Winters in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, are long, and the growing season is short. A head of lettuce travels an average of 2,000 miles to get there, often arriving shriveled and tasteless. This video tells the story of architect Nona Yehia, who thought there must be a better way for residents to get fresh produce. But when she wanted to turn a sliver of town land into a “vertical” farm, many were skeptical. It took her seven hard years of researching, fundraising and persuading local politicians, and in 2016, Vertical Harvest finally opened – the first vertical farm in the northern hemisphere. Today, the farm produces lettuces, tomatoes, microgreens and more, supplying restaurants, shops and the community with hyper-local, super fresh produce, no matter the weather outside.
Nona Yehia, Vertical Harvest – “Farming the Sky” Picture Lock
PIX: Establishing shots of Vertical Harvest exterior and farm; restaurants using their lettuce; Nona entering Vertical Harvest building.
Nona: We can take away a lot of the pressures that exist right now in traditional farming. We can create the perfect environment that the crop needs to grow.
Nona: These are the most pampered plants you'll ever meet. And we can get this food at the peak of its nutritional and taste value to people, from farm to fork within 24 hours.
L/T: Nona Yehia – CEO – Vertical Harvest Farms
Nona: The way a head of lettuce gets to your and my plates is it travels, on average, 2,000 miles. So by the time it gets to our forks, it's depleted of its nutritional value, and it really doesn't taste like anything.
PIX: Nona driving in Jackson Hole; photos of Penny and Caroline; Nona walking through Vertical Harvest building.
TEXT: Nona is an architect in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
TEXT: In 2009, she met Penny McBride, a sustainability consultant
TEXT: and Caroline Estay, who helps people with disabilities find jobs.
TEXT: They wanted to build a greenhouse that would supply fresh produce year-round for the town.
Nona: Caroline, she was looking for consistent, meaningful work for her clients. She said, “Hey, if we get this off the ground, would you employ my clients?” Obviously, that resonated for me in a big way.
PIX: Photos of Nona’s brother Nabil.
TEXT: Nona’s brother, Nabil, was born with serious developmental issues.
Nona: My brother defined our lives in so many different ways. He was always going to need us and we were always going to need him. I was an advocate before I even knew what the word meant.
PIX: Stills of early construction site; Nona observing lettuce ladders.
TEXT: The women found a small lot downtown.
TEXT: It was just 30 feet wide by 150 feet long.
Nona: When we looked at that sliver of land, we really did scratch our heads. We said, “What could happen here?” That's really where the idea to go up came from.
PIX: Nona in microgreen farm.
Nona: We packed as much as we can into this space. So there's 5,000 square feet of growing area within this one room.
PIX: Construction stills.
Nona: Here we were, three women, not from Wyoming, who wanted to be farmers, and none of us were farmers! Yeah, I think there was a healthy skepticism that was in the community.
PIX: Bin 22 restaurant exterior; diners enjoying meals inside; Nona speaking to owner Gavin and chef Luis.
TEXT: For 7 years, Nona worked to win the support of local politicians, investors and restaurant owners.
Nona: It is a good conference room.
L/T: Gavin Fine – Owner – Bin 22
Gavin: I can kind of remember somewhat saying, “That sounds fucking cool—pardon me—but how the hell are you going to do that? Where are you going to do that?” Or, “How is that going to happen? How do we do that?” And you’re like, “Let me come back to you in a little bit of time.”
Nona: We needed the town in order to access the public money that we were targeting. The first meeting didn't go so well, but I said, “Let's have another one,” and we continued. We worked on it. They listened to me. I listened to them. And we won by one vote.
PIX: Snowy view of Jackson Hole; still of opening day at Vertical Harvest.
TEXT: Vertical Harvest finally opened in 2016 — the first vertical farm in the Northern Hemisphere.
PIX: Nona visits employee Johnny, who is seeding a tray.
Johnny: I’ve been here since it opened.
Nona: What are you seeding right now, Johnny?
Johnny: I'm seeding Toscano.
PIX: Nona in farm explaining irrigation system.
Nona: We are able to feed the plants through an irrigation system. So you can see on the end here, that's where our water comes through. And these, all of these trays are slightly canted so that the water just comes through using gravity, and it feeds all of these pampered plants. Right? Exactly what they need to grow.
PIX: Shots of employees packing and tending to plants; shots of lettuce farms.
TEXT: The farm grows 100,000 pounds of produce a year in a perfectly controlled environment, without pesticides.
Nona: So you're creating the right temperature, the right humidity, the right nutrients, and really allowing for a crop to just concentrate on growing. Their only job is to be as nutrient-dense and as tasty as they can be.
PIX: Nona chatting with employees at a large table, the different parts of the farm
Nona: We grow lettuce heads, we grow baby greens and microgreens. Microgreens are greens that have just sprouted their leaves. Micro basil, micro arugula, micro wasabi; really, the sky is the limit.
TEXT: Microgreens have 40 times the nutritional value of the full grown plant.
PIX: Nona speaking to Luis at Bin 22.
Nona: Nobody had really heard about micro greens except for the chefs, right?
L/T: Chef Luis Hernandez
Chef Luis: One of my favorite products was the popcorn shoots.
Chef Luis: I really liked, like, the sweetness and crunchy.
PIX: Nona visits the chopping and packaging floor and speaks to manager Robin.
Nona: So how many, how many sheets are you able to process an hour now?
L/T: Robin Van Houten
Robin: That's a great question. I mean, we are doing a few hundred per day, and getting done by 1 o’clock. So it’s not quite 100 per hour, but it’s approaching that.
TEXT: 17 people with disabilities have steady jobs at the farm.
PIX: Nona talking with employees.
Nona: We learned how to grow together. Our biggest challenge has been the pandemic. Understanding how to grow while protecting our employees, who are very vulnerable. People with disabilities have been shown to be more vulnerable to Covid.
PIX: Employees packing and shipping plants.
TEXT: The employees were considered essential workers.
TEXT: The company’s schedules allowed for social distancing and the farm remained open.
PIX: Nona observing lettuce farm.
Nona: So over there you can see our little robot that measures the humidity and the temperature within the growing environment and that interacts with the whole computer system of the farm. So the misting will go off every 2 to 5 minutes to keep the humidity level correct for the plants that we're growing here.
PIX: Mountain and river scenery shots.
Nona: Energy issue is really one of the main criticisms of vertical farming, and we've addressed that in multiple ways. As the grid gets greener so are we. As we expand, we're looking at partnerships with renewable solar farms, wind farms, but we're offsetting so many other things. The food miles, the runoff, the damage to our water systems; the fact that in the drought that we're in right now, 90% of the lettuce that we all consume is vulnerable right now and might not even be able to make it to shelves.
PIX: Stills of Maine construction site; Jackson Hole site.
TEXT: Vertical Harvest has broken ground on a much larger farm in Maine.
TEXT: It is slated to open in 2023.
Nona: Our farm here in Jackson Hole is really like our lab. People want to know who's growing their food. Our farms are beautiful buildings that you can see in and understand how we're farming, why we're farming, and who is farming.
Sue: It's the end of family farm?
Nona: I think it's the new kind of family farm!