Vertical Harvest is taking its urban farm model to New England.
The Jackson-based business plans to build a vertical greenhouse in the Portland suburb of Westbrook that will be part of a $60 million development with a four-story parking garage and 50-unit housing development.
At 70,000 square feet the $18 million Westbrook greenhouse will be more than five times bigger than the original Vertical Harvest, the three-story, 13,500-square-foot hydroponic farm that opened on the side of Jackson’s parking garage in 2016. Scaling up to that size won’t be a problem, co-founder and CEO Nona Yehia said.
“We have understood how to approach it in a vertical fashion with climate-controlled compartments with different crops,” she said.
Vertical Harvest is a low-profit limited liability company, which Yehia sums up as a business in which “financial impact and social impact are equivalent.” It’s similar to “B Corp” and “social impact business.”
“We know that our first expansion project has to be successful in order to prove the efficacy of this model. … It addresses both food and job insecurity in communities,” she said.
Though the new greenhouse will be far larger than the first, the same goals apply as in Jackson.
“We grow healthy people, communities and economies,” Yehia said. “That’s an important thing to focus on.”
The Westbrook greenhouse aims to provide jobs for people with disabilities, like the Jackson greenhouse does, and to address unemployment in Maine in general. Vertical Harvest anticipates bringing 50 full-time-equivalent jobs to Westbrook, compared with about 20 in Jackson.
For the city of Westbrook the development is seen as a tool for economic growth.
“This exceptional mixed-use project, anchored by Vertical Harvest’s four-story greenhouse, will provide significant private commercial investment and job creation, expanded residential presence and expansion of free public parking to support growth and development of other businesses in our downtown,” Mayor Michael Foley said in a press release.
The new greenhouse will provide an additional source of locally grown, nutritious food year round to an area that, like Jackson, has a short growing period and dramatic seasonal climate changes.
Ninety-five percent of leafy greens there come from Arizona and California, Yehia said, and by the time the produce travels 2,500 miles “it’s at its lowest point of nutrition and taste value.”
The Jackson Vertical Harvest grows about 100,000 pounds of produce a year, including chard and lettuces, cherry tomatoes and a variety of microgreens. The Westbrook operation will start with microgreens and lettuces. Estimates are that it will grow about a million pounds of produce a year.
Vertical Harvest is working on purchase agreements with several state agencies that will be customers for the produce, including the Maine schools system, prisons and hospitals. It’s also lining up restaurants and food service providers.
Vertical Harvest already had a connection to the Pine Tree State through Backyard Farms, a giant tomato greenhouse in Madison.
“We feel like Maine is almost a sister city to Jackson,” Yehia said. “The engineer who designed Backyard Farms helped us develop Vertical Harvest in Maine.”
Jackson’s GYDE Architects, where Yehia is a co-founder and partner, is working on the project with Harriman, an architecture firm in Maine.
The Jackson greenhouse is a public-private partnership, with the town owning the land and building. In Maine the city of Westbrook is an investor, Yehia said. It owns the land but won’t own the building.
Vertical Harvest is working to get the “financials closed” by the end of the year, she said. “Then we will start construction next spring.”
Westbrook will be Vertical Harvest’s second location but not the last. Communities from “around the globe” have reached out to learn about the Jackson project.
“We’ve been talking to a lot of different municipalities,” Yehia said.
Vertical Harvest is about 75% of the way through an Sustainable Communities Innovation Challenge with Fannie Mae to study the feasibility of vertical farms in affordable housing developments in Chicago. A developer presented three sites to study, and now Vertical Harvest is working to creating the “financial stack” for two of those sites, Yehia said.
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is another site for Vertical Harvest.
“We’re working with a group on the ground to get the financial commitments in place to start the process,” Yehia said.
It’s much too early to franchise the concept, she said.
In the years of operating Vertical Harvest “we’ve come to understand how to manage the greenhouse, creating a diverse workplace, and how to create a consistent product using these very new systems,” Yehia said. “We created a management company which will run the day-to-day operations of Vertical Harvest in Maine and other areas we move on to.”