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June 15, 2023

$80M Vertical Harvest project hits the halfway mark

CEO Nona Yehia Photo / Alexis Wells Vertical Harvest co-founder and CEO Nona Yehia is an accomplished architect who is building a vertical hydroponic greenhouse in Westbrook from the ground up.

Wyoming-based Vertical Harvest has hit the halfway mark in the $80 million build-out of a vertical farming venture in Westbrook. 

Vertical Harvest is creating an urban solution to feed local people by using a controlled environment to nurture vertically-grown agriculture, allowing communities to harvest vegetables year-round. 

“In the context of the New England food vision, which is the effort to try and increase the amount of locally grown produce to 30% by the year 2030,” said CEO Nona Yehia and co-founder, “how can we create alternatives to providing fresh produce for communities? I think that is what Vertical Harvest has set out to do to really bolster the local food economy.”

“Along this journey what we have realized is that food is going to be the defining issue of the 21st century. In order to be climate resilient we have to grow closer to where people eat,” Yehia told Mainebiz on a recent site tour. “We have positioned ourselves not only as a solution to environmental concerns that we all deal with in terms of climate resiliency but what are the social justice issues, what are public health issues, what are economic resiliency issues that we can address.” 

Alexis Wells
Vertical Harvest is located at 1 Mechanic St. in Westbrook.

Yehia chose Westbrook for its next location because of the “political will” and understanding of what a sustainable community is. Maine also has a climate that is similar to the original location in Jackson, Wy.  

It has similar operations in the works for Detroit, Chicago and Las Vegas. 

Vertical Harvest is all-level project funding by the USDA loan guarantee program. Construction is being done by Portland-based Wright-Ryan Construction and the growing systems are coming from the Netherlands. 

The mission is to not only grow food, but to grow futures. The company focuses on the employment needs of any community but what is consistent is people with intellectual and physical disabilities, who often have barriers to entry to employment. The farm doesn’t just hire people with disabilities, Yehia said it's a split of around 50-50. The policy demystifies disabilities and really focuses on people's abilities. 

Yehia told Mainebiz last week that the farm reduces the need for importing out-of-state produce; locals will be able to come in and buy produce.

Vertical Harvest is slated to produce 2 million pounds annually and provide fresh, nutritious food to local schools, hospitals, restaurants, markets and consumers. In addition to partnerships secured with Native Maine, Sodexo Maine and Hannaford Supermarkets, Vertical Harvest Westbrook will work with hospitals, corporate cafeterias, schools, chefs, restaurants and caterers.

How it works

Growing will take place on the second and third floors. It will look like a library, but stacked with plants. All of the foliage will be brought down to the first level, which is the processing and shipping area. 

Shell of building
Alexis Wells
An interior shot of the third floor, which will be a growing area.

Yehia likes to call it an “Amazon facility for food.” Microgreens, petit greens and head lettuce will be grown at the facility.

“Microgreens are really exciting because people are really understanding that they have 40 times the nutritional equivalent of their adult counterparts,” said Yehia. “Think micro basil, micro arugula, micro radish, micro broccoli and micro kale, the list goes on and the United Nations is looking at that kind of crop as a potential crop that could close the nutritional gap globally because it packs so much punch. That is a really exciting market for us. We have been growing it sustainably in Jackson and we are excited to make it not only a garnish but and actual ingredient on people's plates.”

The building is made of glass to take advantage of the power of the sun to nurture the plants.

Vertical Harvest
Courtesy / Vertical Harvest
A rendering of the planned Vertical Harvest in Westbrook.

What’s next?

Construction started in April 2022, and, as of Sept. 1, 2022, all four stories of steel were up, and the roof was topped off. The next phase will be the infrastructure; the facility is projected to open at the beginning of 2024. 

“It is amazing we got to this point,” Yehia said. “I am excited to see the second half of the project and have the community see it all come to life.” 


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