WESTBROOK, Maine — Nona Yehia is an architect by trade. Like all creatives dream, she’s found her life’s calling.
On the heels of the 2008 recession, and with local food and real estate scarce in mountainous Jackson, Wyoming, Yehia gathered a team and put her skills to use.
"Vertical Harvest, really, came out of my belief that architecture can be a vehicle for change," Yehia said during a virtual interview.
After much planning and building, since 2016 Vertical Harvest has been growing fresh produce out of a three-story, glass-encased greenhouse in the middle of the town; producing 100,000 pounds of vegetables each year for the region.
When Yehia looked to expand her vertical greenhouse idea, the first place her team chose was Westbrook. Why?
"Maine and Wyoming both enjoy a long winter, and during that long winter we’re eating food that has been shipped in, right?" she posed. "And so, that food is not at the peak of its nutritional or taste value. That's something, I think, these food systems contribute to successful, sustainable communities."
Maine and Wyoming share a similar climate and need for locally-sourced food year-round.
Yehia flew in to tour the Westbrook construction site as August turned to September. When construction is completed in the fall of 2023, Westbrook’s facility will be larger than Jackson’s — much larger.
The glass and steel structure is, technically, three stories, but Yehia said it will stand as tall as a traditional six-story building. She said it will produce two-million pounds of food each year, and will be available in grocery stores and restaurants within 150 miles of the facility.
According to Maine Agriculture Commissioner Amanda Beal, 90 percent of the food Mainers eat comes from out of state. When talking specifically about leafy green vegetables, that number is even higher.
Yehia said Vertical Harvest would supplement, not supplant, food from Maine's farmers who can't harvest year-round.
When we asked Beal if she felt there would be room for the massive volume of food Vertical Harvest wants to produce, she said that Maine is a good state for trying new things when it comes to agriculture and feels there's a large enough market to sustain new practices.
"I think that there is increased consumer interest already in Maine-grown food... both by people that live here and people that visit here — and I really think we can continue to build on that," she answered.
With only one other example to point to, we wanted to speak with leaders in Jackson to gauge their experiences with the company. Hailey Morton Levinson voted to approve Vertical Harvest’s construction while on Jackson’s town council. Now, she’s the mayor.
"We couldn’t be happier or more proud to have Vertical Harvest as part of Jackson," she smiled. "And, then, as a community member, I’m super proud of what they do."
Morton Levinson lauded the fact that Vertical Harvest sought people living with developmental and physical disabilities to make up roughly have of its workforce in Jackson. Yehia, whose brother lives with a disability, said she would have the same hiring goals for Westbrook.
"It’s something that I’m proud to have come from Jackson but would love to see it in other communities and can’t wait to see the one in Westbrook," Morton Levinson continued about the company.
Westbrook Mayor Michael Foley met us just outside the construction zone in his downtown area as workers raised massive steel beams into place. He was eagerly awaiting the farm’s opening, now pushed back to fall of 2023 due to construction snags.
Vertical Harvest will share a building with a parking garage — free to the public, Foley said — as well as retail stores.
Foley said he made no financial promises to Yehia; no tax breaks, but open arms to build in the heart of his city.
"We’re laying the foundation for Westbrook’s future and the future is bright here in the city of Westbrook," Foley said.
Yehia said she's in talks with large cities like Chicago and Detroit as well. But Westbrook will be the blueprint for all future projects while the idea of year-round, Maine-grown produce remains a promising seedling as the building begins to take shape.