Nate Storey's greenhouse in Laramie, Wyoming is packed with vegetables growing in long, upright plastic towers.
Storey's set up is 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. Like a proud father he shows off bok choy, butter lettuce and spinach.
“You can grow anything,” Storey said. “We've grown tomatoes and very large statured crops.” Storey said they've even grown watermelons. “It works until they're about 20 pounds a piece and then things start falling.”
Outside the greenhouse the wind howls, the winters are frigid and the soil is either silt or clay. If you want to grow crops people actually eat in Wyoming, Storey says you have to do it indoors. Storey 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 said. “Are they really with us on the urban farming level, not necessarily, because they're not urban people. They're largely rural people.”
Big Country, Small Farms
Talking about Wyoming, the superlatives come easy. Its farms and ranches are the largest in the country. It has the fewest number of vegetable farms of any state. There are more acres of vegetables growing in Alaska.
Beef is king in Wyoming. So when Storey started his business building equipment for urban farmers, called Bright Agrotech, 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,” Storey said. “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.”
Virtually everything other than beef or a few other crops have been brought in from other states or abroad.
Karen Panter, a University of Wyoming horticulture extension specialist, says some in Wyoming think of their state as one big, small town. Panter says, until recently, there just wasn't an interest in growing large quantities of vegetables in Wyoming.
“Because we are a rural state, we don't have, or did not historically have a lot of our own production,” Panter said. “Virtually everything other than beef or a few other crops have been brought in from other states or abroad.”
But now there's more interest in growing food in Wyoming. The number of greenhouses here tripled from 2007 to 2012.
Nona Yehia is one of the architects behind Vertical Harvest, a high density, three-story greenhouse currently under construction in the ritzy ski town of Jackson, Wyoming. Its high-end restaurants and wealthy visitors make Jackson the ideal market for local food. But some basic logistics are hard to get past.
“Jackson has a very short growing period,” Yehia said. “We can only grow food really four months at best. So there is a pretty strong local food movement, but it's fairly short-lived in terms of its seasons.”
That means the hotels, grocery stores and schools in Jackson that are clamoring to source locally, are for the most part out of luck. Food hubs have taken off in other parts of the country to coordinate local food distribution and production. But the entire state of Wyoming is without one, though a hub is in the planning stages in the state's northern Big Horn Basin.
At Nate Storey's greenhouse in Laramie a handful of gardeners transferred little sprouts into their new homes in the plastic towers.
“Last year at this time we were a four person organization,” Storey said. “And we're 16 people now. We've quadrupled our workforce this year. “
Storey says most of his new hires are young university grads, interested in farming. And until now, they've had few opportunities to grow food in the land of wide open spaces.