Vertical Harvest produces 100,000 pounds of greens and lettuce annually, and provides safe and challenging jobs for differently abled adults.
“Vertical Harvest hasn’t had an employee leave, yet,” says Jill Quinlan Willard, the Employment Support Specialist for the Wyoming Medicaid Program. One of only several dozen vertical farms in the country, Vertical Harvest opened on a vacant lot next to a parking garage in downtown Jackson, in May of 2016. As unique as the existence of Vertical Harvest is—none of the other vertical farms in the U.S. are in areas with such an extreme climate—more unique are its employees, as well as its employment model. The farm focuses on hiring developmentally disabled people, a group that, in Wyoming, has an unemployment rate of about 78 percent. Its employees have conditions including autism, seizure disorders, spina bifida, and Down syndrome.
“I love working at Vertical Harvest because I can be myself,” says William Dennis. Being himself often means cracking jokes. The morning we popped in, Willy was working on the lettuce floor, placing produce into packages so they could be sold at local markets. Another packager held up a head of lettuce that made it through without getting de-rooted. “It’s good to see you rooted out the problem,” Willy said, sending his peers, and himself, into peals of laughter.
One of Vertical Harvest’s younger employees, he’s 19, Willy also works in the farm’sdocent tour program. Several times a week, there are free, one-hour guided tours of the three-story, 13,500-square-foot facility. (Sign up online at verticalharavestjackson.com.) In addition to working at Vertical Harvest, Willy also works as a dishwasher at Legacy Lodge. “Vertical Harvest is the most fun, though,” he says. In between jobs, Willy is closing-in on earning the rank of Eagle Scout from the Boy Scouts of America.
While Willy is using Vertical Harvest, and his other jobs—he’s also worked at the National Museum of Wildlife Art and as an Alpine Slide operator at Snow King Mountain—to figure out what he wants to do for a career, Johnny Fifles, who turned 28 on April 28 and was diagnosed with autism at age 4, already knows—“I love what we do at Vertical Harvest,” he says—and is focusing on using his employment here to learn. “I’ve learned socialization, sweeping, scrubbing, and seeding,” he says. “Seeding is hard. It requires patience and precision.” Jill says Fifles is one of the employees at Vertical Harvest that can do a wide variety of jobs.
After graduating from the University of Wyoming with a degree in humanities and fine art, Fifles returned to Jackson and got a job doing laundry at a local hotel. “We’re grateful for the jobs the community provides to people with differing abilities, but our mission to take a customized approach really lets them shine. If one job isn’t a fit, we can look around and find another that might be a better fit,” Jill says. At Vertical Harvest Johnny is the senior microgreen associate and “does the tours, deliveries, he does most of the seeding in microgreens and works on the tomato floor and has shown us that his abilities are through the roof.” Johnny says, “I never heard of or ate microgreens before I worked here,” Johnny says. “I eat them now.”
Other Vertical Harvest employees have similar stories. “Maybe we have someone in one area and that’s not a good fit because it’s too loud, or too chaotic, or too rote. We have the ability to switch around and make it so that it’s the best experience for that employee,” Jill says. Willy’s mom Michelle Dennis has worked at Vertical Harvest almost since it opened. Previously she worked at C-V Ranch, a residential school for students of differing abilities from across the state, for almost 35 years. But “When I retired I couldn’t live on just my retirement,” Michelle says. Also, “I wanted to stay busy. Staying home isn’t me.”
Because Michelle knew some of Vertical Harvest’s other staff members and managers already, “that made working there feel better,” she says. While Michelle isn’t a fan of the tomato floor—“I’ve been on it maybe twice,” she says—she loves the lettuce floor and is the senior lettuce associate. “Working here is real nice and I’ll work here as long as I can.” One of Vertical Harvest’s co-founders, Nona Yehia, says, “There’s not another week that goes by where another community doesn’t contact us and say they want to replicate this. Jackson’s a special place where we were able to make this happen.”
Buy Vertical Harvest produce in a market on its ground floor or at Jackson Hole Grocer, Lucky’s Market, Aspen’s Market, and Pearl Street Market. Many valley restaurant also purchase tomatoes, lettuces, and microgreens from Vertical Harvest, which, on one-tenth of an acre of land grows as much produce as a traditional five-acre farm.155 W. Simpson Ave., Jackson, 307/201-4452