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The Wyoming soil, iced over for eight months of the year, is not particularly hospitable to heirloom tomatoes, baby basil or lettuce plants. Instead, vegetables are trucked in from California, Mexico and other more fecund parts of the world. Yet starting this spring, Vertical Harvest, a farm in the resort town of Jackson, will begin churning out a projected 100,000 pounds of fresh produce a year.
Vertical Harvest uses hydroponic farming methods inside a three-story greenhouse on a 4,500-square-foot downtown lot. It is engaging in a relatively new practice called vertical farming.
The company employs 15 people who have conditions such as Down syndrome, autism, seizure disorders and spina bifida; they share 140 hours of work a week under a customized employment model. Vertical Harvest is a public-private partnership with the town of Jackson and it uses a low-profit business model, which means its investors will see a modest profit and it won’t come quickly.
“We’ve been calling it patient capital,” says Penny McBride, a company founder and its chief operating officer.
The farm began growing tomatoes in December and lettuce and herbs in February. By early May, Vertical Harvest’s greenhouse will be fully planted and producing greens. It will distribute them to restaurants and sell them at local grocery stores and in a retail market, inside the greenhouse, which opened this month.
The idea for Vertical Harvest came roughly eight years ago, around the time Ms. McBride and Nona Yehia met at a party in Jackson. Ms. McBride was a consultant working on a food-waste study and a commercial composting start-up, among other projects, and Ms. Yehia was an architect at the local firm E/Ye Architects who had recently designed a public rock climbing park and a private greenhouse that could withstand the harsh Wyoming winters.
The women were aware of the rising demand for high-quality, locally grown produce. Spurred by the organic and farm-to-table culinary movements, droves of professional chefs and home cooks had begun searching out better produce. […]