Evan Matzen, Manager, Sustainability 

The year 2007 marked the first time the world’s urban population surpassed that of rural areas. But with this shift in populations also came an increased awareness of the need for promoting sustainable urban living, and people are now looking to make cities a partner in green sustainability efforts rather than a draining hub for natural resources. This new drive has led to several innovative projects, and a quintessential example of this innovation is a project based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, called Vertical Harvest.

The Vertical Harvest Project and Sustainable Urban Living

Located in the heart of the town of Jackson, the Vertical Harvest project aims to create a state-of-the-art three story greenhouse for year-round growing of fresh produce for the local community. In addition, Vertical Harvest will also be dedicated to providing jobs to citizens with disabilities, thereby making the project innovative both agriculturally as well as socially.

If the project sounds ambitious, that’s because it is—aiming to combine innovative urban sustainability, stunning architecture, and socially conscious involvement to create a new and permanent fixture of the local community. But as with all ambitious projects, there is also a dedicated visionary behind it. One of the leading visionaries of Vertical Harvest is Nona Yehia, co-founder of the architecture firm E/YE Design. When she talks about the project, it becomes clear that Yehia sees Vertical Harvest’s impact as having the potential to travel well beyond the city limits of Jackson, perhaps one day serving as an example for similar projects the world over. We had the opportunity to sit down with Nona and ask her some questions about the project.

What’s the idea behind Vertical Harvest?

The U.N. has predicted that the global population will increase by 3 billion people by the year 2050 and that food production will have to increase by 70% to match this growth. Currently 80% of arable land is used to capacity. Clearly there is a global need for a new model of farming to supplement traditional methods. Vertical Harvest will build hydroponic vertical greenhouses in urban centers that will not only be innovative models for growing food, but will prioritize social innovation.

Vertical Harvest of Jackson Hole will be the first of these urban farms. It will be located on a small, underutilized plot of land. This greenhouse will be three stories high and will extend Jackson’s four-month growing period to provide organic produce 365 days a year. What makes Vertical Harvest unique is that it combines a social mission with a platform for localizing food production. It will create meaningful jobs for Wyoming’s citizens with disabilities, whose current unemployment rate is at 9.5%. These underrepresented employees will become pioneers in a new model that contributes a valued service to their community, and also speaks to a growing global concern.

How did Vertical Harvest start?

Caroline Croft, who is on our advisory board, is also a case manager for Career Entry Services. She saw the need for consistent meaningful work for her clients. Vertical Harvest cofounder Penny McBride was working to create a greenhouse in town that would be heated by biomass. She had come to me knowing that I might be able to rethink traditional greenhouse designs. Caroline simply Googled ”greenhouses” in Jackson Hole and Penny’s number came up. Caroline contacted her and asked if she could employ citizens with disabilities in the greenhouse. Penny [then] started working on it right away. A town councilman who has a son with developmental disabilities approached her about the centrally located town-owned lot south of a parking garage in Jackson. The site is only 30’ x 150’, so once we looked at it we decided to rethink our goals. We wanted to maximize how much food we could grow and maximize the amount of people we could hire consistently. That was when the idea to go vertical was initiated.

What makes Vertical Harvest different from other greenhouse models?

VH is not the most efficient model. There are many greenhouses—vertical, and horizontal for that matter—whose primary goal is to grow food in the most efficient manner possible. VH sacrifices a bit of efficiency to promote a long-term social benefit. It is a tool to strengthen a community through the production of its own food. We envision that this model can be replicated in communities that are isolated from a food supply and want to serve a disadvantaged portion of their population.

For me, Vertical Harvest is a rare project that is able to synthesize people’s passions. We have gained a huge amount of community support from people from all different walks of life. These people care about food nutrition, sustainability, and helping a sector of our community that needs help. For me, it is important that this project is in the heart of our town, that it brings our citizens with disabilities to the forefront, and that it enables them to become pioneers in an effort to promote sustainability and vitality in our community.

This post was authored by Alex Levin, a writer for JW Surety Bonds, a surety company that is proud to support sustainable building and is sponsoring a series of interviews with like-minded innovators.

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