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Reaching for the Sky

March 29th, 2018

Business BlueprintVertical Harvest

How Vertical Harvest, the nation’s first vertical greenhouse, took root in Jackson, Wyoming.

Like many of the best ideas, the concept started relatively small and then snowballed.

Two Jackson locals, architect Nona Yehia and sustainability consultant Penny McBride, wanted to find a way to reduce the community’s dependence on out-sourced nutritious food. Jackson, after all, is a mountain town built around Jackson Hole Mountain Resort at 6,327 feet, which translates to a short growing season that ends almost overnight.

Yehia and McBride started brainstorming solutions for building a greenhouse that could increase the amount of locally-grown produce.

That was nearly a decade ago.

Vertical Harvest

An Idea Takes Root

As years passed, the project was further refined and expanded. The result? Vertical Harvest, a greenhouse operation that opened in 2016. But Vertical Harvest isn’t just a simple greenhouse. It’s a respected social enterprise that trains and employs the physically and intellectually disabled while pioneering unique agricultural practices.

The greenhouse — which has garnered attention from national media, including the New York Times — features two key innovations: a ground-breaking three-story greenhouse and a business model that prioritizes people over profits.

Now a proven success, other communities are looking to Vertical Harvest as a template to replicate.

But Yehia says the co-founders never dreamed their idea would mushroom into a one-of-a-kind business that would be mimicked around the country. In fact, Yehia says at times they thought their dream would fall apart.

“There were a lot of days when we thought it was the end of the project,” she says. “We only came back to it the next day because so many people believed in us. This is really a story about community.”

Vertical Harvest

A Solution in the Sky

The first obstacle was obtaining land in a resort town with sky-high real estate prices. A Jackson city councilman who liked the idea showed a small, city-owned parcel next to a parking garage — just 150 feet by 30 feet — and asked if it would do for a greenhouse.

“That councilman probably thought we might put up a hoop house that would extend the growing season by a few months and employ a few people,” Yehia says. “We wanted to push that idea. We wanted to produce food year-round.”

A conventional greenhouse limited by such tight borders wouldn’t make the kind of effect that McBride and Yehia were after. Yehia put on her architect’s cap and struck upon a solution: stretching the small greenhouse toward the sky.

That was the breakthrough that made the rest of Vertical Harvest possible. Yehia’s research and design culminated in a three-story greenhouse that produces the same amount of food on one tenth of an acre that would be produced on five acres of conventional farmland.

By building upward, Yehia created a greenhouse with three different microclimates with varying temperatures ideal for different plants.

The exposure to the sun on the third floor makes it ideal for vining crops, so that’s where Vertical Harvest grows tomatoes. The second floor is cooler, making it fit for growing lettuce. The first floor, which is also a classroom space, is home to sprouting microgreens.

The microgreen planter carousels that rotate both vertically and horizontally might be Yehia’s greatest design flourish.

“We had to utilize every square foot in order to maximize production,” she says. “The carousels essentially add a fourth floor.”

Today, Vertical Harvest produces more than 100,000 pounds of produce per year that would otherwise be trucked or transported into Jackson. The crew harvests and delivers produce twice a week to local grocers and restaurants, ensuring peak freshness and nutritional value.

Vertical Harvest

Cultivating More Than Just Food

From the beginning, Yehia and McBride saw creating full-time and permanent jobs as a critical goal. Their vision took on an arguably more important mission after being approached by a community member who worked to find employment for Jacksonites with physical or intellectual disabilities.

The community member told the co-founders that the greenhouse, which was still in the planning phase, would make an ideal employer for a population that often struggles to find jobs. The appeal struck a chord with McBride and Yehia, who has a brother with a developmental disability.

“Growing up in a household like that, I saw that society is nurturing and inclusive to that population when it comes to education,” Yehia says. “But when it comes to employment, those efforts fall off a cliff.”

Of Vertical Harvest’s 24 employees, 16 have physical or developmental conditions that include autism, Down syndrome and spina bifida.

The key, Yehia says, is focusing on what each employee can do instead of getting hung up on the tasks that may be more challenging. All of the differently-abled initial hires still work at the greenhouse, which has prompted businesses from around the country (who have struggled to retain employees) to inquire about Vertical Harvest’s hiring model. As a result, Yehia and the Vertical Harvest team have spun off a nonprofit called Cultivate. Its goal: promote expanded employment opportunities for differently-abled workers and be a resource for employers looking to follow Vertical Harvest’s example.

“Other businesses come to us and say, ‘how do we do this?’” Yehia says. “Your employees are as loyal as they come. This seems beneficial to you. How can we incorporate this?”

Vertical Harvest

“For-Profit Business With a Nonprofit Soul.”

While Cultivate is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Yehia and McBride felt it was important to make Vertical Harvest a for-profit business.

They wanted their greenhouse to prove its roster of differently-abled employees were a true workforce that would earn its way if given a chance, Yehia says. They need to be assigned the right job, but they don’t need handouts.

“That had to happen in a profitable environment,” Yehia says. “Now, a year and a half into this venture, our 16 differently-abled employees are pioneering something that’s important to every community: food security.”

The founders also wanted to codify their goals in terms of creating jobs and providing healthy, locally-grown food to Jackson. So they adopted Wyoming’s little-known L3C business designation, known as a “low-profit” model. The status means the company is a for-profit, social enterprise with a stated goal of performing a socially beneficial purpose rather than maximizing income. Other states have a similar business designation, called B Corps.

Yehia thinks of the L3C status as a “for-profit business with a nonprofit soul.”

“We really believe that you can do good and do well at the same time,” she says. “This is a model for communities that can be financially sustainable. It’s not terribly profitable. Nobody is in it for that. But there’s a huge return for communities.”

Vertical Harvest

It Took a Village

Vertical Harvest couldn’t have happened without encouragement from the community, support from local politicians and financial help. First Interstate Bank was an early believer in Vertical Harvest, and donated $100,000 to the business to help get it off the ground.

The bank was supportive of the concept while asking hard questions about the business model, which was exactly what the founders needed before launching the greenhouse, Yehia says. “First Interstate has been an incredibly-valued seed funder for the whole project,” she says. “They believed in our vision and in the impact it would have in the community, and they were willing to invest in that.”

Vertical Harvest doesn’t yet have space to expand its greenhouse, but Yehia hopes the ideas that fueled its creation will begin to take root elsewhere. That seems to be happening, thanks in part to news of Vertical Harvest’s success traveling far and wide.

Media — including some national outlets — didn’t take long to start calling after Vertical Harvest opened. The New York Times published a long feature story on the business in 2016. Fast Times, Huffington Post, NPR and others also published or broadcasted stories that brought attention to the small greenhouse in a small Wyoming town.

Yehia said she’s gratified by the attention and hopes it helps the founders’ ideas spread around the country.

“I’m most excited to see where it leads us,” she says. “The New York Times and Fast Company articles are stepping stones to greater impact. I just hope to tell our story far and wide because it’s been a great success story in Jackson.”