Making Jackson Grow In Winter With Nona Yehia – Future of Food Podcast

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Lee: [00:00:04] It’s The Future of Food. I’m Lee Schneider.

Nona Yehia: [00:00:06] Food and the quality of that food is an answer to so many problems. It can be an answer to some of our global warming issues, to our sustainability issues that might plague us in the future, to preventative health, to wellness, and to bringing communities together.

Lee: [00:00:24] Nona Yehia is an architect, visionary and vertical farmer in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Together with her co-founder, Penny McBride, she founded Vertical Harvest. This is a farm that has transformed the growing season in Jackson Hole, which is usually just four months long. They took a plot of land downtown and went vertical. Nona, welcome to the podcast.

Nona: [00:00:45] Thanks, Lee. So happy to be here.

Lee: [00:00:48] You got funding for, designed and built a three-story hydroponic farm in downtown Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It’s on a site that is just one tenth of an acre, which is probably one reason you went up. How did you get started with this project?

Nona: [00:01:03] When we started thinking about this project, I think that we all might remember, it was in around 2008, at the end of 2008, 2009, something, the whole economic downturn was going on. And in those times, work as we know it just did not exist. I am an architect by trade, and there weren’t many people building houses or buildings anything, really, in Jackson Hole. And I think that it’s times like that where real innovation can breed and take seed, really.

Lee: [00:01:40] And that’s what happened with Vertical Harvest. One of her co-founders, Penny McBride, was a sustainability consultant, and she had an idea to locate a greenhouse in downtown Jackson. Now, on the day that I’m recording this, it got down to 16 degrees there with a high of 34. Not exactly conducive to farming, but since Nona and Penny were foodies, they started to work together to try to imagine what a greenhouse would look like in the west. There was a little plot of land downtown, 30 feet wide by 150 feet long that was available. It had some potential, but what really launched the project was not the availability of a plot of land, but a group of people in the community who were looking for meaningful work.

Nona: [00:02:25] We had looked at every possible site from the roof of a local grocery store to some very large pieces of land south of town, way south of town. And our third co-founder, Caroline Croft, was acting as an employment facilitator here in Jackson for people with different abilities, intellectual and physical disabilities. And she heard about our effort to locate a greenhouse, and she called us and just said, “Hey, if you guys ever get this greenhouse off the ground, would you employ my clients who are looking for consistent, meaningful work?”

And that really resonated for me, that effort. I have a brother with development disabilities, and finding consistent, meaningful work for this population is a real challenge. And so that’s really how the whole concept came together. So when we looked at that original piece of land, we said, “Well, what are our values? What do we really want to do?” And we wanted to hire as many people as possible. We wanted to grow as much food as possible. We wanted to do both year-round, and that’s where the idea to come, to go up came from.

Lee: [00:03:36] When we spoke on the phone before doing this interview, you said, “This project is a part of my soul. It has completely taken me over. I’ve always believed in the power of architecture to be more than just a building, it can completely change communities.”

Nona: [00:03:53] I do really, firmly believe that architects have the power to shape communities. And so what do I mean by that? That buildings can reflect a community’s values. They can house the community’s values, and they can communicate the community’s values to others. This was a long process. As I said, we started in 2008. And just the notion that as we decided to go up, that the community was behind us. That was the first step in this, right? To be able to envision something totally new, way back then, although vertical farming is quite hot right now, back in 2009 there were no vertical farms, there were just renderings of what a vertical farm might look like.

My background and the belief that architecture can be more than just a box, or more than just four walls, allowed me to say, “Well what do we want it to do? What do we want this building to achieve?” And that’s where our goals, our desire to grow as much food as possible, to employ as many people as possible, resulting in a high level of community impact. We stuck to that, and instead of saying, “Okay, well here’s a preconceived notion of what a greenhouse is.” We used those goals to drive what the greenhouse could be, which, resulted in a totally new typology, which was really exciting. That, for me, that’s the poster child of what it can achieve.

Lee: [00:05:24] Do you think it made the difference for you coming into this with so much context? Many architects or designers will say, “Okay, we have this much space and it’s got to go vertical, or it’s got to do this,” but you were really thinking about employing people with developmental differences, and the weather, and all these other factors. How much did all of that, that universe of things, shape your thinking and not make you freeze up and be unable to move forward since it’s so much stuff?

Nona: [00:05:54] I believe that you can design at multiple scales, as long as you have the same logic that you apply to each scale. So creative thinking, right? It’s kind of a system in its own. It’s a decision-making process, right? It allows you to evaluate the choices that you make. And so, before Vertical Harvest, I have designed something as small as a trash can for Jackson, to as large as winning some multi, the 40-story building competitions in Kazakhstan. And for me, neither is, both are challenging, but the way in is through design, through creative thinking, and that is how I became the co-founder and architect and now I’m running Vertical Harvest.

It’s just, it’s still the design process at work, right? So designing a business plan, designing the employment model, designing the building, they’re all systems and they all work together, and that’s what so fascinating about it. I’m kind of a systems freak, and this building is an ecosystem, not only in the way that it performs environmentally but the way that each element of it works within it. Really, communities are ecosystems, we all depend and relate on one…to and on one another. And so, if you just have a systematic way of approaching each of the elements, normally it all fits together in this beautiful way.

Lee: [00:07:31] Let’s give people some context. What is it like to farm in and around Jackson, Wyoming? Most produce is trucked in and you have a four-month short growing season. And then there’s Snowpocalypse. Paint us a picture, what’s it like, the before and after, before you came in, and then what you’re contributing now?

Nona: [00:07:51] It’s really an adventure, first and foremost. The shifts in temperature in Jackson Hole are incredible. We’ll have a really hot day where it could get up to 60 or 70, and then at night, it can plunge into negative 10, negative 20. And in the middle of winter, it can go down to negative 40. So obviously, that’s not a very hospitable place for growing. So we really operate it as an island, and the Snowpocalypse that you are referring to was last winter, pretty much the whole town shut down because of the amount of snowfall that we got.

And all the arteries coming into our town were closed. So all of the produce that normally gets shipped in in the middle of winter from places like California, Mexico, and Florida, just weren’t arriving. We were the only farm in operation. And that was pretty amazing. A common misperception is that it’s really hard to run the greenhouse in the winter. Actually, it’s easier than the summer because of the solar gain, and we can manage our environment a lot more easily in the winter, although it might be more expensive. But I think that the biggest benefit that we give to the community is that everything that is trucked in from those places that I mentioned, by the time it gets to Jackson, outside of our four-month growing period, it’s basically nothing more than roughage.

Because it has to withstand the long journey here, when it gets to our grocery shelves, it’s devoid of its nutritional and taste content. We deliver to our local grocery stores and restaurants twice a week, and we harvest the day before those delivery days. So we’re delivering a product that is at its peak of taste and nutritional value. So that unseen wellness factor is something that, after we’ve been in operation for a year and a half now, people are really starting to come back, not only because they believe in our mission to employ people with different abilities, but because of the quality of our product. And that’s something that our team is so proud of. So it feels really good to be providing this really important aspect to a community year round.

Lee: [00:10:04] What kind of produce are you growing, how much, and what type?

Nona: [00:10:09] Well we’re on route to growing 100,000 pounds of produce a year. So, most vertical farms, the field is changing daily, but most vertical farms right now, currently, are mono-crops, meaning they might only grow micro-greens. Or they might only grow lettuces. The niche that we really want to fill is that we are impacting a community, we’re serving a community. And so, we were really dedicated to the idea of growing multiple crops. And that lead us to designing a greenhouse that is basically three greenhouses stacked on top of one another. And in each of those greenhouses, it has a different micro-climate that is conducive to growing a different kind of crop.

So on our second floor, we grow lettuces and we have some pretty innovative growing technology, these carousels that not only go vertically but horizontally and move to balance the amount of natural light and artificial light. But then on the third floor, because of the solar gain from the ceiling and the southern facade, it’s the perfect climate for vining crops. So we’re able to grow tomatoes. And then we grow micro-greens for our chefs as well as some home chefs that have become really addicted to these things. And to the schools, who’ve used them to help kids experiment with food.

Lee: [00:11:35] You say you don’t compete with local farmers, so how does that work?

Nona: [00:11:39] That was, that was…a huge…as we developed this greenhouse and we went, in order to get some of the capital costs to build the greenhouse, we went after a large state grant, and because we were going after public money, that really, alerted a lot of people to, “Hey, are you gonna get a competitive edge to…” you know, a lot of farmers felt like, “Why aren’t I getting that money? I’m providing a vital community asset.” And we, instead of, you know, resisting that, we really wanted to be part of the already existing, vibrant, local, you know, food community. And so, in order to deal with that kind of anxiety and angst, we said from the very beginning, “Hey, we understand. The weekly farmer’s markets are really important to your survival and your success, we just won’t go there. You know, we want to provide a consistent source of produce to our community year-round. We understand that this is what you need to be able to get your product out there. And so we’ll stay away, and we won’t compete with you in that context.”

And, you know, we tried to be as inclusive as we possibly could. So we have an on-site market, and you know, the farmer’s markets are just one way that farmers can reach a community. There aren’t that many opportunities, honestly. And so, we started inviting farmers that could to participate in our market so that the community to have access not only to our own produce, but other produce that was being grown. And we included all, as many local producers as we could in our opening ceremony. So, we really wanted to set the stage that we were just another farm in a very vibrant farming community, and that because of the, you know, the spotlight that Vertical Harvest could, you know, attract, that we would be committed to the notion that, you know, all ships can rise, that we can really speak about the importance of the local food movement, why it’s important to have a sustainable source of food to feed a community.

And we’ve been really successful in bridging some gaps, some communication gaps and working on things together. We just were involved with the Slow Food festival where we were highlighted as one of the many farmers that we celebrated as the harvest season came to an end.

Lee: [00:14:18] Oh, that’s really cool. How do you see this as a demonstration project, a model that can scale? It can’t be the only one in the world like this, I assume. That’s at least the goal. So what happens next?

Nona: [00:14:32] Well, you know, for me, and you’re right, the worst thing that could happen to this project is that it would be a one-off. There’s so much that we can do. It’s important to understand that not only are we committed to the financial sustainability of our farm, but we’re really committed to our social impact goals as well. You know, that’s the thing that I am most proud of, running this company, being the leader of this company. You know, that we’ve paired innovation with an underserved population that is not only addressing, you know, they’re pioneers in addressing an element like we’ve been talking about, that’s important to every community, which is the production of food. But that they are also addressing, you know, potential global issues of water shortage, food scarcity, and land shortages.

So being able, you know, to understand this underserved population in a different context, to just shift perception like this and empower this population as leaders in the community, that is a very powerful thing. And so, you know, we’ve been talking a lot about the food, I think we understand intuitively why that’s important to replicate, to feed communities, but this empowerment of this underserved population goes hand in hand with it. And that’s what really, we get a call from communities weekly that want to replicate our model, and the first question that we ask them is, “Are you interested in replicating our employment model?” And every single one of them has said, “Yes, absolutely.”

Lee: [00:16:12] You know, what’s been explored a lot, as you said, is the tech side, the, “Oh, it’s a vertical farm.” What hasn’t been explored that much, and what you’re really being pioneers about is this employment model, that it goes together?

Nona: [00:16:25] It’s good business, you know, employing people with different abilities is an important exercise to go through for any business. You know, traditionally, this population has worked in what we call the three F’s, you know: food, filth and flowers. And what’s important in our goals for what we’re doing here is that we’re creating a completely inclusive environment, meaning that the ratio of people with either disability to those who don’t any disabilities is pretty equal. And so what happens, you know, in the traditional model, good businesses that want to do good might employ one or two people for a very specific job.

But that only highlights the isolation, right, and the differences that you have. In this inclusive environment, I like to say that we all have different abilities, and we’re all working to really match your abilities with the job that you’re doing. And that, for all of us, has empowered us. So it’s a model, what I love it’s not different for anyone, it’s just focusing on ability.

Lee: [00:17:37] When there’s a big idea like this, it does color outside the lines, but that’s great. It’s good.

Nona: [00:17:43] Right.

Lee: [00:17:45] Nona, thanks so much for joining me today on the podcast.

Nona: [00:17:47] It was a real pleasure, I really enjoyed it.

Lee: [00:17:50] Go to FutureFood.FM, and you’ll find transcripts of all shows, articles that build on what we talk about in the shows, and you can subscribe to the mailing list and never miss a podcast. That’s FutureFood.FM. I’m Lee Schneider.

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