Thursday, January 3, 2013

Vertical Harvest of Jackson Hole Interview

Welcome back to another Kickstarter Conversation!  Today I return to the scientific end of Kickstarter to bring you the inventive team behind the Vertical Harvest project at Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  Thank you for joining us today Nona and Penny.  

Thank you James for asking us to be on your blog! We are very excited to be on Kickstarter and to speak about our project with you.


Why don’t we start with a brief overview of what your project is.  You’re not trying to fund the whole project with this Kickstarter is that correct?  

Vertical Harvest is an example of how a socially conscious business and innovative design can combine to meet important community needs and the agricultural challenges of the next century. The purpose of our business is threefold – to enhance the wellbeing of local communities across the nation through an innovative model for job creation, to meet a growing demand for locally produced food, and to build an internationally recognized model for food production through social, architectural and agricultural innovation. It is in the intersection between these three points of innovation that makes Vertical Harvest and its unique mission stand out amongst many of the few current examples of vertical farm projects around the world.

Vertical Harvest of Jackson Hole will be located on a Town owned, 30’ x 150’ in-fill lot located on the southern edge of a parking garage in the heart of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. In total, by going ‘vertical’, the greenhouse will increase it’s 4,500 sqft. footprint to include 13,500 sqft. of growing area. Vertical Harvest of JH will sell locally grown produce to Jackson restaurants, grocery stores and residents via an on-site market that will be open 365 days a year. Currently, Jackson has only a four month growing season and imports the majority of its produce from outside of Wyoming. This important project will enable the community to become more self sufficient in the production of food, despite the difficulties posed by the harsh climate of the area.

Vertical Harvest of JH will also employ Teton county’s citizens with disabilities, providing this underemployed population with consistent, meaningful employment. Nationally the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 72%, in Wyoming it is 78%.Vertical Harvest has the potential to impact the current training models for children and adults with disabilities who want to work in and contribute to their communities. By prioritizing the employment of persons with disabilities,Vertical Harvest will do more than decrease this rate of unemployment, it will have a positive effect on an individual’s quality of life.

The cost of the greenhouse is $2.3 M. We have already raised over $800K towards the capital costs of the building. In March, we will apply for a Wyoming state grant for $1.5M. whatever we raise on Kickstarter will go directly towards constructing our unique growing systems and help make up the difference in costs.

So this isn’t a research project but an honest to goodness working farm in the middle of a city?

Yep. That’s correct. We have designed the building, had a detailed cost estimate developed, have a working business plan, and have pre-sold our produce that we will grow. We just need to raise the capital costs and we hope to break ground in the spring of next year!

What is an “infill” piece of land as mentioned in your opening paragraph of the project page.  

The Town of Jackson built a parking garage to service our Center of the Arts a couple of years back. As a result of this project, there was a remaining plot of land measuring only 30’ x 150’. The Town put out a request for proposals to try and determine the future of this small piece of land, and it was concluded that Vertical Harvest was the project that put the site to its best use. The Town will actually own the building and lease it to Vertical Harvest for a $100/year. We are very proud to be working with our Town who has embraced an innovative solution for a plot of land that is valuable, but challenging because of its size.


Long time readers will remember I’ve taken a fancy to vertical growing before, but have yet to see a successful project.   If this technology is ready for full size production like this why hasn’t it been done before?  I mean Detroit for instance is full of dead buildings why aren’t they huge farms?

There are a lot of elements and expertise that have to come together to allow a project like this to happen. It is innovative in pretty much every aspect, from understanding building codes with respect to a new type of building, to the higher costs of building vertically, to the energy concerns that come along with developing greenhouses to go upwards. There is a lot of skepticism out there, but we embrace that wholly, it only makes our project stronger in the end, and we have been able to answer most questions that are thrown our way. One of the major barriers to entry for vertical farming is the cost of land. One of the reasons Vertical Harvest has been successful so far is because of the public/private partnership with the Town that I outlined above. We have also put together a great team who has worked hard on the project including one of the world’s best greenhouse engineers, Thomas Larssen. He has helped us develop our growing carousels which not only increase production numbers dramatically, but cut down on energy costs. We also have another great partner in Wendie Blanchard who started a wonderful program called Arthur and Friends in New Jersey who helped us develop and employment model based on her 4 years of experience working with people with disabilities in her hydroponic greenhouse. Getting a qualified, ambitious team together is the first step in getting a project such as this done. Wendie recently gave us a great card that said on the front: ‘Every oak tree started out as a nut that stood its ground.’ We thought that was great, without the amazing amount of perseverance of our group, we wouldn't be talking today.

Is there any special reason you’re planning on using folks with developmental disabilities on this project?  Is it to showcase that you system is that simple or that these folks are that capable or just a bit of both/neither?

Our employment model is the focal point of our project. Involving adults with disabilities in such a pioneering project undermines common stereotypes about disability. This aspect was especially important to me, as my brother has developmental disabilities. This population wants to work and to contribute to their communities, and deserves opportunities for meaningful, consistent employment. As i mentioned above, Arthur and Friends has been an important partner for us. Wendie Blanchard and her employees with disabilities have been showing the world how we can involve a truly underserved segment of our population in one of the most important aspects of community - the production of food. This model doesn't have to be a non-profit, once we are able to get off the ground, Vertical Harvest has the opportunity to be a sustainable business that has a long term, meaningful social impact.

I’ve heard of concepts being thrown around of taking old abandoned factories, office buildings, and strip malls, and turning them into working farms in urban environments.  Is that a “top end” kind of goal you’re heading for?  Maybe not you doing it directly but paving the way for others to do so?

We think that all of these ideas are amazing, and i’m from Detroit, so i am happy to see any way in which that city can transform itself. One of the people we spoke to at the outset of the project was Dickson Despommier, the author of the book The Vertical Farm, in which he envisions large scale towers that act as vertical farms. Our three story greenhouse is a first step to understanding how buildings like these might be able to perform in cities around the world. The expertise and knowledge we have amassed in our humble greenhouse will go a long way to support the larger vertical farming movement.

What is your long term goal for Vertical Harvest?  

Vertical Harvest of Jackson Hole will be the first step in creating a replicable model of a profitable business that is a platform for growing produce in urban environments, while at the same time providing employment for underserved populations. We hope it to be a model that will be shared and replicated in other cities around the country. This issue of scalability outlines the importance of creating a self-sustaining business that can be easily operated. Vertical Harvest believes in the potential for this business to solve the challenges that many communities face in their desire to have access to fresh, locally grown produce and meaningful employment for those who need it most. To this end, Vertical Harvest will continue to develop projects using the information from the Jackson project to intelligently inform the process for replicating this models in other communities throughout the world.

We would love to see Vertical Harvest as a symbol for the potential of small businesses, meaning, that a group of entrepreneurs can value financial sustainability as well as long term social impact.

So what’s the advantage of using your system versus say a greenhouse or standard farmland?

Size. Normal greenhouses take up a lot of land, especially if they are to be profitable. The advantage of our system is that it is flexible can be altered to fit sites that wouldn’t be useful for other types of functions.

Do you think vertical farming will replace regular farming in the future or just augment it?

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that by the year 2050 the human population will increase by about 3 billion people. Farmers will need to produce 70% more food to meet this growing need. At present, throughout the world, over 80% of the land that is suitable for raising crops is in use (sources: FAO and NASA). This is obviously a question of sustainability. While projects like Vertical Harvest will never replace traditional agriculture, Vertical Farms will be a vital locally grown supplement to produce that is traditionally farmed and trucked in to communities. What is also important is the nutritional value of the produce we will be able to grow in our communities thanks to vertical farming. Our produce will be able to be harvested and distributed within the first week of maturation, retaining all of the vital nutrients within the produce, instead of breeding produce to endure the long journey to supermarkets and ultimately to our tables.

One of the keys of a successful Kickstarter project is backer participation.  How are you engaging your backers?  What kinds of things do you have planned for updates?  Interviews?  Videos?  Stories from the project?

We have tried to keep our backers engaged through updates, and of course we can never thank them enough for believing in this project. We will have many exciting updates this year, and we hope that everyone will continue to follow our progress as these next few vital months progress.

What kind of media attention have you received with your project?  How are you spreading the word?  Facebook?  Twitter?  Google+? Youtube?  Advertising?  Are you using Kicktraq to help things along?

We had a strong Facebook presence at the outset of our campaign, and that really helped us get the word out. Also, we had many articles written about the work we have been doing, including one on the Discovery Channel website:

http://dsc.discovery.com/gear-gadgets/high-altitude-hydroponics-jackson-wyoming-to-build-a-three-story-greenhouse.html

We have used Twitter to a certain extent, and of course Kickstarter really helped us out by choosing us as a Staff Pick, we were really excited about that. We have personally used Kicktraq, but we are hoping their trending predictions aren’t correct :)

Do you have any tips/advice would you give to anyone looking to start a Kickstarter?

We are pretty new to the whole Kickstarter campaign thing, so we are really learning as we go...your readers might have better suggestions for us than we could give them, but all in all we believe that if you are passionate about what you are doing, and are dedicated enough to engage that passion full time in getting the word out, it can be contagious.

Thank you for spending your time with us!  Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

We are very hopeful that 2013 will be the year that Vertical Farming started in earnest in a small mountain town. We hope to reach people around the world who are passionate about where their food comes from, people who are passionate about helping under served populations, and people who are passionate about architecture.

Thanks again and I hope to hear good things from your Kickstarter!

Thank you! We do too!