By now you have no doubt heard of Vertical Harvest, http://verticalharvestjackson.com, the 13,500-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse on a remnant piece of public land next to a parking garage in downtown Jackson. Co-founded by Penny McBride and architect Nona Yehia of E/Ye Design, VH is the first step towards a more sustainable solution for bringing fresh produce to our mountain town.
On this tiny piece of land, the production of the greenhouse will equal that of a 5-acre traditional farm. Beyond the benefits of fresh produce year-round, Vertical Harvest is also a great example of community building. One of the organization’s key goals is to provide meaningful employment for citizens with developmental disabilities.
This month, as part of our series on local businesses and community leaders, we sat down with Penny McBride to hear more about her vision for Vertical Harvest.
1. This is the first of its kind in the US. Why is Jackson the right community for the first vertical greenhouse?
Penny McBride: Jackson supports innovation on many levels. Vertical Harvest is at the forefront of hydroponic growing because we are not only a three story greenhouse, we also have an integrated employment model for citizens with developmental disabilities.
The greenhouse fulfills a lot of different community needs.
Food: While regional farmers supply the demand for locally grown produce throughout the summer and fall, they can’t do it year round. Vertical Harvest won’t compete with local farmers, but our produce will replace some of the fruits and vegetables transported into our community from other States and countries.
Opportunities for Citizens with Developmental Disabilities: Citizens with developmental disabilities face challenges of finding and maintaining meaningful employment. Vertical Harvest has created a model for integrated and customized employment that will tailor the jobs to their needs in many ways:
1) It’s located in an area serviced by public transportation, 2) some of our growing systems have been modified for easier access, and 3) ample natural light creates a healthy work environment. It’s about offering flexibility while meeting the needs of our business. Really it’s a win/win on all levels.
Community Partnerships: Our partner agencies have been incredibly visionary in supporting a project that is innovating on so many levels. Without the collaboration of our donors, investors and agencies such as the Town of Jackson and the State of Wyoming, this project wouldn’t be possible.
2. Do you think the success of this project will change the food paradigm for similar communities around the US that don’t have access to good local produce year round?
There are so many issues that need to be addressed in our food system. Most grocery store produce has low nutritional value because it is grown in depleted soil, isn’t harvested at its peak, has traveled thousands of miles, and is often covered in pesticides.
From the beginning, our goal has been to positively impact the revitalization of local food production around the world. The natural and built environment of most communities no longer support local food production, corporate-owned farms are geared towards monocultures, and homes are replacing farmland.
For example, in the Netherlands a lot of cities have massive integrated production greenhouses. Yet many of these greenhouses are now being replaced by homes because of rising land values. Vertical Harvest transcends this boundary because it provides a productive local food source on a small footprint.
Vertical Harvest doesn’t have all of the answers, but it is a good start to a solution.
3. Where would you like to see more projects like Vertical Harvest in the US? Cities, rural areas, etc.?
Consumers are driving a change in the food system. The organic food industry has grown by 72% in the last 5 years, this is an amazing indicator that the time is ripe for a paradigm switch.
There are vast possibilities for replicating this model. It’s clear that there is a growing demand for locally grown food in communities around the country. However, to support this kind of project there has to be a few key measures in place: 1) A large enough population to support local food production, 2) a population that desires freshly grown goods, and 3) an employee base.
4. In an ideal world, what kind of impact would you like Vertical Harvest to have on the Jackson Hole Community?
Even in a community as progressive as Jackson, there are many opportunities for people to understand the value of locally grown food. Highlighting the importance of food is critical to our mission, but we are also focused on becoming a model for other businesses in the community to adopt a system of integrated employment for citizens with developmental disabilities.
Nationally, there is an underemployment gap that Vertical Harvest hopes to bridge. We want to show other businesses the possibilities and give them a replicable model.
5. What kind of community programs will you offer in addition to providing opportunities for citizens?
Vertical Harvest will be an anchor for other organizations in the community that offer educational opportunities to highlight the benefits of locally grown food.
For example, our local hospital, St. John’s, has an incredible Wellness Institute focused on preventative health programs like diabetes and nutrition programs. Their restaurant prepares meals that highlight the importance of eating whole unprocessed foods. Vertical Harvest will co-host these types of programs in our living classroom where our employees will help to teach about the benefits of local produce and foods.
Ultimately, it’s about shining a light on the essential nature of locally grown food and valuing the exceptional human resources that are all around us. It isn’t about one sector of the population, but about our community as a whole, and we are excited to become an inspiration to others.