Good Intentions Win with Hearts of Glass: Vertical Harvest Farms
The founders at Vertical Harvest Farms are revolutionizing modern farming while providing opportunities for an underserved segment of the population.
When ambitious people with good intentions set out to achieve a goal, karma often works in their favor.
In the case of Vertical Harvest Farms, a win-win-win was developed by effectuating social change through the growing of healthy crops and hiring disabled workers to grow them.
“We’re probably one of the first vertical greenhouse farms to become operational,” says co-founder/CEO Nona Yehia. “None of us set out to be vertical farmers. I’m an architect who has always believed in projects with the ability to reflect community values that push forward social change.”
Their success, and some setbacks, are captured in the 2020 documentary Hearts of Glass that premiered on PBS stations nationwide.
Their prototype farm took root in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which is not the usual hotspot for greenhouse growing.
“We have just a four-month growing season here requiring importation of the majority of our food, so there was a volatility and an opportunity to serve the local community through a greenhouse that could produce during the winter months,” says Yehia.
microgreens, and vining crops.With 97 percent of available developable land already committed to because of the presence of national parks, ground was tough to find. Ultimately, one-tenth of an acre with room for a 30x150-foot, three-story greenhouse became home for a diverse group of microcrops that include leafy greens,
“We went for impact to grow as much food as possible, year-round. We differ from other growers in that we are a social impact business, not only focused on food security, but job security. We grow food and future,” adds Yehia.
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Yehia and partner Caroline Croft Estay crafted and implemented an innovative ‘Grow Well’ employee model to bring meaningful employment to differently-abled individuals.
“People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the U.S. Our nation has the ability to take care of this population when it comes to education, but when it comes to employment, they’re on their own. We employ 30 people, half of whom have some form of physical or intellectual disability,” says Yehia, noting that many were washing dishes and cleaning rooms before given a chance to work in agriculture with Vertical Harvest Farms. “Now they have a career opportunity in agriculture and it’s a sea change of perception of what this population is capable of doing. This is a piece of civic infrastructure.”
From the beginning, Vertical Harvest Farms wanted to develop a model they could scale and replicate, and momentum has started to drive their expansion plan. They’ve reached out to work with a visionary developer in Maine who wants a Vertical Harvest Farm as an anchor of his multi-use development. New site development is being discussed in Pennsylvania where vertical farming would co-exist in an affordable housing community. They’re also working with others potential greenhouse sites in Chicago and Providence. Their concept addresses both the right to good food and good jobs at a sustainable, systemic level, empowering the most vulnerable.
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The founders are aware that the average urban area in America grows less than two percent of the food it consumes, with lower quality and price volatility resulting in economic and food insecurity in urban communities. “We have reimagined food systems and the jobs they create to make them more nourishing, resilient, and sustainable,” Yehia asserts.
The Vertical Harvest Farms model seeks to grow the equivalent of 40 acres on one quarter acre using 90 percent less water and 95 percent less fuel than traditional agriculture and hiring members of an underserved workforce (more than half the developmentally disabled in urban areas are unemployed) to deliver farm-to-fork product in 24 hours.
The incubator Jackson Hole greenhouse, billed as the first three-story vertical greenhouse in the Northern Hemisphere, now has four years of multi-crop growing expertise and replaces some 100,000 pounds of produce that formerly had to be trucked into the community.
The planned Maine facility will expand that initial ground footprint to four stories (78 feet high) with more than 70,000 square feet and the capability to grow a million pounds of produce. A local food distributor has already agreed to take all the produce, be it leafy or microgreen.
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“Other vertical farms have created a proprietary growing system and built their farm around a mission of disrupting Big Ag by raising a lot of money to grow that perfect head of lettuce,” says Yehia. “Our metrics are different. What we’ll do is benefit from that reservoir of knowledge, riding that wave of technology as it improves and using that technology to further empower our employees to do meaningful work.”