Winters are notoriously harsh in Jackson, Wyoming, where temperatures can plunge far below zero and snowstorms regularly pummel the surrounding mountains. The conditions make for world-class skiing, but they aren’t necessarily conducive to growing heirloom tomatoes.
As a result, the majority of vegetables consumed on dinner plates in this remote resort town have to be shipped in through steep canyons or over mountain passes, from locales as far afield as Florida, California, and Mexico. But a new vertical farming experiment in the heart of downtown is poised to turn that equation on its head, at least in part.
A group of architects, farmers, and municipal officials have come together to build a startup greenhouse, called Vertical Harvest, on a narrow strip of land next to a public parking garage. Conceived in 2009, the project took years of planning to get off the ground. Its first seeds were planted earlier this year.
If all goes according to plan, the three-story greenhouse will be harvesting more than 100,000 pounds of fresh, locally grown veggies annually. The founders of the greenhouse estimate it will offset 3% of the produce that currently has to be shipped into the valley. That kind of output, taking place on a tenth of an acre, would equate to the production of five acres of traditional agricultural land. "The power here is using a small amount of land to serve a community," says Vertical Harvest cofounder Nona Yehia.
By many accounts, it's working. On the top floor of the greenhouse, clusters of ruby red tomatoes already dangle from vines that hang near the ceiling. One story below, workers tend to trays of baby basil and sunflower cress basking in the warm glow of LED lights. In the background, bins of arugula are transported on conveyor belts across the width of the greenhouse and up and down its south-facing glass facade, feeding the plants on a combination of natural and artificial light.
Crops—which run the gamut from butterhead lettuce to sugar pea cress—are now being harvested each day and sold to grocery stores, local restaurants, and residents of the 10,000-person town.
Vertical Harvest is on the leading edge of a wave of multi-storied farming operations cropping up across the globe. In New Jersey, a company called AeroFarms is building a 70,000-square-foot farm in an old steel mill. Indoor farms have even taken hold in Alaska, where aspiring entrepreneurs are growing vegetables in shipping containers.
They all share a common goal: to produce more food on less land in a more controlled environment, all in a location that is closer to consumers.
"An outdoor farmer can control nothing," or at least very little, says Dickson Despommier, emeritus professor of public health and microbiology at Columbia University and author of the book The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century and one of the most vocal proponents of vertical farming over the last decade.
Traditional farms are reliant on the whims of Mother Nature for things like temperature, precipitation, and sunlight. In vertical farms, nearly everything can be controlled, he says. That can translate to a 365-day growing season free of droughts and freezes.
At Vertical Harvest, for example, crops are grown hydroponically, meaning the roots of the plant sit in water infused with the nutrients needed to help plants grow. No soil is used, and the amount of water and fertilizer needed to grow nutritious crops is minuscule compared to traditional agriculture.
"You have the option of 95% survival of whatever you plant," Despommier says. "The best farms in America are 70%. Not only that, you can grow things year-round."
All of those benefits combine to create an industry that has some significant upside, and a few investors appear to be taking note. Partners in the AeroFarms project in New Jersey include Goldman Sachs and Prudential Financial.
But the potential profits of industrial-scale farming are not what the founders of Vertical Harvest are after. Instead, they are trying to build a model for community-based vertical farming, one that they believe will be replicable elsewhere.
The business is registered as a "low-profit" limited liability company, or L3C, meaning Vertical Harvest has stated social goals outside of simply maximizing income.
One of those is to help Jackson’s developmentally disabled residents by providing employment. Fifteen people with a variety of intellectual and physical disabilities share 140 hours of work each week. The greenhouse employs five additional people who oversee the small workforce and the hydroponic growing system.
Vertical Harvest also has been designed as a public space, at least partially. The ground floor serves as a community gathering area. On one side is a market, where anyone can walk in and buy fresh produce. Another section is quartered off as a "living classroom," where a small number of crops are grown for educational initiatives.
"The worst thing that could happen to Vertical Harvest is that it’s a one-off," Yehia says. "The vision of the project would be that other communities could benefit from the work we’re doing here."
The greenhouse was made possible through a partnership with the town of Jackson, which provided the land and backed a $1.5 million state grant that was eventually awarded to Vertical Harvest. As a result, the town owns the greenhouse structure, while Yehia operates the business. All told, the greenhouse cost $3.8 million, with the balance coming from investors, donations, and debt.
In land-scarce Jackson, the partnerships were integral to getting the project done. Ninety-seven percent of land in the county is public. The scarcity works to drive up prices, making the town’s contribution vital. To break even, Vertical Harvest plans to lean heavily on selling high-value "microgreens," which are harvested just days after seeding and are highly sought after by fine-dining chefs.
But before city council members agreed to the project, they wanted some questions answered about energy efficiency. They weren’t convinced that growing tomatoes in winter would be less carbon-intensive than trucking them in from far away. They also had questions about the business model. If Vertical Harvest were to go under, the town would be stuck owning a greenhouse.
So, near the onset of the project, Yehia and her partners had a feasibility study done that found a greenhouse could work in Jackson. They also hired a specialty engineering firm, Larssen Ltd., which has built profitable greenhouses in other extreme climes, such as Siberia. All five members of the city council ended up getting on board.
In the end, Yehia and other vertical farming experts say they don’t necessarily view the industry as a silver bullet for the future of global food production. At this point, growing certain things, such as fruit trees or root vegetables, just isn’t economical in vertical farms, says Andrew Blume, North America regional manager of the Association for Vertical Farming.
But he and others do view the nascent practice as a sustainable way to supplement the existing food industry. "In terms of preparing the world for climate change, it’s a good way to make cities more resilient," Blume says. It helps democratize the food production process by bringing it closer to consumers.
Vertical farms also help create green jobs and promote food transparency. When a new greenhouse pops up in a community, residents are apt to learn more about what they are eating and where it comes from. That, in turn, says Blume, can help communities become healthier.
Benjamin Graham is a writer in Jackson, Wyoming.
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