Vertical Harvest: Cultivating Food, Futures, & Social Impact
August 14, 2023
The average US produce travels thousands of miles from farm to plate, contributing to environmental challenges and food insecurity.
Vertical Harvest, a pioneering commercial-scale greenhouse company, aims to revolutionize the agricultural landscape by growing food for communities, by communities, and fostering brighter futures for those who live within them.
Conceived in 2010 and founded in 2016 by CEO and modern urban agriculture pioneer Nona Yehia and co-founder Caroline Croft Estay (now Chief Potential Officer), Vertical Harvest is at the forefront of climate action, food security, economic sustainability, and equitable employment.
At the heart of Vertical Harvest’s philosophy lies the belief that urban communities can grow not just food but also a means to a better, more healthful, more economically sustainable, and more equitable tomorrow, says Yehia. The company’s innovative approach involves harnessing hydroponic, vertical, controlled environmental agriculture (CEA) to produce more nutritious and hardy food year-round while addressing social impact, economic inclusivity, and climate concerns.
Says Yehia, the company strives to energize local food systems, working closely with communities to repurpose underutilized urban spaces in underserved neighborhoods.
Eliminating the endless journey
“Food travels up to twenty-five hundred miles to your plate, and ninety-five percent of leafy greens come from California and Arizona. We need to reimagine the way we produce and consume food” for all the people who live outside that area, says Yehia.
One of the most significant advantages of Vertical Harvest’s approach is its ability to grow food “up,” using a fraction of the land required by traditional agriculture. Furthermore, its hydroponic system uses a staggering 85 percent less water while delivering produce at its peak flavor and nutrition — year-round. By embracing these sustainable methods, Yehia argues, the company is spearheading a crucial paradigm shift in the world of agriculture.
“We believe in growing food and futures in urban communities, bringing fresh produce closer to the people, while reducing our ecological footprint. Vertical Harvest is more than just a greenhouse; it’s a catalyst for change,” Nona adds.
That catalyst finds a home in the form of a three-story, glass-encased greenhouse located in the heart of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. While the exact yield is uncertain, this groundbreaking facility has likely produced around 100,000 pounds of fresh produce annually. The greenhouse’s location in the middle of the town allows for easy access to the local market, further enhancing the company’s commitment to local food security and accessibility.
“Our greenhouse in Jackson Hole is the result of years of dedication and passion for local food. It has been a labor of love, and we are proud to be part of the community,” Nona shares.
Vertical Harvest is not content to stop in the Rockies. It has broken ground on a second location in Westbrook, Maine, which is slated to become operational soon. At this new facility, the company plans to provide an impressive 2M pounds of produce a year, significantly expanding its impact on the local food supply.
“We see tremendous potential in scaling our operations to different regions. By establishing new greenhouses in urban centers across the country, we can create a network of food hubs that foster food security and sustainability,” Nona explains.
Vertical Harvest prides itself on prioritizing both social impact and profitability. It achieves this by leveraging a mix of public and private partnerships, and operating with a customized, inclusive employment model. The company focuses on providing meaningful jobs for people with physical and/or intellectual disabilities, promoting diversity and economic inclusivity within its workforce.
“Our goal is to empower individuals from all walks of life, providing them with the tools and resources to grow their potential, just like we grow our produce,” Yehia asserts.
“Furthering equity is where we really think hydroponic growing will mean something to people. It’ll mean something to our families, our communities, and our neighborhoods,” she emphasizes.
Yehia’s passion for local food and her experiences growing up with a brother with developmental disabilities have deeply influenced her work with Vertical Harvest. As the principal of GYDE Architects, also based in Jackson, Wyoming, she has cultivated expertise in designing and implementing innovative systems that position Vertical Harvest for nationwide expansion. Her architectural expertise is a major reason the Jackson Hole’s facility’s design is not only efficiently functional but also aesthetically pleasing, seamlessly integrated into the urban landscape.
The future is vertical
Vertical Harvest’s vision extends beyond just greenhouse farming; it is about transforming communities through food, accessibility, and inclusivity. By operating at the intersection of climate action, food accessibility, and economic inclusivity, says Yehia, Vertical Harvest is using food as “a powerful medium for change.”
“We believe that food should not only nourish our bodies but also nurture our communities and create opportunities for all,” she says.
That’s the definition of sustainable agriculture at the core of Vertical Harvest’s purpose. An agriculture that truly nurtures nutrition, social impact, and community futures. Especially in urban communities, where citizens can embrace a greener and more inclusive way of life, and where food becomes a force for positive change.
In that world, all are welcome, but all must take some responsibility, Yehia argues. “I think that, number one, you have to educate yourself about the profound opportunity [afforded by vertical farming]. I think at the local level it starts with being informed and then finding solutions that you align with, and educating others about it.
“That’s been the power of our story so far. The word of mouth has been really profound. And then on the top-down level, I think it’s creating. We’ve been incredibly nimble. But how do we access resources to enable scaling at the pace that the problem demands …? This is a real existential threat, and [the world] seems to be slow in responding.”
Vertical Harvest stands as a testament to the immense passion and potential of urban farming in shaping a more sustainable and equitable world.
If you’d like to dive deeper with more purpose-led companies like Vertical Harvest, check out the Lead with We podcast here, so that you too can build a company that transforms consumer behavior and our future.