Last In Vegetable Acres? For Wyoming, Vertical Farms Might Be The Answer
A windy and wide-open state, Wyoming is better known for ranching and energy than farming. It won’t be mistaken for the fruit and vegetable bounty of California’s central valley. In fact, it has the fewest number of vegetable farms of any state ﹘ there are more acres of vegetables growing in Alaska than in Wyoming.
The demand for local food, and some entrepreneurial ingenuity, are starting to change that though. Increasingly, vertical gardens are popping up to feed Wyoming’s desire for local produce, creeping into one of the last frontiers for the local food movement.
Nate Storey’s greenhouse in west Laramie is packed with vegetables growing in long, upright plastic towers. It’s an urban farmer’s dream. The waste from fish tanks fertilizes the crops through plastic tubing that drips water onto the vertical garden. The greenhouse is small, but produces a lot of food.
“You can grow anything,” Storey says, beaming like a proud father over bok choy, butter lettuce and spinach. “People have grown some crazy stuff with the towers. We’ve grown tomatoes and very large statured crops, watermelons.”
Outside his greenhouse the infamous Wyoming wind howls, the winters are frigid and the soil is either silty or clay-like. If you want to grow stuff people actually eat in Wyoming, Storey says you have to do it indoors. He pitches his business as a local economic generator that produces fresh food replacing some of the produce shipped from thousands of miles away.
“Our community’s been incredibly supportive,” Storey says. “Are they really with us on the urban farming level? Not necessarily, because they’re not urban people. They’re largely rural people.”
"If you phrase it as a hippie-dippie concept from California, then everyone's going to be against it just on principle."
Wyoming is officially known as “The Cowboy State,” and beef and coal are top commodities here. So when Storey started Bright Agrotech to build equipment for urban farmers, it raised some eyebrows.
“If you phrase it as a hippie-dippie concept from California, then everyone’s going to be against it just on principle,” he says. “But if you phrase it as a community-oriented, economics thing, then everyone’s behind it because that’s a very long and strong tradition in Wyoming.”
With more businesses like Storey’s taking off, more would-be farmers are seeking out help in getting greenhouses up and running. That means Karen Panter, the University of Wyoming’s horticulture extension specialist, has been a lot busier.
“There’s an awful lot of activity in this area largely because we haven’t had a lot of our own production within the state until just within the last few years,” Panter says.
Until recently there just wasn’t an interest in growing large quantities of vegetables in Wyoming, Panter says. You can see the change in the data. The number of greenhouses here tripled from 2007 to 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census. Panter won’t be surprised if that trend continues for the next five years.
Part of the problem, Panter says, is the lack of infrastructure. While food hubs and farmers markets have sprouted up in urban areas, the local food economy has been slower to take off in much of the rural Rocky Mountain West. Wyoming is without a food hub, although a hub is in the planning stages in the northern Big Horn Basin. Geography makes it tough too.
"Wyoming is considered by many to be a small town, with just really, really long streets."
“Wyoming is considered by many to be a small town, with just really, really long streets,” Panter says. “Because we are a rural state, we don’t have, or did not historically have a lot of our own production. Virtually everything other than beef or a few other crops have been brought in from other states or abroad.”
Still, some areas of the state are ripe for local food entrepreneurs. Nona Yehia is one of the architects behind Vertical Harvest, a high density, three-story greenhouse currently under construction on the side of a parking garage in the ritzy ski town of Jackson, Wyoming. The town’s high-end restaurants and wealthy visitors make it an ideal market for local food.
“Jackson has a very short growing period. We can only grow food really four months at best. So there is a pretty strong local food movement, but its fairly short-lived in terms of its seasons,” Yehia says.
That means the hotels, grocery stores and schools clamoring to source locally, are for the most part out of luck. Vertical Harvest has enjoyed a flurry of coverage of the project and the novelty of such a greenhouse going up in a rural ski town. Yehia attributes the interest to the project’s scale and location.
“There is a lot of conservative thinking in Wyoming, and people don’t see it as a food production state,” Yehia says. “And if we are changing those perceptions little by little with all these innovative, entrepreneurial projects, I think that’s an exciting place to be.”
It’s unlikely Wyoming will ever be a national powerhouse for vegetable production. But Laramie’s Nate Storey says businesses like his attract and retain young entrepreneurs. He grew up in Cheyenne, and says the state sometimes suffers a crisis in confidence.
“A lot of the people who go to the university that grew up in Wyoming, have been told they’re just some hick from the sticks their entire life,” Storey says. “They’re told if you have any kind of brains you have to move to California, you have to move to Colorado, you have to move some placeelse to be fully appreciated.”
A bad thing for the state, but a good thing for Storey’s business. Most of his new hires are young university grads interested in farming who, until now, had few opportunities to grow food in the land of wide-open spaces.
“We’re able to latch onto really smart people who want to stay in Wyoming, but have never really had an opportunity to be part of something big here.”