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US (WY): Vertical farm in Jackson offers fresh produce and jobs for the disabled
“Our growing season is only about four months long, so we shipped a lot of our produce in from other places,” said Vertical Harvest CEO Nona Yehia. “A friend of mine said she got some lettuce from the grocery and by the time she got it home, it was brown.”
Yehia said Jackson is also known for having a high unemployment rate for people with disabilities, something the three women believed they could cure with their business model.
Vertical Harvest uses a growing method called hydroponic farming.
“It means that you feed the plant through water so we don’t need soil in the greenhouse,” said Yehia. “So basically we have a growing medium that holds the roots for the plants and is basically a delivery device for the nutrients.”
Each of the three floors has a different micro-climate, allowing a variety of produce – from tomatoes to micro-greens – to thrive year round.
Sam Bartels: “If we have a hail storm outside, if we have snow our plants are smugly watching from their high rise apartments,” said Vertical Harvest Director of Business Development Sam Bartels. “So there are a lot of benefits to growing in doors.”
On Tuesday, the temperature in Jackson was a cool 34 degrees, which is less than optimal for most growing.
But on the third floor of vertical harvest, they grow tomato plants that will be served on dinner plates in Jackson restaurants in just a few weeks time.
“When you go out and see of your produce on a gorgeous plate and others enjoying it and commenting on the quality of the produce, it’s incredibly rewarding,” said Barels.
It’s a feeling shared not only by the company’s three female co-owners, but Vertical Harvest’s 15 employees, who now have an opportunity like never before.
Johnny Fifles, like most of his co-workers, has a developmental disability. It’s something that limited his employment options for years.
“I used to work at the Elk Country Inn,” said Fifles. “I had to fold laundry and carry bags of dirty laundry.”
But at Vertical Harvest, Fifles and Sean Stone find purpose. “It’s a great job,” said Stone. “It’s good for the environment and it’s healthy for people that buy this stuff from us.”
“It’s really shifted the perception of what this population is able to do and I think that story brings people to vertical harvest first and then they keep coming back because of the quality of the produce,” said Yehia.
Customers return for both the quality and the quantity, because Vertical Harvest produces 10 acres worth of fruits, vegetables and herbs on just a tenth of an acre.
Vertical Harvest distributes produce to multiple restaurants in Jackson and soon, it will be able to distribute to grocery chains like Albertson’s following its recent Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification.
While the idea clearly works today, skeptics had their doubts. “It’s a pretty far out thing to say to someone, we’re going to grow this 3-story high greenhouse in Jackson when it’s minus 20 degrees out and we’re going to employ these different growing methods that have never been done before and employ all these people with disabilities and people might be inclined to think that’s a bit much to bite off,” said Bartels. “But I think anyone with doubts has not only become a believer but has become an advocate.”
It’s a system of support the team at Vertical Harvest hopes to achieve in the five other communities they’ve pegged for future development.
“It’s all about pairing innovation with an under-served community and in Jackson that’s people with disabilities,” said Bartels. “But in other towns that might be veterans or ex-felons or the homeless so we’re excited to go do good elsewhere.”
The greenhouse is open to tours.
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