Behind the Glass
Growing with hydroponic farmer Sean Stone at Vertical Harvest.
JACKSON HOLE, WY – The sun has barely risen and Sean Stone is already working away at Vertical Harvest, the hypdroponic greenhouse built on the side of a parking garage in downtown Jackson. Stone checks in with head grower Tim Schutz, climbs the stairs to the second level of the three-story farm, and immediately gets to work checking some seedlings. When he’s told I’ll be shadowing him, he takes it all in stride. “Come on,” Stone said, “we’ll check on the water levels first.”
Stone is one of a dozen or so farmers with intellectual disabilities employed by Vertical Harvest. Before working as a farmer, he says, Stone washed dishes in a local kitchen, and held numerous other jobs in the valley since moving here from Pocatello after high school in 1992. “It’s really calm here,” he says. “It’s not stressful at all. In a kitchen, someone is always yelling at you, telling you the silverware is not clean.” Stone works full time planting, caring for, and harvesting crops.
When Stone’s supervisor arrives, he checks in with her to discuss his work orders for the day. This morning’s objective: Pull some straggling plants and figure out why they aren’t growing. As he plucks a few rows of seedlings from the rotating growing carousel, he shakes his head. “I don’t know why these aren’t growing very good. It’s usually all about the nutrition in the water,” he says.
Growing up spending time on his uncle’s farm, Stone says growing things comes naturally to him. He feels at home in the greenhouse, taking care of the plants. When asked what he likes about being a farmer, Stone lights up with enthusiasm. “I love growing stuff, and getting dirty,” he says, “and wet,” he laughs, as the sprinkler system suddenly douses us both from the side.
Stone particularly enjoys making deliveries to restaurants and grocery stores around town. Every Tuesday and Friday, he loads up the Vertical Harvest van and delivers produce all over the valley—from the Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis Club, up to Amangani, out to the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, and a dozen restaurants and grocery stores in between. “I know it’s an important job, to be the person who delivers the food.”
Caroline Croft Estay, Vertical Harvest’s director of human resources has watched Stone grow into his role as a farmer. “He is a multi-talented task man who literally runs his department, and helps manage other employees, all with a big smile on his face,” Croft says. “If he had stayed working as a dishwasher, he may have never been given the chance for these talents to come to light.”
Later in the day Stone works with Jackson Hole High School senior Brayden Gaston, flush out the growing carousel and scrub it down. Gaston is working at Vertical Harvest for the summer as part of the greenhouse’s integrated employment model. He enjoys working side-by-side with adults with disabilities. “But honestly,” Gaston says, “I just love everything about this job.”
Stone admits that being a hydroponic farmer has its own unique challenges. “You have to have the exact right nutrition in the water,” he explains. Also, it’s warm in the greenhouse so Stone always carries a water bottle with him as he works. “We harvest tomatoes in the morning because otherwise it’s too hot. It’s easy to get dehydrated working here.” And he misses his view of Snow King, he says, as he looks out at the construction across the street. “But that’s OK,” Stone notes of the hotel slated for next store, “they’ll have a great view from their roof.”
As for the future, Stone is happy right where he is. “I will be here until I retire. It’s a good job. The employees are fun; we always laugh and tease each other. I know some people would love to have my job. When I go on vacation, they fight over who gets to drive the truck.” PJH