Wyoming women-entrepreneur-trio growing sustainable food and providing sustainable employment to the differently-abled all at once
Successful employment remains a critical issue for people with disabilities; only 1 in 3 people with disabilities are employed in the United States. Often, when people with disabilities are employed, it is in entry-level positions with little room for upward mobility. In Wyoming, there is a 78% unemployment rate for people with disabilities. Three women from Jackson, Wyoming set out to change this harsh reality by providing them with great prospects of employment plus allowing them to become an integral part of a sustainable future. Their company Vertical Harvest is an environment-friendly solution that aims to supplement traditional agriculture by developing a controlled indoor growing environment that saves space, water, and energy usage.
The birth of this company was a response to two essential needs in the city. The first was that city of Jackson had an extremely short 4-month growing season and imports the majority of its produce from outside Wyoming. Secondly, there is a 78% unemployment rate for people with different abilities in Wyoming. It was three women — Nona Yehia, Penny McBride, and Caroline Croft Estay that started this venture. In 2008, Penny McBride was working as a sustainability consultant in their community. She recognized the need to figure out a way to source local produce for their community and had started to think about locating a greenhouse in their town. Nona as an architect always believed that architecture can be a catalyst for social change. She had been designing a residential scale greenhouse that would last the Wyoming winter. Penny approached Nona to see if she could help her with her vision of creating a greenhouse that would work in Wyoming. This was the start of Vertical Harvest.
Since they didn’t have a site to set up their greenhouse due to federal laws, the search for a piece of property was a lengthy process. “We spoke to many stakeholders and vetted many ideas. It was during this search for a location that we met Caroline Croft Estay”, Nona adds. Caroline was working as a Wyoming Case Manager and provide for people with physical and intellectual disabilities. As the employment facilitator in Jackson, trying to find consistent, meaningful jobs for her clients was very difficult. She kept running into roadblocks trying to find meaningful work for her clients. When she heard about this project she thought that the greenhouse could address the issue of underemployment that she had been encountering.
“The idea of creating an inclusive workplace that included people with different abilities instantly resonated with me. I have a brother with intellectual disabilities and have come to understand that I have been acting as an advocate for his unseen abilities from a very early age. In our country, we are very good at providing an inclusive and supportive environment during education, but once it is time for employment, families are really on their own. We call it ‘falling off a cliff’. “says Nona The three co-founders saw the potential of Vertical Harvest to not only grow food but grow futures. They wanted to grow as much food as possible, provide as many meaningful jobs as possible, and do both year-round. Now Vertical Harvest has developed into a community impact model where Nona serves as the CEO and Caroline as the Director of Diversity and Inclusion.
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Vertical Harvest is in essence three greenhouses stacked on top of one another. Because of this, they can different microclimates within one building allowing them to grow a diverse portfolio of crops. On the first and second floors, they grow lettuce and microgreens and on the third floor, where it gets hottest, they grow vining crops. Vertical Harvest produces of 100,000lbs of produce all year round in the city of Jackson, growing five varieties of cherry tomatoes, six varieties of lettuce, and over 25 varieties of microgreens, which they sell directly to the consumer, to over 50 restaurants and 10 grocery stores throughout Wyoming and Montana. Their 13,500 square foot greenhouse utilizes the only 1/10th-acre site to grow an annual amount of produce equivalent to 10 acres of traditional farming. Vertical Harvest enables the community to grow to produce 365 days a year despite the difficulties posed by the harsh climate.
Furthermore, the Vertical Harvest team trains their employees through their Grow Well Model. This inclusive employment model focuses on fostering improvement through professional development through social interactions at work, and community impact. Often, people with disabilities are on the receiving end of volunteerism – and they have just as much desire to give back to the community. The Grow Well Employment Model tailors job development to each employee. Most employees with different abilities start their time at Vertical Harvest with job support, but the goal is for them to eventually be able to complete their job independently.
Vertical Farming is a nascent industry that is still growing. The Vertical Harvest team is pioneering an innovative method of farming that can provide one of the most important commodities to any community i.e. healthy, nutritious, and tasty food. Moreover, this initiative has the potential to solve some of our planet’s most pressing problems. The story of Vertical Harvest is about promoting inclusivity in our community and providing a sustainable future.
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