Vertical Harvest nourishes a mountain town in hardship.
STORY BY BELLA BUTLER
PHOTOS BY HAZEL CRAMER
From the moment a tomato plant pokes its green sprout from the ground it will reach for sunshine, the stem climbing upward until it’s strong enough to bear a plump fruit. But in a dark room, the plant takes a different path, twisting and bending until it finds a light source. The tomato is rooted in resilience, genetically programed to grow however it must in order to find nourishment: toward the light.
In a time of global upheaval, a pandemic, climate change and social unrest have come together to brew an unruly storm whose clouds have shrouded the world in darkness. But despite hardship, a new kind of farm is growing toward the light as well.
On one-tenth of an acre in downtown Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the three-story glass Vertical Harvest facility does not reflect the conventional picture of an American farm. The bones of the building—concrete, metal and glass—are more mechanical than organic, and the structure looks especially futuristic amid the old Western theatrics of Jackson.
Upstairs, young plants called microgreens grow under fluorescent lights and neighboring rooms are filled with a wild tangle of tomato vines. The center of the operation is a towering carousel, a vertical conveyor belt that climbs and descends all three stories. The belt is loaded with rows of lettuce burgeoning from a gutter of water.
When the COVID-19 virus infiltrated the United States, consequences quickly emerged in food systems. The virus’s transmission across worker assembly lines effectively shut down food processing facilities, and pandemic doomsdayers exacerbated production shortcomings by swiping the last remaining groceries from store shelves. But when the industrial food system blundered, Vertical Harvest’s carousel never stopped turning, and the grow lights never flickered off.
“For a long time, there was no other lettuce competitor on the shelves than Vertical Harvest, and it didn’t last long but it was there, and it was noted,” says Nona Yehia, Vertical Harvest’s CEO. Yehia asserts that part of what allowed the business to adapt to a disrupted market is the same value that planted the seed for the unconventional farm a decade ago: the belief that humans can empower one another to solve problems.
In 2008, long before the pandemic dismantled food supply chains, Yehia and co-founder Caroline Croft Estay sought to mend disrepair on a global scale that had seeped into the Jackson community. In a town that can receive more than 80 inches of snow in winter, they aimed to establish a reliable source of food that could be accessed even if the main arteries into town were blocked.
And they’re on to something: The greenhouse, which opened in 2016, can grow produce 12 months out of the year in a mountain town where the growing season is a mere four months. This means that the journey of a Vertical Harvest tomato remains the same in the dead of winter, when the looming Tetons are heavy with snow and the rest of Wyoming’s crops have long been put to bed by fall frosts.
Right now, the greenhouse building, which circulates 95 percent of its water, outputs almost 100,000 pounds of product per year.
Croft Estay has a background as an independent provider for people with disabilities, and Yehia, a trained architect, has a brother with a disability. The founding pair wanted to create meaningful, consistent employment for a segment of the population that lack those opportunities through washing dishes and bagging groceries for minimal hours a week.
“As of now with COVID, we currently have 31 employees total, 14 of whom have a disability,” Taylor Eckerson, a Vertical Harvest employee, recently reported.
Sustainability and tackling some of the world’s most pressing concerns was at the heart of what shaped Vertical Harvest. “We have a math problem of epic proportions,” Yehia says. With an exploding population and withering land and resources, how do we feed the world?
“We’re never going to replace traditional agriculture, but how can we use technology and innovation and this social contract that we have with one another, this connectiveness, to reimagine our food systems?” Yehia asks.
Vertical Harvest certainly isn’t feeding the world, but the tenth-of-an-acre farm is capable of producing what a ten-acre farm produces annually. Right now, the greenhouse building, which circulates 95 percent of its water, outputs almost 100,000 pounds of produce per year.
Capped in hairnets, Vertical Harvest employees end their workday plucking vine-ripened tomatoes that began as seeds in the greenhouse. It’s a Monday, and according to staff these tomatoes will be available on Tuesday in local restaurants or at family dinner tables.
Not all tomatoes share the same fate. In 2018, the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center reported that Florida and California claim two-thirds of the country’s fresh tomato acreage. In order to reach the same venues in Jackson where Vertical Harvest tomatoes are sold, these out-of-state products are then transported hundreds of miles from the ground they grew in.
While Vertical Harvest forged a new path through pandemic challenges, they were still forced through a period of adaptation. According to Croft Estay, their staff shriveled down to a skeleton crew and they plunged 100-plus hours into designing new safety protocols in order to stay open. They partnered with local businesses to provide variety packages of local products, launched a new microgreen blend, and started selling directly to consumers. While global food supply chains fractured along extended routes to consumers, Vertical Harvest found a way to deliver food directly from the hands of a harvester to local dinner tables.
“People want to support their local economies,” Yehia says. “They want to know where their food is coming from and they want to know their farmer, but we’ve totally divorced the city from the farm. So, our model brings it back into the center of the city.”
Vertical Harvest plans to bring more than just fresh food to town. In July 2021, Yehia and Croft Estay will break ground on their second location in Westbrook, Maine, followed by a third location in Philadelphia’s Tioga District, a food, health and wellness desert where 42 percent of the largely Black population lives in poverty. Each facility will co-locate with affordable housing and expect to bring 50 full-time equivalent jobs to each community. Vertical Harvest Philly is estimated to output 1 million pounds of produce per year.
The company has set a goal to build 10 vertical greenhouses in five years to address food and job insecurity.
Yehia says large-scale food systems expose consumers to a mixed bag of volatility, from price to variability. Localizing food systems, she says, insulates consumers from these inconsistencies.
“By decreasing our dependence on those volatile systems, we breed resiliency,” she said.
Yehia says resiliency was always an intention, with a more specific interest in “being prepared for what might break down our connectivity.” Connectivity to food, health and community.
In America, with its inarguably divisive culture where a virus has forced communities apart, a craving for closeness is omnipresent. Food, Yehia says, is a unifier.
From Simpson Avenue in Jackson, look through the glass wall into the urban farm. While the shadows of hardship frame reality from every direction, southern sun shines through the glass, illuminating a network of “unexpected farmers,” greeting each other and the oc- casional sidewalk spectator with a smile.
The sun embraces the plants that will soon be food for a nearby neighbor. It’s a picture of hope; like tomato vines weaving a cradle of what could be as they reach for a promise of community, connection and better days, ever growing toward the light.
Bella Butler is Senior Editor for Mountain Outlaw magazine and its sister publication, Explore Big Sky newspaper.