Posts

Vertical Harvest: How a Farm Provides Upward Mobility for People with Disabilities

In Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a town centered around its tourism industry, 78 percent of people living with disabilities are unemployed. But now, a local farm is working to change that. In partnership with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, Matter of Fact Correspondent Leone Lakhani travels to Wyoming to see how Vertical Harvest is creating economic options for people with disabilities.

Produce Grower / By Patrick Williams / Photos by Allison Krieg

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.

Public News Service

An indoor vertical farm in Jackson that produces and sells roughly 100,000 pounds of fresh produce annually is powered by a workforce built on the concept of diversity.

Nearly two-thirds of Vertical Harvest’s workers face disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome or vision, speech and learning impairments.

Caroline Croft Estay is a company co-founder and says inclusive, integrated workplaces are game changers for businesses because they bring in new energy – everybody is excited to clock in.

“They’re ready to work, they’re on time, they work hard,” she states. “And it really shifts the culture, and kind of raised the bar for all of us, creating this really beautiful, fluid workplace where everybody works together and works hard.”

The three story hydroponic operation produces as much food as a traditional five acre soil farm, year round, and with a lot less water.

Vertical Harvest workers grow about 25 varieties of micro and specialty greens, lettuces and tomatoes.

But Croft Estay adds that workers also are trained to tackle administrative tasks, sales, marketing, customer service and technical maintenance.

Croft Estay says while the training process for workers with disabilities can require an upfront investment, the long-term outcome is substantial.

She also maintains there’s a job out there for every individual who wants one, regardless of their specific ability level, and says everyone has a right to work.

“And yes, the training can take a little bit longer, but then the commitment and the dedication,” she states. “We have no turnover. Everybody that works at the greenhouse stays at the greenhouse, and wants to stay at the greenhouse.”

Croft Estay hopes businesses of all types will come to see people with different abilities as an untapped and valuable workforce, eager to give back to their communities and earn real wages.

Nationally, 25% of people with disabilities currently live in poverty, and just one in three is employed.

Grist | By Claire Elise Thompson

Nona Yehia is CEO and cofounder of Vertical Harvest, a company in Jackson, Wyoming, that cranks out roughly 100,000 pounds of produce each year in a three-story, state-of-the-art, hydroponic greenhouse. Bumble Bee tomatoes, rainbow chard, butterhead lettuce — the company’s 34 employees generate as much bounty as a 10-acre traditional farm while using only one tenth of an acre of land.

And there’s something else: Many of those employees have developmental disabilities. Including this underserved population in such an innovative endeavor “is about empowerment,” Yehia says. “It’s about exposing ability.”

We caught up with Yehia (who, along with cofounder Penny McBride, was featured on Grist’s annual list of “Fixers” in 2016) to talk about a new documentary that follows the “tumultuous” first 15 months of Vertical Harvest’s endeavor, and the company’s journey in the years since it was filmed.