Jackson, Wyoming, is an unlikely place for urban farming: At an altitude over a mile high, with snow that can last until May, the growing season is sometimes only a couple of months long. It's also an expensive place to plant a garden, since an average vacant lot can cost well over $1 million.
But the town is about to become home to one of the only vertical farms in the world. On a thin slice of vacant land next to a parking lot, a startup called Vertical Harvest recently broke ground on a new three-story stack of greenhouses that will be filled with crops like microgreens and tomatoes.
"We're replacing food that was being grown in Mexico or California and shipped in," explains Penny McBride, one of the co-founders. "We feel like the community's really ready for a project like this. Everybody's so much more aware of the need to reduce transportation, and people like to know their farmer and where food's coming from."
The small plot of land is owned by the town, and the building that houses the farm will be owned by the town as well, as part of a partnership. The founders spent five years working with the city to fully vet the idea—from how well the business model can support itself to how the efficient the new building will be.
"One of the things the town of Jackson was concerned with was if we using more energy than if a tomatoes was trucked in here," says Nona Yehia, the architect of the vertical farm and one of the company's co-founders. Greenhouses do typically use a lot of energy, especially in a cold climate, but the math worked out, in part because of the farm's design.
Inside, the plants move throughout each greenhouse floor on a conveyor belt that the founders compare to a moving rack at a dry cleaner. As they rotate, each plant gets an equal amount of time in natural light on the south side of the building, saving energy in artificial lighting. On the top level, the system also pulls plants up to the ceiling, effectively creating an extra floor. The conveyor also brings each plant to workers who can transplant or harvest the crops.
The startup plans to employ workers with developmental disabilities who have few local options for a job. "We have a certain number of hours of work and divide it up based on ability, desire, and skill," Yehia explains. "The job is developed based on how many hours someone wants to work and can work."
In a year, the greenhouse should be able to crank out over 37,000 pounds of greens, 4,400 pounds of herbs, and 44,000 pounds of tomatoes [Note: this sentence originally listed all these measurements as tons, which is too many tomatoes. We regret the error]. The yields are high compared to traditional farming, because of the efficiencies of the farm's hydroponic system. But it still will be only a fraction of the produce needed for the town, which has fewer than 10,000 residents but many more tourists.
"The demand is far greater than what we'll be able to supply," says McBride. The farm has already pre-sold its future crops to local restaurants, grocery stores, and a hospital. It's a reminder of the fact that vertical farming, despite some advantages, would be a challenging way to try to feed many people in a larger city.
But on a small scale, it's a way to add both local food and jobs. McBride and Yehia hope it will serve as a model for other communities, and may eventually expand themselves. It's a business model that they're convinced will work.
"It's a feel-good story, which is why so many people were partnering with us from the beginning," says Yehia. The team plans to open the farm early next year and will harvest the first crops a few months later.