155 W Simpson Ave, Jackson, WY 83001
Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder: Nona Yehia
Director of Diversity and Inclusion: Caroline Croft Estay
“Cultivate Ability partnered with Vertical Harvest to create an integrated, naturally supported workplace that includes 23 individuals with a form of disability. The 13,5000 square foot greenhouse produces and sells locally grown, fresh vegetables year round. It utilizes a 1/10 acre site to grow an annual amount of produce equivalent to 10 acres of traditional farming”
Vertical Harvest of Jackson Hole responds to two significant needs in the community:
- Jackson has a 4 month growing season and imports the majority of its produce from outside Wyoming.
- There is a 78% unemployment rate for people with different abilities in Wyoming. This population deserves the opportunity to participate in the workforce, earn a competitive wage and contribute to their community in a meaningful way.
- Vertical Harvest of Jackson Hole sells locally grown, fresh vegetables year round–including tomatoes, lettuce, specialty greens, and microgreens– to Jackson area restaurants, grocery stores and directly to consumers through on-site sales. Vertical Harvest replaces 100,000 lbs of produce that is trucked or walked into the community each year.
- In collaboration with nonprofit organization Cultivate Ability Vertical Harvest produces jobs, internships and educational opportunities for people with different abilities. Wyoming suffers a 78% unemployment rate for people with disabilities (ages 18-64).
- This is even more of a challenge for people in rural communities searching for consistent, meaningful employment. In 2019, 74% of employees in Vertical Harvest’s Grow Well employment model advanced in their positions and 42% were cross trained in multiple departments! Vertical Harvest employees are proving that different abilities are an asset, and that an integrated workplace is good for business and good for our community.
- Vertical Harvest provides meaningful employment in a fully integrated workplace for over 20 local Wyoming residents with different abilities. This program is based on the tenets of Customized Employment and is designed to personalize the employment relationship between employee and an employer in a way that meets the needs of both.
I visited Vertical Harvest in Jackson, Wyoming in July, 2019. I stopped by on a Friday afternoon to admire the sleek corner building in downtown Jackson Hole, with the attractive colorful lights in the window. Other passersby stopped as well to watch the greens rotating and moving from low to high on a belt.
I returned with great excitement at the appointed time on Saturday afternoon for the free group tour which I had signed up for in advance on their website. The diverse tour group consisted of an architect from Brazil, a man from Texas and several interested families. The tour met in the gift shop, and began with intros by our guide– a gentleman spoke openly about his disabilities, and about how he always felt isolated in previous jobs. While he had a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, he also had social skills challenges and was always given “backroom, evening” bookkeeping jobs.
The tour began on the ground floor with an explanation of the carousel, a very large vertical piece of machinery which allows the various greens to rotate “vertically.” The environment—including temperature, CO2, and light are carefully controlled. There are window shades and an extensive exhaust system noticeable from where we stood at the start of the tour.
During the visit, I learned about the founding of the program and about some of the technical aspects involved in hydroponic farming. Caroline Croft Estay, the co-founder and current Director of Diversity and Inclusion, and Nona Yehia, co-founder and current Chief Executive Officer, founded the company with 2 focuses–growing year round food and providing jobs for people with different abilities. Nona had the idea and met Caroline in the early phase and as such, Caroline became a founder. The Greenhouse, developed a “sliver” of space at the corner of a parking garage in downtown Jackson, opened with the intended employment model.
Growing microgreens, tomatoes and other vegetables indoors is profitable. It is also a fairly new technology and process, and equipment purchased early on required servicing by technicians from Europe. At the present time, some machines are maintained by people with disabilities who have learned to operate and service the equipment.
Vertical Harvest has succeeded in addressing two challenges—finding jobs for people with disabilities, and growing produce locally (cutting down on transportation costs and environmental impact).
The tour ended in the gift shop, where a gregarious employee with disabilities thanked people for coming and offered samples of various flavorful microgreens.
- Sometimes it is possible to what at first seems impossible—find space to develop in Jackson, WY, grow lettuce indoors, create jobs for people with disabilities.
- Providing a person with a “good fitting job” can drastically improve self-esteem and even change the course of their life.
- Some people with disabilities are capable of performing jobs which would be considered difficult even for people without disabilities (i.e. maintenance and repair of the “vertical” lettuce rotating machines).