People tour the Vertical Harvest greenhouse in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The company plans to build a similar but larger greenhouse in Westbrook. Courtesy photo

WESTBROOK — Vertical Harvest would provide jobs for the developmentally disabled at the greenhouse it plans for downtown while producing up to 1 million pounds of food per year, the company’s founders say.

Part of a proposed $60 million Mechanic Street parking garage and 50-unit residential project, the Westbrook greenhouse would be would 10 times bigger than Vertical Harvest’s site in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, according to company co-founders Nona Yehia and Caroline Estay.

Their business, Yehia and Estay say, complements rather than competes against local agriculture while providing career opportunities for people with developmental disabilities.

“When I had been working as a case manager for the Medicaid waiver for people with disabilities, I was working with (with school programs). We kept running into roadblocks as far as finding a professional career,” Estay said in a phone interview. “A lot of these jobs they get are two or three hours a week back-of-room jobs.”

Nona Yehia, left, and Caroline Estay in their vertical greenhouse in Wyoming. The planned greenhouse in Westbrook would employ 50. Courtesy photo

As in Jackson Hole, at least half of the employees at the Westbrook greenhouse would be people with disabilities. Vertical Harvest expects to employ a total of 50 people in the city. Employees are given $15 an hour to start with the potential to earn more.

The company will work with employees who have salary caps based on benefits they receive from the government, Estay said. They will provide flexible hours and workloads for the employees so they don’t miss out on receiving other essential services, which can often be a roadblock in finding work.

“About 16% of Maine’s population has disabilities, only 33% are employed and making very little income, so this would be a targeted labor force,” project developer Greg Day said at a presentation on the project. “We’ve been speaking with the Department of Human Labor and Services to help accommodate this.”

According to the U.S Department of Labor’s June 2020 report, people with disabilities make up 34% of the workforce nationwide, but Estay said most of those jobs are part time without room for advancement or career growth.

According to Best Buddies International, a nonprofit focused on expanding job opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, 85% of people with intellectual disabilities are unemployed.

Her developmentally disabled employees in Jackson Hole “hadn’t been able to find careers and now they found careers that can contribute to something that has potential of helping global problems,” Yehia said.

All employees work on the farming side of the job and also pitch in with marketing and research, Estay said.

Through the harvest, the employees have opportunities to working their way up into roles with more responsibility and develop their résumés within an expanding field.

This is important, Estay said, as finding jobs that provide a chance to grow is tough for many people with developmental disabilities, who are often stuck with entry-level jobs for the tenure of their career.

“When we did find them work, it was often jobs stuck behind the scenes or entry-level roles like grocery bagging,” Estay said.

While most vertical farming operations focus just on leafy greens, Vertical Harvest grows a diversity of crops, Yehia said.

“We utilize the physics of the building to do so and we basically stack greenhouses on each other. Each layer has a micro-climate,” she said.

The Wyoming greenhouse grows lettuce and microgreens on the first floor and the hotter, top floor is for vining crops like tomatoes.

The produce is sold to grocery stores and restaurants, Yehia said, and she and Estay are in talks with companies like Native Maine of Westbrook for distribution. They also hope to partner with chefs and state institutions.

Typically, the company avoids selling directly to consumers to avoid competing with small, local farms, Yehia said.

The goal is to sell the produce within 100 miles of Westbrook to strengthen the local supply chain and the economy, she said.

Westbrook made sense for their second location because the climate is similar to Wyoming’s and the community values of Jackson Hole and Westbrook align, the co-founders said.

Details including costs and designs for the apartments planned for the top are still being worked on, Day said.

The City Council approved preemptive partnership plans with the developers July 6. A Planning Board public hearing is planned for Sept. 1.

A rendering, provided by TDB, shows what the proposed parking garage, greenhouse and residential project would look like. File photo


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