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September 30, 2014
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Rising Roots

No space? No problem! Jackson visionaries eye vertical farming

Growing vegetables can be a Herculean task in Jackson Hole. There’s little room for planting—only three percent of land in Teton County, Wyoming, is open to human development, with the rest set aside as national park, forest, and wildlife refuge. What’s more, the extreme climate and four-month growing season (when we’re lucky) can stymie even the most seasoned gardeners. Advocates seeking to create a space for community gardening face the same daunting issues.

  Knowing that building a community garden here would be a challenge, supporters didn’t ditch the idea after their hunt for land yielded little more than a strip of dirt 25 feet wide by 150 feet long. Instead, they embraced the unused town property bordering the south side of the new, three-story concrete parking garage.

“We said, ‘Well if this is the site that we have to work with, why don’t we develop a vertical greenhouse?’” recalls Jackson architect Nona Yehia, a partner in E/Ye Design of Jackson and New York.

That seemingly simple choice has propelled what sprouted as a grassroots initiative to the forefront of a national movement toward “vertical farming” and “re-localizing food.” The idea is to bring the farm to the city—the produce to the consumer—by designing vertical farms that, rather than sprawling horizontally, rise like skyscrapers, making it possible to fit farming into tight quarters. Vertical farming is getting attention from the likes of English musician and activist Sting, who with his manager has reportedly purchased the film rights to Dickson Despommier’s book, The Vertical Farm: Feeding Ourselves in the 21st Century, due out in October.

Now, Jackson Hole, a community in the heart of a western state known for vast open spaces, is helping to pioneer an urban vision for how to grow food in America’s cities.

“It’s a pretty big wave right now,” said Sally Yocum, a project proponent. “The face of agriculture is changing, and people, like me, want more choices and control in the foods they feed their families.”

The idea also grew out of efforts to make Jackson Hole more sustainable. Project coordinator Penny McBride first started looking for greenhouse space while working on another initiative to compost yard and food waste into soil, instead of sending it to the landfill. A town councilor suggested the downtown location for a greenhouse that could potentially take the composted soil. Given the central location, McBride decided a traditional “hoop house” style structure would not do and approached Yehia about designing something more aesthetic and innovative.

“Instantly, we were both just on fire about the project,” McBride said.

Jackson Whole Grocer owner Bob Arndt also signed on to the project, now called Vertical Harvest of Jackson Hole, by agreeing to sell produce grown in the greenhouse. Just in the past year, the grocery store has doubled its local produce sales, now 5 percent of total produce sold, up from 2.5 percent the previous year, says Steve Michel, Director of Sustainability for the grocery store.

The goal of the greenhouse would be to add to—but not compete with—what local farmers already produce, said Michel, who also serves on the board of the nonprofit Slow Food in the Tetons, another project partner.

But the project is about more than food. Supporters want to build an innovative design that is economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable. While looking for greenhouse space, McBride was also approached about finding more interesting, meaningful jobs for adults with developmental disabilities. If Vertical Harvest comes to fruition, it would generate a dozen or so green jobs for disabled workers, McBride says.

Yocum’s daughter, Mycah Miller, 27, who has Down Syndrome, is already volunteering, helping design the Vertical Harvest website and thank-you cards for supporters.

“They are truly an under-represented workforce,” said Yocum, who has trained in workforce placement for developmentally disabled workers. “They are very dedicated, and trustworthy, and hard workers.”

 

 

Often the biggest stumbling blocks to securing employment, Yocum says, are the extra time it takes to train an individual and customizing a job description to fit their skills. The greenhouse might serve as a model for how to effectively hire and train employees—a workforce model that could be expanded to the whole community, she says.

The greenhouse design will strive for maximum accessibility. For example, entrance ramps could serve everyone from someone in a wheelchair to a mom with a stroller, Yocum says.

This summer, Vertical Harvest was a runner-up, one of three chosen, in a national competition sponsored by Green America. The effort has secured $30,000 (as of press time) in grants from the Wyoming Business Council, 1% for the Tetons, and others, to help fund a feasibility study, which will cost an estimated $75,000. The study will generate a preliminary design with estimates for construction costs, crop yields, and employment potential, to determine the project’s economic viability.

The study will also explore cutting-edge systems for energy (solar, biofuel, and geothermal) and growing systems (hydroponics and aeroponics). The aim is to produce organic, chemical-free crops with less energy and water than if grown traditionally. Some seedlings, however, could be started in the greenhouse and then transplanted to fields. Vertical Harvest also could serve as a classroom where local students would learn about topics ranging from sustainable design to food nutrition to renewable energy.

Yehia’s firm is leading the feasibility study with help from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Architecture Science and Ecology (CASE) in New York City, where Jefferson Ellinger, her business partner, teaches.

“They [CASE] see it as an opportunity to do something that is truly sustainable and make it really interesting and innovative architecturally,” Yehia said.

Although the idea has been brewing in the green movement for a while, few vertical farms have been built.

Said Yocum: “We are probably the only small town that’s really considering it.”

What the project will look like, how much it will cost, and how it will be funded all remain to be seen. Preliminary designs are expected to be finished in November.

“It’s hard for people to put their money toward something that hasn’t been done before,” McBride says. But, she adds, quickly: “It all seems so possible.”

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