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Author Sarah Kirton
Sarah Kirton
Updated on May 24th, 2023
Fact checked by Deborah Leigh

Vertical Harvest 2023: Farming For The Future

Nona Yehia, CEO of Vertical Harvest shares her knowledge and experience with DeliveryRank. Vertical Harvest is dedicated to energizing local food systems through controlled environmental agriculture (CEA). By utilizing hydroponic, vertical farming techniques, Vertical Harvest is able to grow produce on a fraction of the land required by traditional agriculture while using 85% less water. 

Can you tell us about the founding of Vertical Harvest and what inspired you to create a vertical farming business?

The town of Jackson WY put out an RFP for an under-utilized sliver of land on the side of a parking garage downtown.  I’m an architect by trade and have always believed civic infrastructure can play a dynamic role in bringing communities together to solve collective challenges.  And there was a group of us that recognized we had two key challenges in our town of Jackson Hole. 

First, there was low access to fresh, locally-grown produce, especially outside of our short growing season – about 90% of our food was having to be shipped in.  And second, there was a dearth of meaningful jobs for people with disabilities, and being a seasonal resort town there was also an on-going labor shortage.  

So I’m a total foodie, I also grew up with a brother with developmental disabilities, and I’d always been aware and attuned to both issues in our community.  And as a group, including my co-founder Caroline Croft Estay, who had extensive history as a case manager in the state of Wyoming, we started to imagine that indoor, controlled environment farming might be the perfect multi-faceted solution we could propose for this little piece of land.  And we also found that by addressing different community needs in tandem, we were able to get the town and eventually the state mobilized behind the project. In this way, growing microgreens, leafy greens, and tomatoes has not only helped to bolster the local food economy, but it also creates an incredible social impact and generates intense brand loyalty and love. 

Vertical Harvest is unique in its mission to provide job opportunities for people with disabilities. What has been the impact on both the employees and the business as a whole?

It’s been awesome.  Technically speaking we practice Competitive Integrated Employment.  This has 3 key criteria – first, that people with and without disabilities work together in an integrated environment, two that they’re paid commensurately and offered the same benefits, and third that there are clear opportunities for advancement.  

The way we speak to it internally, we call it the Grow Well model.  We aim to operate our farms with at least 40% of the jobs being filled by people with disabilities.  We also offer an on-going employee forum – the Boost meetings – to develop a deeper understanding of our own growth and development, as people and members of a community.  And underpinning, all of this is our commitment to prioritizing ability over disability.  

We don’t start with what people “can’t” do but with what they “can” and we customize a person’s role to the best of our ability to empower them to grow into a career that’s inspiring and fulfilling.  And I can confidently say, all of this when practiced holistically throughout the farm, has changed lives.  We have folks who had never been offered a job before who’ve been with us for years now.  

We’ve had other team members who’d been relegated to entry level jobs like cleaning hotel rooms or washing dishes – even when they had college degrees – grow into supervisor and managerial positions.  We want to offer good jobs, but we also want to offer people with disabilities the opportunity to build meaningful careers.

What are some of the benefits of hydroponic, vertical, and controlled environmental agriculture (CEA) for both the environment and the production of high-quality food?

We use less water than open field growing which is especially helpful here out west as we’re coming to terms with water stress issues and even outright droughts.  We also don’t have any fertilizers or nitrogen runoff polluting the water-supply.  Also because the productivity of each square foot is so high (that’s the benefit of stacking your growing apparatus “upward”), we’re getting much higher yields per sq foot which helps preserve arable farm land for crops that aren’t conducive to this style of growing.  

And then our company’s ethos is to build our farms local to the folks we hope to feed, so that produce can be harvested at peak flavor and nutrition and reaches the plate sooner.  This is healthier for the individual, as produce loses 30% of its nutritional value within 3 days of harvest, as well as the community, since it reduces overall food spoilage and means there’s less food waste going into landfills.

Can you speak to any challenges you have faced in producing crops using CEA technology, and how have you addressed those challenges?

There have been more than a few… First and foremost, we had a lot of people tell us to start farming, get a few successful growing cycles under our belt and then bring in the diverse, inclusive aspects of our workforce.  To which we said, no way.  The inclusion and opportunities for people with disabilities is as much a product of this farm as the greens.  And I think we were proven right, standing by our values on that one. 

I think another challenge has been the reality that growing indoors is both an art and a science.  I think a lot of CEA growers looked at vertical farms through a technology lens.  That if you code the farm right, you’ll get the expected results.  But as any actual farmer can tell you, even for all of the controls you can introduce, growing is a nuanced, beautiful, complicated process to master at scale.  While the farm in Jackson is a hybrid greenhouse-vertical farm, that hybrid approach, letting the sun in through all that beautiful glass actually introduces considerable variations that have to be constantly accommodated.  

Growing year-round in a part of the country with such weather extremes means we’re always feeling our way through regulating the environment inside the farm.  It’s also why our next generation of farms, like the one we’re building right now in downtown Westbrook ME, just outside of Portland, will be true vertical farms with much more control over light, temperature, humidity, etc.   

How has Vertical Harvest adapted and evolved over time as a business, and what role do you see it playing in the larger movement towards sustainable agriculture?

We’ve learned so much.  And we did it very cost efficiently when compared to the rest of the industry.  We’re now poised to take all of this knowledge to grow both food and futures at a national scale.  Our vision is to be the largest network of local, community farms in cities large and small, across the country.  And in every community we take root, to treat the entire community as our customer.  We want our produce on plates throughout the school system, working with hospital systems to integrate our food as medicine into communities at-risk for metabolic conditions, as inspiration for local chefs exploring new culinary traditions and ultimately for the consumer who can pick it up at the local grocery store on the way home.  

As the pandemic showed us, the people who grow our food are essential.  And re-localizing production means cities are better able to feed themselves and weather the increasing number of crises that impact supply chains.  In this way, we view our farms as essential civic infrastructure and we think we’re an important part of national discussions around high-tech manufacturing, upskilling the workforce for a future filled with green jobs and the overall future of food.

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