It's not an art installation; it's rotisserie lettuce plants, going around and around inside a vertical farm, in the middle of downtown Jackson, Wyoming. This little tenth-of-an-acre plot produces 100,000 pounds of produce a year.
Architect Nona Yehia is one of the founders of Vertical Harvest, which opened in 2016. She said, "Jackson has a four-month growing season, and so we really wanted to extend that. What we had was this plot of land, 30 feet wide by 150 feet long. So, we decided, 'Well, what if we go up? Could we make more food?'"
And not just lettuce: "There's snow outside on the mountain, and we're still producing tomatoes for our community," she told correspondent Martha Teichner.
And all kinds of microgreens, including samples for their edible flower program: "This is kind of a little bit of our Willy Wonka part of the tour where you never know what you're going to get!"
Vertical farming is possible because LED lighting has gotten cheaper and more efficient. The plants need very little water. They don't live in soil; they're fed solutions of nutrients, but practically no pesticides.
In 2010, when now-retired Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier wrote the book coining the phrase "vertical farms," they were all but non-existent. By 2026, vertical farming is expected to be a $10 billion-a-year industry worldwide.
Teichner asked, "What is the potential for vertical farms?"
"I think they can achieve 100% food coverage for urban populations," Despommier replied.
"Can vertical farms answer the need in food deserts?"
"Oh yes, absolutely. I mean, if there's no vertical farm there, put one there!"
Vertical Harvest has just broken ground on a much larger facility near Portland, Maine, the first of 10 in the planning stages for cities around the country.
Yehia said, "We're never going to replace traditional agriculture, but we sure can innovate to supplement it. And then, back to the idea of what local means, from farm to fork, we deliver our product within 24 hours."
So, instead of being trucked a thousand miles or so from Mexico or California, produce in Jackson, Wyoming takes a two-mile van ride to Whole Foods, where it gets pride of place.
Vertical Harvest has also redefined Jackson's notion of who can be a farmer. Nineteen of its 43 employees have mental or physical disabilities, including Tim McLaurin. "I found my dream job; we are champions here at the warehouse," said McLaurin, alongside his proud dad, who has watched his son thrive at Vertical Harvest.
Teichner asked another employee, Amanda McFarlane, who suffered a brain injury, "Why was it important for you to have this job?"
"It was so that I could actually feel appreciated," she replied. "Vertical Harvest is like a family."
At a new kind of family farm.
For more info:
- Vertical Harvest
- "The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century" by Dr. Dickson Despommier (Thomas Dunne Books), in Trade Paperback, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indiebound
- Nona Yehia, Gilday Yehia Architects
- Images from Jennifer Tennican's documentary "Hearts of Glass," courtesy of JenTen Productions
Story produced by Mary Lou Teel. Editor: Ed Givnish.
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