Triple threat

Features - Cover Story

Vertical Harvest takes a new approach to CEA by focusing on the three bottom lines of people, profit and the planet, employing a staff of workers with different abilities.

When visitors walk into Vertical Harvest’s luminous three-story glass building for tours, they’re stepping into the architectural brainchild of Nona Yehia.

The singular combination vertical farm and greenhouse grows specialty greens, leafy greens, microgreens and tomatoes using LED lights, robots and moving hydroponic carousels.

An eclectic mix of workers, many of whom have intellectual and physical disabilities, take care of the futuristic farm and its many technologies, growing some of the freshest produce around.

The Jackson, Wyoming, grower aims to provide those with disabilities opportunities for upward mobility, says Yehia, who is co-founder and CEO. The operation, she says, provides an example of how farms can change the perception of the abilities of workers with disabilities. Workers who often only have opportunities in entry-level jobs thrive here in an environment where they can help solve some of the world’s most pressing problems, including land and water shortages and other environmental issues.

“It’s the way Vertical Harvest is a team that’s conceived of the company that’s really different, saying that you can do well by doing good, and that it actually benefits the bottom line of the business to do so,” Yehia says.

She says Vertical Harvest would never open a farm without helping an underserved population, whether that be people with disabilities or other underserved groups, such as refugees or veterans. And Vertical Harvest aims to expand; for example, it is developing a vertical farm project in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Vertical Harvest maintains high standards for its produce, too. Daily, it regulates three separate growing environments that, with the glass walls, are influenced by the outside environment. It follows integrated pest management protocols and offers a varied product mix — including 30 different microgreens varieties — catering to chefs, high-end restaurants and grocery stores.

“I like to say that people come to us because of our mission, but they come back because of the quality of our produce,” Yehia says.

Vertical Harvest in Jackson, Wyoming

The mission

From the outset, passions about social issues and the environment influenced Yehia, Caroline Croft Estay and Penny McBride to found Vertical Harvest in 2010.

When she met McBride at a party in 2008, Yehia was well established as an architect, with 13 years under her belt at E/Ye Design, where she was partner with Jefferson Ellinger. While her architectural knowledge and experience helped her design a distinctive greenhouse-vertical-farm, she also wanted to address some of the social problems in America.

“I have a brother with developmental disabilities. … This country’s done a very good job of nurturing and including this population during education, but when it comes to employment, you’re on your own,” she says. Her focus on nurturing and inclusion would prove essential to Vertical Harvest’s mission.

McBride, a sustainability consultant, was looking for unique ways to sustainably and efficiently grow produce, Yehia says. Jackson imports most of its food, but a foodie scene in the short summers illustrated a need for local, fresh food. Many consumers were not satisfied with produce that was shipped in and sold in local grocery stores.

While the demand for better product was there, it proved a challenge to find land where they could build a controlled-environment farm. The surrounding public lands minimize areas that can be used for construction. “Ninety-five percent of the land that is developable is already developed,” Yehia says. “So, locating a greenhouse that might serve our downtown community was actually kind of a difficult proposition.” They settled on a tenth of an acre next to a parking garage and looked to the skies for more real estate.

To build up Vertical Harvest’s social mission, Croft Estay, a longtime employment facilitator, looked to the Employment First model, which the U.S. Department of Labor says is based on the idea that everyone, including people with disabilities, should be able to work well-paying jobs in integrated workplaces that offer benefits and opportunities for advancement. Croft Estay also followed an approach called customized employment, which involves a personalized relationship between employer and employee that helps both parties.

From there, Croft Estay developed Vertical Harvest’s “Grow Well Employment Model,” which Yehia says involves spreading customized employment and Employment First throughout the company’s culture. (Croft Estay is now director of diversity and inclusion at Vertical Harvest; McBride is a shareholder.)

In addition, Yehia and her colleagues were inspired by Arthur & Friends, a hydroponic greenhouse in New Jersey that Wendie Blanchard founded to employ people with disabilities. Blanchard named the operation after her nephew Arthur Blanchard, who has Down syndrome and enjoys growing produce with workers both with and without disabilities, according to New Jersey Monthly.

“She’s been consulting around the country for people who want to be more inclusive in their growing practices and employment practices, so that was really an inspiration from the very beginning,” Yehia says.

People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States, Yehia notes, and more of them need opportunities to excel in the economy. “It’s an important thing to be able to bring together all the research and understand, being that this is surrounded around this effort into corporate cultures,” she says.

Some of Vertical Harvest’s team

Offering empowerment

Vertical Harvest opened its 13,500-square-foot facility in 2016 to meet the needs of its rare mountain town. Nestled in the Jackson Hole valley, Jackson lays about 5 miles from Grand Teton National Park and about 80 miles from Yellowstone National Park. It’s a ski town and many people come and go, Yehia says. Some move there after college, then eventually leave for other opportunities.

“There’s a very transient employee base,” she says. “On the other hand, there’s a group of people who live and work here, or want to find consistent employment here, but experience very high unemployment.” She says among people with physical and intellectual disabilities, there’s about a 78% unemployment rate.

Nineteen of Vertical Harvest’s 34 employees have disabilities. That level of inclusion provides a healthy balance of different perspectives, Yehia says.

“What happens sometimes is that you might employ one or two people with a form of a disability, and then in the end they feel more segregated because they are almost separated out from the rest of the culture,” she says.

In addition, Vertical Harvest uses language that is meant to be empowering. Rather than saying people have “disabilities,” they prefer to say they have “different abilities.” “It’s not like we’re scared of the word ‘disability,’” Yehia says. “But we prefer the word[s] ‘different ability’ because we work toward bringing out people’s ability.”

Every day, Emily Churchill, director of production, visits the departments of tomatoes, lettuce, microgreens and integrated pest management. Throughout the process, she works with people with various abilities.

“My senior grower for lettuce [Michelle Dennis] is one of our employees with a different ability, and I talk to her probably five times a day, making sure the harvest is on track and the transplanting and all of that stuff — whereas some of our other employees who work in microgreens have their routine down and they are less social and they just like to put their headphones in and seed,” Churchill says.

Decision-making at Vertical Harvest follows a triple bottom line of profit, people and the planet, Churchill says. “Maybe one of our managers will take 30 minutes out of her day to sit down and have a one-on-one meeting with her employee to check in or to ask what they need help with and what they’re enjoying,” she says. “On paper, that looks like we’re losing 30 minutes of work that day, but actually, that’s 30 minutes that is going to one of our triple bottom lines.”

The energy in the greenhouse reflects the resourceful collaboration among its team, Churchill says. “I’m reminded of how revolutionary it is when new people come into the greenhouse and they’re kind of blown away by what we’re doing,” she says.

Vertical Harvest’s greens grown under LED lights

Glass-box transparency

Vertical Harvest’s glass-walled design allows it to use the external environment to its advantage as much as it can, Yehia says. Borrowing ventilation, heating, air conditioning and lighting from the outside saves energy. But these clear walls also reflect the business’ openness.

“We’re in a glass box, so the transparency with which we run our company is key to every element of Vertical Harvest,” she says.

The farm quickly makes its produce available at retail and consumers are noticing, Churchill says. “For us to be able to provide food that was harvested the day that someone buys it or the day before you buy it, is so different compared to anything else you can get in a grocery store,” she says. “And I think you can really taste it when you eat the product.”

Vertical Harvest started working with the Teton County School District on a program called “Fancy Food Fridays.” Every Friday for two months, the students tried a different microgreen. Then, if their parents would bring them to the farm, they would already be familiar with the product.

“When parents would come to the greenhouse with their kids, their kids were like, ‘Hey, Mom, this is my favorite microgreen,’ which, if you can imagine that, it’s pretty exciting, being able to introduce kids to this very, very new and important crop,” Yehia says.

Vertical Harvest also hosts a hospital market with St. John’s Hospital every week and it’s working with the University of Wyoming on a nutritional study to explore the health benefits of local produce. Consumers not only value that Vertical Harvest provides local produce but that it conducts education and outreach, Yehia says.

“A consumer can really come and see all of Emily’s good work in her growing her lettuce, and then when they go to a grocery store, see us on the menu, they know exactly where that head of lettuce comes from,” Yehia says. “I think that’s a really important shift and why interest in our brand is growing — because it is really important that it is located in the heart of the community, not only for employees to be able to access it, but also our anchor institutions.”

Product cards for Vertical Harvest’s microgreens

Expanding the model

The management and operational cultures at Vertical Harvest are laying the groundwork for expansion to other cities, Yehia says.

“Everything that we build there, we always say, ‘Could we do this in Lancaster?’” she says. “’Could we do this in any other greenhouse that we’re going to?’ and ‘How would we share this procedure or this practice or policy with other greenhouses?’”

Many CEA growers build their farms around intellectual property or growing technologies, but Vertical Harvest takes a different approach, she says.

“We are operators; we are farmers, so we build our intellectual property on our standard operating procedures and in our employment model,” Yehia says. “And so that is really what we are always looking at — how do we communicate with each other, how do we track data, how do we make something more efficient?”

At Vertical Harvest, the workers who grow microgreens are among the first people in the industry learning how to grow it, Yehia says, providing an example of how the farm empowers its community. Underserved populations, she says, will be leaders in the communities where the operation plans to expand.

“In our town, that was about people with different abilities,” Yehia says. “In another town, it might be refugees or veterans.”

The project in Lancaster could start as early as 2020, Yehia says. Then, Vertical Harvest could bring its model to other cities in the United States and beyond.

“If you invest in the people and the materials of your community, then you really strengthen not only the local economy, but the ethos, and you really empower a community,” Yehia says. “And I think that is worthy of being part of every urban community, to be another kind of civic building that we look at, like a community center or a library even.”