A conveyor belt design allows a three-story greenhouse to be efficient and sustainable which provides jobs and fresh produce to the Jackson community.
Jackson, Wyoming is a very unlikely place for urban farming. It has an altitude over a mile high and has snow that can last for most of the year. The growing season lasts only a few months. It is expensive to plant a garden since the average vacant lot can be well over $1 million.
The town is on its way to become one of the only in the world with a vertical farm. On a thin slice of vacant land next to a parking lot is a startup called Vertical Harvest. It broke ground on a new three-story stack of greenhouses that will be filled with crops such as micro greens and tomatoes.
“We’re replacing food that was being grown in Mexico or California and shipped in,” explains Penny McBride, one of the co-founders. “We feel like the community’s really ready for a project like this. Everybody’s so much more aware of the need to reduce transportation, and people like to know their farmer and where food’s coming from.”
The town owns the small plot of land as well as the building that houses the farm. It is part of a partnership. The founders spent five working with the city to implement the idea from a business model and showing how the building can support itself efficiently.
“One of the things the town of Jackson was concerned with was if we using more energy than if a tomatoes was trucked in here,” says Nona Yehia, the architect of the vertical farm and one of the company’s co-founders. Greenhouses generally use a lot of energy in a cold climate. This has to be included in the farm’s design.
Inside, the plants move throughout each greenhouse floor on a conveyor belt that the founders compare to a moving rack at a dry cleaner. As they rotate, each plant gets an equal amount of time in natural light on the south side of the building, saving energy in artificial lighting. On the top level, the system also pulls plants up to the ceiling, effectively creating an extra floor. The conveyor also brings each plant to workers who can transplant or harvest the crops.
The startup plans to employ workers with developmental disabilities who have few local options for a job. “We have a certain number of hours of work and divide it up based on ability, desire, and skill,” Yehia explains. “The job is developed based on how many hours someone wants to work and can work.”
In a year, the greenhouse should be able to crank out over 37,000 pounds of greens, 4,400 pounds of herbs, and 44,000 pounds of tomatoes [Note: this sentence originally listed all these measurements as tons, which is too many tomatoes. We regret the error]. The yields are high compared to traditional farming, because of the efficiencies of the farm’s hydroponic system. But it still will be only a fraction of the produce needed for the town, which has fewer than 10,000 residents but many more tourists.
“The demand is far greater than what we’ll be able to supply,” says McBride. The farm has already pre-sold its future crops to local restaurants, grocery stores, and a hospital. It’s a reminder of the fact that vertical farming, despite some advantages, would be a challenging way to try to feed many people in a larger city.
But on a small scale, it’s a way to add both local food and jobs. McBride and Yehia hope it will serve as a model for other communities, and may eventually expand themselves. It’s a business model that they’re convinced will work.
“It’s a feel-good story, which is why so many people were partnering with us from the beginning,” says Yehia. The team plans to open the farm early next year and will harvest the first crops a few months later.
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