBride, it’s not just about the food.
“It started as a social mission,” Nona and Penny explain as we stroll through the light-filled space. “We wanted to make a difference in the community and inspire others to do the same.”
Hydroponic produce grows twice as fast as traditionally-farmed produce because the plants receive the exact proportions of water, nutrients, and oxygen that they need to thrive.
A serendipitous bachelorette party brought these two self-confessed foodies together. But they also quickly connected on their community-minded values and shared interests in sustainability. Penny, an environmental consultant, grew up on a farm in Colorado, and Nona is a local architect, whose experience with her developmentally-disabled brother inspired her to carve out integrative job opportunities in her local community. Together, Penny and Nona decided to channel their passions into Vertical Harvest– a model of sustainable food production that could empower communities around the world.
As well as selling fresh produce year-round at competitive prices, Nona and Penny tell me that Vertical Harvest will hire developmentally-disabled adults among its 20-plus person staff. New employees will undergo training programs that will equip them with transferable skills in customer service and hydroponic farming.
“Why hydroponics?” I ask. Nona and Penny explain that this style of farming has multiple benefits for the producer and consumer. Instead of growing plants in soil, hydroponic farming uses irrigation water to deliver a concentrated cocktail of nutrients tailored to each plant. Typically, these nutrients include nitrogen, potassium, and phosphate, as well as smaller amounts of calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. This controlled environment helps optimize flavor and nutrition. Another benefit is that some hydroponic produce grows twice as fast as traditionally-farmed produce because the plants are receiving the exact proportion of water, nutrients, and oxygen they need to thrive.
Hydroponic farming also offers many environmental benefits. Penny explains that the irrigation water is recirculated through the system, resulting in 90 percent less water use than conventional farming, while eliminating agricultural runoff. And there are more obvious benefits, such as saving space– a hot issue in Jackson Hole, where federal public lands comprise more than 97 percent of Teton County’s total area, and prices per square foot are at a premium.
“In 1/10 of an acre, the greenhouse will produce up to 100,000 pounds of fresh produce a year, the equivalent of five acres of traditional farming,” Nona tells me as we gaze up at the glass-encased floors above us. This sliver of town land measures a mere 30-feet wide by 150-feet long, and I can’t think of a better use for it.
“In 1/10 of an acre, the greenhouse will produce up to 100,000 pounds of fresh produce a year– the equivalent of five acres of traditional farming.”
But even great ideas can be fraught with challenges, and the most obvious is Jackson’s harsh climate with sub-zero winter temperatures. Faced with these challenges, Vertical Harvest enlisted the services of Thomas Larssen, an expert greenhouse designer with successful projects in even harsher climates such as Siberia, Maine, Greenland, and Iceland. The result is basically three horizontal greenhouses stacked on top of each other, designed to soak up maximum amounts of Jackson Hole sunshine. Artificial light will supplement this natural light for part of the year. Penny points out the heating pipes that will provide a layer of insulation around the glass, and a carousel system with growing trays that will constantly revolve to maximize the natural south-facing sunlight.
Despite the controlled environment, pests can still be a problem. I ask Timothy Schutz, the Director of Production, how he intends to tackle the issue. “The main control of pests is prevention,” he explains. But if pests do become an issue, Timothy says he plans to use biological control agents such as nematodes, which eat the larva of fungus gnats, parasitic wasps, whiteflies, and aphids. And is the produce organic? Schutz tells me that it’s not certified organic, but that Vertical Harvest will use organic practices. In effect, it will produce healthy, nutrient-rich produce cultivated without the use of harmful chemicals.
Inside the factory at PB Techniek, one of the companies hoping to supply Vertical Harvest with aquaponic systems technology.
Healthy food means a healthy community, and Nona and Penny plan to partner with local organizations like St. John’s Hospital, in order to address health, nutrition, and disease-prevention in the community. Schools are also on the list. The “Living Classroom” on site will be a venue to educate greenhouse visitors (both adults and children) about local food production and healthy living.
When I ask Nona about the biggest lesson she has learned on this journey so far, she breaks into a huge smile. “Detractors can be just as valuable as supporters,” she says. Nona and Penny encountered some vigorously vocal opponents when they first proposed the project. But instead of becoming defensive, they decided to engage their detractors and discuss the issues. “We learned from each other,” Nona says, “and eventually, these opponents became some of our biggest supporters and actually helped us get the project approved.”
By March, 2016, Vertical Harvest will supply fresh produce to local restaurants and grocery stores. Consumers will also be able to buy directly through their on-site retail space.
“Everyone will be welcome to visit and see what we’re all about,” says Penny. She shows me the centerpiece of the space, which will be a community “living wall”, a constantly-revolving carousel of green plants that will greet the public as they enter. I smile at the thought of purchasing succulent cherry tomatoes and micro arugula while the living plants orbit around me.
In addition to cultivating community relationships, Nona and Penny hope this project can provide proof of concept for even taller greenhouses in other destinations, maybe even skyscrapers. They want others to see that sustainable food production is not only possible, but ideal: it brings the community together in ways that are not only innovative, but transformative.