Vertical Harvest aims for year-round veggies in Jackson Hole & jobs, too
Greenhouse to provide work for developmentally disabled
JACKSON, Wyo. – The guaranteed frost-free season in Jackson Hole lasts barely a month, from July 15 to Aug. 16. The average frost-free season is little longer, just 72 days.
Tomatoes? Only with the greatest of luck.
But tomatoes will abound, some 44,000 pounds annually, according to projections for Vertical Harvest, a business that plans to build a three-story greenhouse adjacent to the municipal parking garage in downtown Jackson.
Separated by a two-foot space from the parking garage, the $2.35 million greenhouse will be located on a town-owned rectangle of land 30 feet wide by 150 feet long.
Penny McBride, the project administrator for Vertical Harvest, admits to encountering some skepticism when she broached the idea of a three-story greenhouse. “You gotta be kidding me,” some said.
But through innovation and hard work, plus a willingness to sit down and listen to the hard words of skeptics, the idea has emerged as a winner. Construction is projected to begin this spring.
Among the key skeptics persuaded was Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, whose great-grandparents were cattle-raising homesteaders in Jackson Hole.
In June, Mead voted to approve a $1.5 million state loan for the project. This is on top of $300,000 grant from the town of Jackson.
“The people involved in it had such a high level of commitment,” said Mead during a recent tour in Jackson covered by the Jackson Hole News&Guide. “They convinced me.”
Vegetables are to be grown year round in the 13,500-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse for sale to restaurants, local grocery stores and directly to consumers.
The project combines the passions of McBride: local sustainable agricultural, innovative buildings and then a social aspect: providing jobs for people with developmental disabilities, a segment of the community that struggles to find meaningful work.
Vertical Harvest projects that the greenhouse will be able to use 1-10th of an acre to produce an equivalent amount to 5 acres of traditional agriculture. Recirculating water will dramatically increase efficiency. Artificial light will be necessary during winter, with a total consumption of 312,000 kWh per year.
In addition to the tomatoes, the greenhouse is projected to deliver 20,000 pounds of lettuce, 44,00 pounds of herbs, 10,000 pounds of microgreens, 7,500 pounds of baby specialty greens, and 4,725 pounds of strawberries.
Of this production, 95 percent is already contracted for delivery to local restaurants and consumers.
This story is from the Jan. 14, 2014, issue of Mountain Town News. For a free sample copy, call 303.463.8630.
Genesis of the Vertical Harvest was partly the slow-food movement. But also important was the need to find work for developmentally disabled adults. Bringing that need forward was Nona Yehia, of E/Ye Design Architecture, a local firm.
The model for greenhouses providing work for developmentally disabled adults was provided by Arthur and Friends, which has employed adults at a greenhouse in New Jersey since 2008.
“One of the acid tests of human development is whether the benefits of social, technological and economic progress are enjoyed by the weakest or most marginalized members of society – children, ethnic minorities, the elderly or sick, chronically poor and people with disabilities. The social and economic status of disabled people presents a particularly stark example of this,” says the organization on its website.
“Their exclusion from full participation in economic life is not merely a failure of welfare provision; it is a missed opportunity for society as a whole.”
“I think that it adds value to the project, in terms of getting people who have disabilities to help work and have meaningful work. I think it is very much a positive for the project,” says Bob McLaurin, town administrator of Jackson, whose son Timmy is among Jackson’s developmentally disabled. The greenhouse expects to hire 9 such individuals.
Crucial was conceptual design, which was funded by a grant from 1% for the Tetons, a local philanthropy that derives revenues from a voluntary surcharge levied by local businesses interested in supporting sustainability. 1% for the Tetons provided $20,000 for design.
Other contributions have also helped seed the effort: $25,000 pledges from both the Grand Teton Lodge Company and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort plus a string of $5,000 pledges from various individuals, and smaller pledges from even longer lists.
For-profit, social enterprise
The business structure was carefully chosen. Vertical Harvest is a low-profit limited liability, or L3C, which is a for-profit, social enterprise venture. The stated goal is performing a socially beneficial purpose, not maximizing income. The goal is to generate modest profits but not soliciting charitable contributions year after year.
In addition to employing people with disabilities, the goal is to educate the public about new, efficient, environmentally friendly ways of farming while providing highly nutritious locally grown produce.
A key element in selling this concept to government officials and the public was the track record of Larssen Ltd. Engineers, a Danish firm that for 25 years has been creating greenhouses in Greenland, Siberia and other challenging climates, including Maine.
McBride says that the process has been difficult at times. One of those difficult times was sitting down with a very conservative person, who had hard questions. “And he turned into one of our biggest supporters, perhaps because we took his criticisms and concerns to heart,” she says. “Not that it always felt good, but we tried to take things for what they were and really stay open to what people had to say.”
Jonathan Schechter, founder of 1% for the Tetons, credits McBride and colleagues with “taking a project with a lot of moving parts and getting it going in the face of a lot of skepticism.”
McBride already is talking about expanding the concept to other mountain communities. Schechter thinks they can succeed.
“It has just a lot of resonance at a lot of different levels in this wonderful intersection of local food, year-round food, the developmentally disabled aspect, local self-sufficiency—all of which play very well in Wyoming. They’re really hitting on a lot of buttons, and if they can make it work here, there are a lot of reasons to believe it can be made to work elsewhere.”
That said, the pudding in Jackson Hole hasn’t yet been served. “Pro formas are one thing,” notes Schechter, “but as with any start-up, turning it into a successful operation is never simple.”
Greenhouse erected atop parking garage in Banff
BANFF, Alberta – The municipal government last year dedicated a portion of a rooftop parking garage for erection of what is called the Cascade Plaza Greenhouse.
Banff already had one community garden, but because space is at such a premium, the roof-top location was seen as a good use of space. The cost was $34,000.
The Banff Greenhouse Gardening Society website explains that the enclosure has 20 raised beds, each with 15 square feet of soil roughly 12 inches deep. The enclosure increases the gardening in Banff from three months to six months. No supplemental heat or lighting is used.
Greenhouse Gardening Society members say the greenhouse “further enhances the opportunities for growing organic local produce, strengthens interaction amongst community members, and increases knowledge around food security and gardening.”