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Sowing Dignity: Vertical Harvest Grows Produce – and Community

By Jodi Hausen, The Christian Science Monitor


Vertical Harvest is a farm that employs people with disabilities and uses customized employment plans for each person to tailor their work to their strengths and aspirations. The farm was created to address the difficulty people with disabilities can have finding meaningful employment.


Vertical Harvest, in Jackson, Wyoming, produces about 100,000 pounds of lettuce, microgreens, and tomatoes annually. That’s a big deal in this ski town where the growing season is four months at best. Equally important, about 40% of the greenhouse’s employees are people with disabilities.


The unemployment rate for people with disabilities in Wyoming is 9.7%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 five-year estimate. That’s lower than the 11.4% national average – which is about twice that of people without a disability.


Founded in 2016, Vertical Harvest was built to address this disparity, and its success is in part due to Caroline Croft Estay’s work in creating the Grow Well model of employment. Designed to foster employees’ professional development, personal discovery, and community impact, Grow Well uses customized employment plans that take into account individuals’ strengths, attributes, and aspirations.


Anna Olson, president of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, says Grow Well’s unique model showcases the potential for people of all abilities working together.

“Caroline ... really understands and believes [people with disabilities] have equal rights and equal ability to contribute in our community,” she says. “And we need to open our minds to that.”

 

WHY WE WROTE THIS

People with disabilities often have a hard time finding meaningful employment. But a Wyoming greenhouse provides just that, planting seeds of dignity to cultivate robust lives and professional success.

 

The Full Read


To say Caroline Croft Estay is as bright and sparkly as the hot pink glitter polish she wears on her fingernails would be, at the very least, apt. The co-founder of Vertical Harvest in Jackson, Wyoming, sits in the break room of the greenhouse, where employees come and go, many stopping by to say hi, to give her updates, or simply to smother her in hugs.


“She’s just an inspiration,” says employee Destiny Kennington. “She’s smart, bubbly, kind, and really understanding of everyone and everyone’s personal needs.”


Ms. Croft Estay is also chief potential officer for the three-story farm that produces about 100,000 pounds of lettuce, microgreens, and tomatoes annually. That’s a big deal for this ski town, where the growing season is four months at best. Equally important, about 40% of the greenhouse’s employees are people with disabilities.


Disabled people often have a hard time finding meaningful work, and the purpose and community that come with it. Vertical Harvest provides that, with a unique employment model that recognizes certain traits as talent, and nurtures personal and professional growth by treating every individual with dignity.


Caroline Croft Estay makes a point during a JEDI meeting – a group at Vertical Harvest that meets regularly to discuss issues of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Employees are encouraged to participate and to share experiences and ideas.


The Grow Well model


The unemployment rate for people with disabilities in Wyoming is 9.7%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 five-year estimate. That’s lower than the 11.4% national average – which is about twice that of people without a disability.


Founded in 2016, Vertical Harvest was built to address this disparity, and its success is in part due to Ms. Croft Estay’s work in creating the Grow Well model of employment. Designed to foster employees’ professional development, personal discovery, and community impact, Grow Well uses customized employment plans that take into account individuals’ strengths, attributes, and aspirations.


Getting to know Johnny Fifles, who has autism, Ms. Croft Estay recognized his extraordinary attention to detail and ability to hyperfocus. As such, Mr. Fifles excels at seeding microgreens on cellulose mats in a single layer. “No more, no less,” he says.


This framework conveys dignity to every job. Workers thrive and get promoted.


“If I get a promotion, it’s telling me that I’m doing a good job and maybe in a few years, I’ll get another promotion or raise,” says Sean Stone, an original Vertical Harvest employee who’s risen to become a senior facilities associate. Previous jobs didn’t give him that same opportunity – or reason to hope. “If I’d be a dishwasher for four years, I may never get promoted,” he says.


Microgreens grow in trays that rotate through Vertical Harvest’s three-story greenhouse.


"Mama Bear"


Brought up in the South, Ms. Croft Estay studied psychology and education at the University of South Carolina, then fell in love with the Mountain West after a summer working in Yellowstone National Park. Losing her mother as a young child, and becoming a mother in her early 20s, likely cultivated her “mama bear” instincts, she says. “I’ve always looked out for the underdog. I think it’s just making sure that my cubs, everybody’s good.”


Ms. Croft Estay became a state-certified Medicaid provider, working one-on-one with disabled people. It was so difficult finding them employment that she considered creating a compost pickup program to provide them jobs. Local connections led her to Nona Yehia, an architect who was already working on an indoor farming project. The women teamed up to co-found Vertical Harvest, which is now expanding.


The company recently broke ground on a 70,000-square-foot building in Westbrook, Maine, that is expected to grow 2 million pounds of produce annually. And there are plans for additional facilities across the country, each one guided by the Grow Well model to cultivate dignity in underserved communities through inclusion and accessibility.


But getting here wasn’t easy. The company’s first year was challenging, says Ms. Croft Estay, who experienced her own growth then, too. She realized she’d been overprotecting some of her employees, sometimes speaking for or limiting them. “As a case manager here, I think I’m so progressive. I’m such an advocate,” she says. “It took this greenhouse to expose where I still had judgments or barriers or reservations.”


As if on cue, Ms. Croft Estay notices 40-year-old Mycah Miller, who has Down syndrome, and tells her to avoid picking at a small wound on her shoulder. “I’m watching you. I’m mothering you,” says Ms. Croft Estay, offering to put a bandage on it.



Vertical Harvest employee Michele Dennis gathers lettuce from one of the farm's rotating trays.


Business is Social


Grow Well goes beyond the workplace. Vertical Harvest fields a team in Jackson’s kickball league where 95% of employees participate. They also sell produce at farmers markets; lobby and march together to advocate for diversity, inclusion, and social justice; and have monthly “happiest hours” – an evening out on the town. People with disabilities are often lonely, Ms. Croft Estay notes, and these activities bring dignity to their personal lives.


Jessie Phillips-Grannis coordinates employment for people with disabilities for Community Entry Services in Jackson. She’s had several clients work at Vertical Harvest and calls the company’s approach effective and life-changing. One of her clients just started there.

“I am already seeing it being more empowering to him than other places he’s worked,” she says. “He feels he’s part of something that matters and that’s important and huge and something he isn’t going to find if he was working someplace else.”


Anna Olson, president of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, says Grow Well’s unique model showcases the potential for people of all abilities working together.


“Caroline ... really understands and believes [people with disabilities] have equal rights and equal ability to contribute in our community,” she says. “And we need to open our minds to that.”


“They are driving the future of what, hopefully, employing people with disabilities looks like,” says Ms. Phillips-Grannis.


Often, institutional structures and rules “remove the human side of the human,” Ms. Croft Estay says. But in the day-to-day grind of producing thousands of pounds of food, dignity supplants stereotypes.


“Because we are sitting here sweating, working side by side getting product out the door ... all those barriers and all those stigmas, they go away. ... We don’t do helplessness. ... We’re a family. We’re a system.”

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