Penny McBride co-founded and started Vertical Harvest in Jackson, Wyoming. The greenhouse occupies 1/10th of an acre at an elevation of more than 6,000 feet, but through hydroponics and a unique stacked design can grow the equivalent produce of 5 acres of farmland using traditional agriculture methods. Vertical Harvest has also designed its greenhouse and operating model to employ people with developmental disabilities.
How’d you get involved with Vertical Harvest?
My education and professional background is in community systems and design. In many ways, Vertical Harvest is my dream project. It brings my passion for local food into a partnership that supports the local economy by supplying fresh food and creating employment opportunities for many people.
You planted tomatoes in December and lettuce and herbs in February. How was your first harvest?
Our first harvest was surreal and amazing, being surrounded by towering tomato plants and greens that were full of life and color in the middle of winter was really energizing! Seeing the fruits, quite literally, of seven years of visioning and hard work, was incredibly grounding.
How does your vertical farming system work?
The greenhouse really functions as a stacked system. The crops that require more cooling reside on the first and second floor. The tomatoes, which like a warmer environment, naturally reside on the third floor, which acts most as a typical greenhouse and is the hottest environment.
What’s the biggest surprise you’ve encountered with vertical farming?
I guess that I can’t point to one biggest surprise, but I’ve learned that you can’t be too tied to a specific path about how you think that things should be functioning as an organization, whether it is the human or mechanical side of things. Both require observation, flexibility, and good communication to get to the final goal.
Can you tell us a little about the inspiration for the design of your greenhouse?
It was primarily about the available space, as well as our desire to make the building usable to our employees with developmental disabilities. The original intention was certainly not to create a 3-story greenhouse. Going up was simply a function of maximizing production to create a business that could support year-round operations.
What specific insights have you gained on the trend toward self-sufficiency and food safety in our agriculture system?
There is so much research that demonstrates the negative impacts of pollution on our food system. As a culture based on convenience, we all take for granted that the food we eat and buy is actually good for us. I’m afraid that this is a false assumption. Being able to witness the power of people seeing their food being grown has been amazing because so many of us are removed from this basic understanding.
You’re in a private-public partnership with the City of Jackson. What’s the key to success for this type of collaboration to work?
Communicating intentions, transparency, and listening to your critics. Your critics can become your ally….or not. But it is important to try and learn from people who may not really believe in you and your cause. It is often painful, but understanding shortcomings is really imperative to improving as an individual and an organization.
You raised $3.8 million in what you call “patient capital,” for a low-profit model … with a social mission … that has a long investment horizon and minimal financial returns. How’d you pull THAT off?
It took a lot of hard work to sit down with a variety of people to demonstrate the multiple values of the project, everyone from individual donors to the State of Wyoming. We got lucky and were able to connect with people who have a long-term vision of a project that had not been executed in any other community.
You operate with an innovative employment model that provides jobs for people with intellectual disabilities. Can you tell us about your motivation for this?
It was one of the motivations for the entire greenhouse really. A case manager for citizens with intellectual disabilities, Caroline Croft, contacted me to find diverse employment opportunities for her clients. At the same time, I had been working on the feasibility of building a greenhouse in the region, which not only allowed me to learn about the function of a greenhouse in this climate, but also gain inspiration from other urban greenhouse projects that were serving their communities as social networks.
My conversation with Caroline spurred me to investigate the notion of a town-centered greenhouse, where people who could not drive could get to work independently. Today, Caroline is the human resources director for Vertical Harvest and works hard to ensure we provide the correct kind of support for our employees.
If you could change one thing in the world right now, what would it be?
That communicating and listening were more a part of the prevailing culture, corporate and otherwise.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
That I would take more time to celebrate. I am wired to work hard to achieve my goals and am always looking at what needs to get accomplished next. I want to take more time to celebrate my family, my friends and all that gets accomplished in a day.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
Steel cut oats with maple syrup and blueberries, and a giant mug of mate.
What scares you?
People who don’t thoughtfully listen.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Someone like my father; he finds so much joy in the everyday experience. He has always been very hardworking, but always takes the time to talk to everyone, to hear their stories. His sense of joy is a true inspiration to me.
What are you reading right now?
GRIT, by Angela Lee Duckworth. I’m intrigued by the concept of motivation and understanding how people can succeed beyond just their IQ.
Moby, I love his music and his approach to good food.
There are so many interesting TEDx speakers: Dr. Shefali (we are all co-creators), Kelly McGonail (the power of perception).
Orange-it represents wisdom, strength and dignity.
Rock, paper, or scissors?
Paper. You can write inspiring thoughts and words of encouragement, while also wrapping to protect against those disingenuous rocks out there.
Who are you following online?
The weather forecast—one of my goals this summer is to spend more time outside playing.
Who is the most progressive nonprofit or business leader you know?
I love what funding platforms Kickstarter and Indiegogo have done to empower dreamers to take a step toward making dreams a reality.
What’s one question you’d like to ask yourself – and answer?
How can I continue to inspire positive changes to occur for other communities and businesses that are committed to making a shift toward creating socially and environmentally beneficial systems?