The Case for Vertical Farming in Small-Town Wyoming

With harsh winters and a remote location, Jackson, Wyoming, has been unusually dependent on food trucked in from far away. Here’s how one company hopes to change that.

Known for its skiing and beautiful scenery, Jackson, Wyoming, experiences harsh winters in which temperatures remain below freezing—or below zero—for weeks at a time. The area’s lowest point sits 6,069 feet above sea level.

In other words, conditions in Jackson are not ideal for agriculture. But thanks to a team of local innovators, the town will soon enjoy high-quality local produce. How? A vertical greenhouse.

Vertical Harvest of Jackson Hole will be a three-story, 13,500-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse. It is situated on a skinny, leftover parcel of public land, 150 feet long by just 30 feet wide, next to a parking garage. The greenhouse will operate year-round and grow as much produce annually as would come from five acres of traditional agriculture. Ninety-five percent of Vertical Harvest’s eventual production is already under pre-purchase agreements with local restaurants and grocery stores.

 

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In his book The Vertical Farm, and in a number of TED talks and TV appearances, ecologist Dickson Despommier has proposed vertical greenhouses on a massive scale. He envisions high-rise buildings that would grow different crops on every level and serve major metropolitan areas. That idea remains mostly a conceptual one, but there are some vertical farms already in operation. Most of these are several stories tall but grow in one big, open space, as opposed to segregated floors. The plants in these greenhouses are situated on vertically revolving carousels to bring high-up plants down to the workers’ level for harvesting and care.

According to co-founder and architect Nona Yehia, whose firm E/Ye Design developed the architectural vision for the project, Vertical Harvest is unique in that it combines these two approaches to vertical farming. It is essentially three greenhouses stacked on top of one another. Each of the separate levels will grow different crops, with the first two floors looking more like traditional, single-level greenhouses. The top and tallest level will be akin to the other existing vertical farms. It will use rotating carousels to move the plants, effectively adding a fourth floor.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, of which the Jackson Hole valley is part, is one of the earth’s most intact remaining ecosystems. In that regard, Jackson Hole is an environmentalist’s paradise. But because locally grown produce is scarce, most fruits and vegetables are trucked in from afar. That is not only unsustainable, but impractical in a valley surrounded by mountains that receive an average of more than 400 inches of snow annually. However, environmental sustainability is only part of Vertical Harvest’s mission. Even before it had a location or design, a key aim was to provide meaningful employment for local people with developmental disabilities. In Wyoming, their unemployment rate is 78 percent.

Land is a particularly salient issue in Jackson Hole, where land comes at a premium. Ninety-seven percent of the land in Teton County, which encompasses the town of Jackson, is federally owned and protected. This includes Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Bridger-Teton National Forest.

The scarcity of available land, combined with Jackson’s popularity as a vacation destination, drives up prices. The average sale price of vacant land in 2014 was $1,160,000, according to Jackson Hole Real Estate Associates. Only three lots out of the nine available within the town of Jackson are listed for less than $500,000. Vertical Harvest used a combination of grants and funds raised from the community to conduct a feasibility study and secure a greenhouse engineer, Thomas Larssen. Larssen has built profitable greenhouses in places far more extreme than Jackson, like Siberia and Greenland. With his expertise, they were able to fine-tune crucial details. They also hired a third-party firm to conduct an energy study, and it verified Larssen’s projections.

Another challenge, even for Larssen, was that the town of Jackson lies within an area of high seismic risk. The need for a steel super-structure drove the budget up to $3.7 million.

The greenhouse under construction (Vertical Harvest)

The founders hope Vertical Harvest will be a national demonstration project. If a vertical greenhouse can be commercially viable even under these conditions, it will conceivably be far easier to implement in other parts of the country.

Vertical Harvest broke ground in December and expects to be up and running by early 2016. Thanks to the efficiency of the hydroponic growing method, which requires no soil and uses 90 percent less water than traditional farming, the first crop of tomatoes, herbs, microgreens, and more produce should be ready to eat within two months of opening.

 

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