For a place that’s home to only about 23,000 people, Teton County is a veritable hotbed of innovation. This special place is home to a long list of luminosities in medicine, land and wildlife conservation, education, outdoor adventure, art, and dining. True to the area’s culture of advanced thinking, Vertical Harvest Jackson Hole – a shiny new “three-story hydroponic farm” – is pushing the limits on what agriculture can mean. From the physical structure of its greenhouse to its unique employment model, one of our valley’s newest ventures is revolutionizing how locals get their greens.
Vertical Harvest aims to do what’s never been done here before: grow 100,000 pounds of fresh lettuces, tomatoes, herbs, and microgreens annually, even in the midst of our notorious Wyoming winters. This agricultural effort alone is a titanic feat in a northerly, high elevation region, and becomes doubly amazing when one considers that Vertical Harvest will realize the entirety of its yearly yield in a building that covers a mere tenth of an acre – or about one fiftieth of the space that a traditional farm would need in order to grow the same amount of produce. Its name, of course, offers a hint as to how it will do this: by going up instead of out. While Vertical Harvest’s footprint takes up only about 4,500 square feet on a thumbnail of Town-owned land that abuts the downtown parking garage, its three stories allow for it to utilize closer to 20,000 square feet of growing space. The keys to such trailblazing infrastructure are the company’s vertical growing carousels and hydroponic farming system. Innovation in sustainable agriculture, indeed.
“What makes me happiest about this model is that we are empowering a unique population to become leaders and innovators in one of the most important elements of a community: the production of local food.”
However, as revolutionary as Vertical Harvest’s infrastructure and agricultural methods are, no growth – or sales – can be realized without hands on the ground to make it happen, and this is where the company’s perhaps most socially conscious innovation comes into play. From the beginning, the plan was to make Vertical Harvest “an urban greenhouse that would serve Jackson residents year-round,” explains Nona Yehia, Vertical Harvest’s CEO. During the project’s early planning stages, Yehia’s business partner, COO Penny McBride, realized that the company could make its idea of community service extend to more than just feeding Jackson residents when she was approached by Caroline Croft Estay, who acts as Vertical Harvest’s Employment Facilitator and who has previously been a case manager and provider for the behavioral Health Division of Wyoming. With Estay’s help, the team determined that their new venture could also play a key role in helping alleviate what Yehia notes is the “challenge of finding consistent, meaningful employment” for Teton County’s physically and cognitively adaptive population. Combine this idea with Vertical Harvest’s sustainable farming initiative, and you have a recipe for truly diverse innovation. “What makes me happiest about this model,” Yohia explains, “is that we are empowering a unique population to become leaders and innovators in one of the most important elements of a community: the production of local food.”
Vertical Harvest’s forward-thinking initiatives are already serving Nikki Thompson, who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. Thompson, a longtime Jackson local, notes that “Vertical Harvest offers me not just a job, but a job that’s fit for me in terms of hours, accessibility, and interests.” Thompson works four hours a day, four days a week, both helping to seed plants and operating the company’s retail store, Market. After health issues related to her condition forced her to leave a college program in journalism, Thompson seems hopeful that her position at Vertical Harvest will offer her new opportunities while also accommodating her health needs. Retail is a new adventure for Thompson, and she says she looks forward to getting to “meet people in the store that I normally wouldn’t, being I have never done this kind of thing.”
Thompson is one of fifteen people for whom Vertical Harvest has created consistent, personally tailored employment, which she says is significant “in a state where most of the adaptive population is unemployed.” In this vein, Yehia explains that “Vertical Harvest operates as a socially conscious business. We are committed to providing meaningful year-round jobs in safe and healthy working environments that develop individual skills” for employees, thus “[creating] a fully integrated workplace that has the dual purpose of prioritizing social impact alongside financial stability that will foster important transferable skills.” As Thompson observes, Vertical Harvest is “setting a great example” across the county, nationwide, and even the world, for new ways that the often overlooked members of a society can both find meaningful work and foster deeper relationships with others in their communities. “Anybody, anywhere, can do what we’re doing,” Thompson adds, “if they just think out of the box.” And, upon Vertical Harvest’s opening this year, we here in Teton County can be proud to say that we have another brilliantly innovative local business right here in our little mountain valley.
Learn more about Vertical Harvest on their site or drop by and say hi to Nikki and pickup some fresh produce at 155 W. Simpson Ave.
Images © Taylor Glenn