We caught up with Penny McBride, co-founder of Vertical Harvest Jackson Hole, to discuss the challenges of running a commercial urban farm, why the best greenhouse engineers are from Europe, and much more!
Jackson, Wyoming is home to one of the world’s first vertical greenhouses located on a sliver of vacant land next to a parking garage.
This 13,500 sq. ft. three-story stacked greenhouse utilizes a 1/10 of an acre to grow an annual amount of produce equivalent to 5 acres of traditional agriculture.
Vertical Harvest sells locally grown, fresh vegetables year round 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 into the community each year. In addition to fresh lettuce and tomatoes, Vertical Harvest produces jobs, internships and educational opportunities.
The greenhouse employs approximately 20 individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities.
UV: Can you talk about how Vertical Harvest started and your experience with that and how you got into the arena and kind of the background story?
Penny: Sure. I had been working as a consultant on a couple of different community based projects...the specific one that taught me a lot about urban agriculture was an assignment to work with a team, investigating a year round greenhouse to be heated with biomass.
This was back when the pine bark beetle epidemic started and the forest service was looking for a lot of different ways to utilize wood waste. I learned from the people that I was working with, how an urban greenhouse could also create important jobs for people in the community.
Unfortunately the project didn't happen, largely because this was around 2008 when the economy flattened. My background does come from this desire to create businesses and community enhancement projects.
It wasn’t only about developing a business that grew food, which is so critical, but also about employment and developing a more circular model.
At the time, I got a call from a Caroline Croft who was a Case Manager for adults with disabilities. She now plays a critical role in the day to day operations of the greenhouse.
She called asking if I had jobs for any of her clients, with any of these projects that I was spearheading. I didn't think I did, but what it did spur me to do was start looking at the possibility of an urban centered greenhouse.
A place where people who couldn't drive could get to work by taking public transportation, something that was a core to the community.
I started holding stakeholder meetings to see who might be interested in partnering. I had originally brought Nona in to help with some renderings because I knew she was working on some concepts with residential greenhouses and we grew into being partners on the project.
Originally I thought it would be more of a community run greenhouse and not the business that it is today. That's really where (Vertical Harvest Jackson) got its early legs.
UV: Could you talk about how you gained the technical side of (urban and vertical farming)? Some people are looking to grow something on their kitchen counter and some people have larger aspirations, but (either way) they (often) don't know where to start.
Penny: I grew up on a farm and a ranch in Colorado. Not that that made me a hydroponic expert by any means, but I did understand the importance of beauty of growing your own food. My grandfather started the family run farm that grew quite substantially by the time I was born.
Through the consulting work that I had been doing, I knew Paul Sellew whose family started Backyard Farms, which was at the time the second largest hydroponic tomato producer in the U.S., and it was in Maine. I knew that Paul had a really great greenhouse engineer who was highly sought after.
I pitched the early concept of the greenhouse to Paul, and he thought that the concept had some merit. This is when we were connected with Thomas Larssen who helped to develop the entire plan of the growing in three stories. At the time we were looking at every kind of growing system under the sun, even aeroponics which seemed really far-fetched, but it's not far-fetched now.
It's amazing how far the industry has come in eight years, it's pretty incredible actually. We knew that we needed a head grower, and even though there were plenty of people who have taught themselves how to be growers, everybody emphasizes the key to success is a good grower.
We would hear things like "Oh, tomatoes are an art," and "Lettuce is more of a science," and things like that. But we have since discovered that it takes a lot of patience and a strong background in both the science and the art of growing.
UV: If somebody asked you where would you find a kind of elusive or talented greenhouse engineer now, where would you suggest looking ?
Penny: I do get that question often. There is a lot of history in growing indoor Europe and they are still developing a great deal of the technology. The interesting thing is, a lot of the sales groups (for urban farming equipment) now have experts own their own team.
As an example, if you look at Hort Americas, they have their own test greenhouse. They can really engineer a greenhouse for you. It is largely location specific.
UV: You're talking about the companies that you might hire to develop your system for you?
Penny: Right. So a lot of the sales teams have greenhouse expertise on their side now. Does that make sense? A lot of the greatest experience comes from Europe because they have invested in indoor and hydroponic farming as a solution to plant production.
The Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agricultural products. In the US, we are trying to catch up to begin to produce qualified hydroponic growers.
Somewhat quickly, schools are keeping pace, the University of Arizona has a great program and Colorado State University is developing stronger indoor growing programs because they realize that it is the future of agriculture.
UV: What do you think are the hallmarks of (a greenhouse engineer) who's experienced? Is it just a body of experience, or is it like an expertise in the certain crop that you're trying to work with?
Penny: I do think that if somebody has a horticulture education and they understand the science of growing plants, that is important really important for a large scale operation.
Now there are certainly a lot of people who just learn about growing by working in the industry and don't have a formal background. I have to say that if you can find somebody who has both of those things, it's very beneficial because plant pathology is so much a part of it.
I won’t discredit those that have learned their trade by spending years learning how to grow first hand. It's like a good chef. A chef is not made because he's gone to culinary school, but a chef is made because he has some legitimate experience.
Experience is another thing because you can't necessarily just take somebody out of school and expect them to run a whole facility, because there's a lot to it. There are control systems.
There is a need to understand temperature and light variations, that may be something you would only learn on the job. And then there is the need to work as a team.
UV: Can you talk about some of the everyday challenges from an overall facility management side?
Penny: You have your day-to-day challenges, such as temperature and lighting, but then you also might have other challenges, like market dynamics and staffing issues.
UV: Can you talk about your insights and what you've learned since you guys have been in operation,and how you guys have improved both in the "whole forest" view, but also the"tree" view as well.
Penny: Our system was new, the components were built in a factory overseas and the systems hadn't operated with real growing conditions, there were a lot of kinks to be worked when we started to grow.
Those were the initial set backs. Then were was learning about the building itself, I'm sure any new greenhouse has to grow into the skin of what their building is and adapt to that. We also had to understand which plants grow best in different parts of the building.
As an example, there is a living wall that is three-story high. The climate on this single system goes from very hot on the top to very cool at the bottom. Then things that we didn't really aspire to be was being a delivery company.
Even though it's something that everybody thinks is really simple it has it own set of complexities. There is also the simple task of packaging, and learning how to process and package well is something else new to learn.
UV: How would you summarize, or what would be your key points on packaging? For example, how much should people be budgeting for their packaging, common mistakes with packaging, or what are the mistakes that you made that you kind of shot yourself in the foot with?
Penny: When we started, we had something like five different sizes of boxes to ship our produce. It was over the top.
I think we definitely over thought some thing and didn’t give enough consideration to other items.
I remember one day, just laughing at myself thinking "Oh my god, this lettuce is the most pampered lettuce that is going to this restaurant."
Realizing that what you're creating is, of course you fall in love with it and it seems like this living and breathing thing (the produce), but maybe it is like this microclimate that you're creating. It means so much as somebody who was with it from the start.
But what you have to remember is that it's a system. I think looking at it holistically as much as you can to make sure that you think of everything, and having to flow together is so important.
UV: I know you mentioned working with restaurants. It seems like selling whatever you're growing (as an urban farmer) to a restaurant is a very stereotypical kind of cliché kind of marketing channel as far as the main customer or the urban farming output.
Can you talk about what you think, in your experience, people don't understand about marketing and selling the stuff you produce on your urban farm, whether it's a very small amount to a guy down the street, or maybe it's retailers.
What do you think are some major misconceptions that have to do with the actual commercialization like after you've grown something, after it's high quality, after it meets the spec of some customer?
Penny: We probably didn't understand the magnitude of the challenge of managing produce once it's in the store, it might be on the shelf for three or four days, and knowing how to ensure that it looks good over that time is important.
It might be a little different for a restaurant because typically they move through product very quickly. I think it's just a little more challenging on the grocery store's shelf to make sure that things can stay looking fresh for a while on the shelf.
UV: Can you discuss the pros and cons of a couple of different (marketing and distribution) channels, whether it's restaurants or retail, some people might also be doing farmers'markets, etc?
Penny: It depends on the size of your greenhouse or your farm. Packaging adds another element of complexity and cost, depending on your market.
If you take it to the farmers market with the intent of selling your product immediately, it doesn’t have to sit on the shelf for a few days. The same goes for delivering it to a restaurant.
You don’t need to worry about the product sitting around for some time. I know that a lot of people think that restaurants can be fickle, but we've been so fortunate in that our restaurant partners are really very supportive.
Distribution is a whole other challenge too because there is the timing of how much space is available to store product on site, employee capacity for delivering and harvesting.
It is all a part of the overall system that has to be developed according to your farm and your staff.
UV: Obviously your business has like a social responsibility element, but it's also for profit. Can you talk about that decision and maybe how you came to that decision, but also maybe the ramifications of that? I mean, would you have done it differently, or how do you think it turned out?
Penny: Vertical Harvest is developing a non-profit to support our educational programs, this is something that I had hoped to do from the onset of the concept.
But early on, it was hard to see how the financial legitimacy would work out. Vertical Harvest is a production greenhouse, but we're also a test bed for a new style of growing.
There is a lot of learning going on in both fields. I do think that it is critical for the business to operate as a financially sustainable model, but defining how you get there is the challenge.
We have relied on a lot of grants, donations and charitable investing to get where we are today. Maybe that's just part of being an entrepreneur too and being in an innovative company.
I'm sure a lot of businesses go through the same sort of financial challenges, and they have to have similar support in one way or the other. I'm happy that we're able to be a part of the community in a larger way, that we do have educational programs and that we can bring in visitors.
A lot of greenhouses can't do that because of pest pressures and the extra staffing the is necessary for this all to take place.
UV: What's your favorite fruit or vegetable?
Penny: Vegetable: Red Peppers Fruit: Apples
UV: What's the best advice that you received when you were building Vertical Harvest Jackson or when you were learning the ins and outs of operating this type of facility, like the one you have in Vertical Harvest, or it could even be not related to anything, it could be generalized advice, like what's the best advice you think you've ever gotten?
Penny: I mean, it's so cliché but I think people just say, don't underestimate how much capital you have to have on hand for a start-up, and I really thought we would avoid that. But it does takes more money than you think to get through those early phases.
UV: Do you think that amplifies for like an urban farming company, or do you think it's the same across all company types?
Penny: Not necessarily. But I think the thing that I have learned the most, is that you really have to be honest with yourself everybody else about the development goals, timelines, financials, it is about communicating in a transparent way.
I think that is the most important element and the easiest thing to avoid.
A lot of startups are afraid to be honest with themselves because they put so much hard work into their project and afraid to talk about the pitfalls or to be honest about what might be lurking in the shadows.
That is what's going to give you a hard time.
UV: Obviously Vertical Harvest had a decent amount of press coverage and you probably have gotten a good amount of exposure from that over the years. What do you think is something that a lot of people don't understand about your company or like a misconception that you would like other people to know?
Penny: I'm not sure if it's a misconception, but maybe people don't realize how much time and energy was put into starting this greenhouse.
It has an enormous impact on your personal life and your work life when trying to fit in a start up. It was a monumental effort. Something like this is not for the weak at heart at all. It's scary, and it's hard work and things don't turn out the way you want them to. It's very life-changing.
I don't think it's all like a bed of roses and that. Of course we're smiling on the pictures, but let me tell you. It's not easy.
Although I am still an owner of Vertical Harvest, I am no longer a part of daily operations, and I am having a lot of fun working on other great projects out there!
I am helping other passionate and smart people develop some exciting projects that are on the cutting edge and can make a significant impact on the food movement.
I believe for the whole industry to move forward there has to be a collaboration.