New McDonald’s farm

By on September 10, 2014

An indoor greenhouse grows up in cold country and will grow more than food.

 

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Jackson, Wyoming – Like practically all things futuristic, someone had the idea way back before we put a man on the moon (the term “vertical farming” was coined in 1951). In fact, if you count the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, agronomists have been growing up since the dawn of civilization. But is Jackson Hole a sophisticated enough place to produce high-rise hominy and, more importantly, is it warm enough?

With funding and final plan approval finally nearing an end stage, executive director Penny McBride is eager to break ground on a farm that will have no dirt. Vertical Harvest is the future, after all. The sun? Replaced. Pests? Gone. The old John Deere? Artifact.

The model has been done in so few places, McBride had to rely on half mentor, half make-believe to make a dream take root. Originally, McBride hoped to close the physical and sociological gap between farm and fork. “I’ve always been interested in growing locally. I never thought it would turn out to be a three-story greenhouse,” she says. Becoming a pioneer in the field of hydroponics was just another row to hoe.

“A lot of what we want to do is educate people about where their food comes from,” McBride says. “While this is not traditional farming in many ways, we hope this doesn’t decrease the value of that. We want to show people what it’s like to grow your own food. You can’t emphasize enough these days, whether it’s locally farmed cattle or produce, the importance of giving food a different value than it’s had. It’s important for people to be able to see their food and appreciate what it brings to us all. Knowing it was grown in the community and helps our local economy, and supports local businesses, and employs local people, is all immensely important.”

The seeding

 

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(From left to right), Vertical Harvest board member Anna Olson, employment facilitator Caroline Croft Estay, Mayor Mark Barron, State Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff and co-founders Penny McBride and Nona Yehia, pose Saturday where Vertical Harvest wants to build a three-story greenhouse on the side of a parking garage in downtown Jackson Hole. Photo: Leah Millis/Star-Tribune.

 

McBride befriended Wendie Blanchard while studying a successful vertical greenhouse operation in New Jersey. Blanchard sparked McBride’s interest in staffing her Jackson Hole greenhouse with developmentally disabled workers. It was a missing piece of the puzzle, and a key component in securing a $1.5 million dollar grant from the state in May 2013. Suddenly, an ambitious pipe dream of a project attached to a forgotten piece of leftover town land was that much closer to harvest.
“I learned so much more about the stats of this workforce, citizens with disabilities, and how Governor Mead is really focusing on this integrated employment. It’s perfect timing and just so happens he has a new initiative and this is one of his goals,” McBride said.

Thanks to groundwork laid by the Wyoming Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities and a popular House Bill passed last budget session, the push is on statewide to better utilize the developmentally disabled workforce.
Mead told Jackson Hole radio last year, “I had a lot of questions. When they first talked to me I said I wasn’t in favor of it, but I kept at it and they kept with me and my vote was to support it, and we look forward to their success.”
It’s not what McBride was thinking, but she’s glad the side-benefit of Jackson Hole’s new greenhouse will have a positive impact outside of growing greens.

“It was just a greenhouse from the start. I had been doing some consulting years ago and looking at heating greenhouses with biomass, locally,” McBride says. “Then I got a call from a case manager that was looking for some meaningful employment for her clients: citizens with disabilities. I really didn’t know if there were any models out there of greenhouses employing the developmentally disabled.”

McBride wants to make clear the hiring of individuals with disabilities is not a gimmick. The Wyoming Business Council was attracted to the notion of tapping an underutilized workforce and there’s the governor’s initiative and all, but integrated employment is serious business for Vertical Harvest.

“In Jackson, we are lucky because we have strong support groups like CES,” McBride points out. “We want to emphasize our employment model. We will attempt to have citizens with disabilities working side by side with able-bodied workers. We’ve actually started some training already. The goal is for as much participation and input from the developmentally disabled as we can get. This will not be a sheltered workshop. It’s a greenhouse, not any different than any other greenhouse. We call it ‘customized employment.’ It will be a challenge for us because we need to keep up a certain level of production.”

Cultivating a crop

 

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Penny McBride visiting Koppert Cress greenhouses on Long Island. Photo: Vertical Harvest.

 

The employment aspect of hiring an underemployed workforce sector is daunting in its own right. What about growing vegetables on the third floor of a glass house in the dead of a Jackson Hole winter? How can this possibly work without panhandling at Old Bill’s every September?

“One of the things that I constantly remember talking to Thomas [Larssen, greenhouse engineer for VH] about was how we are not going to be a business that needs to go out for donations every year. We need to be a sustainable, operational business year after year,” McBride said. “It’s been a challenge for us from the start.”
“Should we be a nonprofit, low-profit? L3C is what we went with, just for our investors. We wanted them to know we intend to be a normal functioning business, but maybe not as profitable as we could be because we do have this unique employment function.”

McBride has investors to answer to, patient and understanding though they may be. Vertical Harvest is also owned by the Town of Jackson and must fork over $5,000 a month in revenue recapture fees to the town as part of the WBC grant.
How will the hothouse pencil? McBride has heard this over and over. Skeptics say vertical farming sounds fruitful in a prospectus, but spoils on the balance sheet. Recreating the sun’s warming rays and role in photosynthesis is expensive. The heat and light bill for a greenhouse can easily negate any savings gained by eliminating transportation, weather and pest-related crop loss, spoilage.

And how “green” are greenhouses, anyway? Some indoor farms burn massive amounts of fossil fuels just to enrich the air with carbon dioxide – which Democrats and tree-huggers hate, but plants love. For every benefit of vertical farming, there seems to be a downside.

But the benefits and the need are there. Imagine an indoor garden the size of a small conference room producing as much food as a 15-acre farm. The controlled environment in greenhouse farming creates higher yields. Way higher. And that’s with water recycling and all-organic growing. There’s no need for pesticides.

“It’s a controlled agriculture system we are growing in. There are not the threats that field-based plants would have to contend with like pests and weather, things the natural environment would bring. We can control temperature, lighting, the amount of nutrients. All those things will result in a product that can grow a little bit faster with not as much loss. We realize there is still seasonality. When it’s colder outside we will have to adjust for that. But, overall, it’s just a friendlier environment for the plants.”

Vertical Harvest organizers did their due diligence. Their greenhouse engineer, Thomas Larssen, ran some preliminary numbers that proved a greenhouse in Jackson could work. A further study conducted as a prerequisite for a loan obtained from the county’s Energy Conservation Works also yielded positive results.

“[ECW] did analysis of the entire greenhouse and all the projected energy use. The result was that Thomas Larssen’s projections were pretty much spot on,” McBride said. “You would think it would be an energy hog, being a big glass house, but through smart heating methods, water recapture, lights giving off heat, a thermal curtain keeping that heat, we’ve been able to utilize all these sophisticated greenhouse control systems by companies in Europe that have been using them for a long time. It’s not as crazy as you might think.”

One thing working in VH’s favor is the relatively small footprint. There isn’t as much floor space to heat and heat rises.

The future of food?

With world populations expected to increase by 3 billion people, and 80 percent of them living in or near urban centers, some system of compact, indoor food production sounds more real than radical.

McBride has found blazing the trail is arduous but she knows the unique design of the three-story greenhouse adjacent to the town’s parking garage will put Jackson Hole on the map.

“I think there always will be field farming. I don’t think it will ever go away,” McBride says. But the need for local produce that is year-round is ideal for a community as isolated as ours. Vertical farming is in its innovative phase and it will represent Jackson Hole as being leaders in not just scientific innovation, but social integration. This project will display Jackson Hole as not just a simple mountain community, but as a place that is home to broadminded people who can think of things in a different context, outside the box.”

VH food will have no trouble finding a market. The valley’s notoriously brief growing season covers frost to frost seasons quicker than boll weevils can chew up an acre of alfalfa. From locavores to local restaurants, buyers are lining up with promises to purchase fresh, safe, locally grown fruits and veggies.

“We’ve worked hard at that,” McBride said. “We had some early conversations and everybody said, ‘Oh yeah, we’re interested.’ Just to make sure, we went back to them recently and spent a lot of time looking at their current purchasing needs. For instance, what variety of lettuces do they want and how much would they buy? We’ve spent a lot of time to sort of drill down.”
McBride knows she is on the right track. Where she used to spend most of her time making calls to get answers, she now fields them from other communities asking how she did this or that.

“It’s taxing sometimes,” McBride says. “I don’t have time to help them all. We created a FAQ but for now they’ll just have to wait until we are up and running and come see us. It’s exciting and I can’t wait to get online with this.”

 

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About Jake Nichols

Jake is a work in progress.

2 Comments

  1. Sallty

    September 13, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    Like the Center for the Arts, this will be a constant drain on taxpayers wallets and private donors.

  2. pete

    September 17, 2014 at 7:01 pm

    This will be most expensive, energy demanding, and complicated green house system known. Complicated systems have a tendency to fail big. This has more in common with factory chicken farming. Growing plants in a stew of chemicals is hardly organic. How do you get rid of the humidity with out losing your heat. funguses and viruses will love this place. floors in greenhouses make no sense, they block out the sun. the artificial lights will rival Snow Kings night skiing. Hopefully the CES kids don’t sign away their photographic rights because this will be advertised on their backs. Function following format its worse. How long do individual tomato plants produce for? about a month, then you have to replace the plant. 3.2 Million for a greenhouse!!!!!!!! the engineers and architects are giggling. no wonder Barron is leaving.

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