“With our first site in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, we didn’t have much space and felt that a horizontal greenhouse wouldn’t achieve our goals for food production and job creation,” explains Nona Yehia, co-founder and chief executive officer of Vertical Harvest. An architect by trade, Nona has always been driven by architecture in cities and saw vertical farming as a tool to improve the resilience of communities.
Vertical Harvest was founded in 2015 and designs and operates socially driven, multi-storied hydroponic farms in urban centers. With its flagship farm in Jackson Hole, Wyoming built five years ago, Vertical Harvest became the first company to operate a vertical greenhouse farm in the northern hemisphere. The flagship farm spans 3 stories, produces 100,000 lbs. of leafy greens annually and distributes to more than 80 supermarkets and restaurants across three states. The vertical farm also operates year-round and harvests at peak maturity for improved nutritional quality and flavor.
Construction to begin in Westbrook, Maine
Vertical Harvest has been planning the construction of its next farm in Westbrook, Maine, located in Greater Portland. At four stories tall, Vertical Harvest Maine will be one story higher than the flagship farm and is slated to produce 1 million pounds of leafy greens annually, which will be provided to hospitals, restaurants, markets and consumers. Construction will begin in August 2021, with the farm designed by Portland-based architect Harriman and GYDE Architects, the latter having been co-founded by Nona.
The new farm design
Vertical Harvest is also developing a farm in southern Chicago which will be located in affordable housing development, again with the goal of serving underserved populations and bringing affordable, nutritious food closer to the point of consumption. This development was made possible by a grant awarded to Vertical Harvest in 2019. These developments are part of the company’s ambitious plan to expand to ten greenhouses in the next five years, according to Nona.
Nona hopes that the vertical farming industry will continue to develop through strategic partnerships, transparent processes and loyalty to consumers.
“Everybody wants to know where their food is coming from, so this is our opportunity to talk about it. We’re all building companies but we need to make sure that we are delivering our brand promises. Entrepreneurship is always riddled with little pitfalls and I believe that we need to be open-sourced to succeed,” says Nona.
Inside the Jackson farm
“The demand for local, affordable, nutritious food is present in all sales channels”
According to Nona, developing a diverse crop mix and accessing various sales channels have been key to Vertical Harvest’s successful financial and social model. Vertical Harvest has multiple offtake agreements with restaurants, grocery stores, distributors and food access organizations. These channels all have different price points, which the company manages through its diverse crop mix.
“We grow head lettuce, baby greens and microgreens. With that, we can tailor our crop mix to the different sales channels and price points which allows us to work with different organizations, maintain a profitable model and enable the progress that we want to see,” says Nona.
Driven by social impact
Vertical Harvest is an impact-driven business that is committed to providing inclusive employment opportunities for underserved populations, such as those with development disabilities, formerly incarcerated citizens and immigrants seeking asylum. Vertical Harvest calls this their Grow Well model which, according to the company website, “fosters professional development, personal discovery and community impact.” This model is demonstrated at the flagship farm in Jackson Hole, where 25 of the 42 employees are differently abled and have a customized employment plan to foster their professional development.
“We believe in impact and want these farms to be considered critical infrastructure. We are rooted in urban redevelopment so while we’ve also been focused on food production and jobs, we also want to make these farms part of the cities where they’re located,” explains Nona.