Little did Ashlyn Heller ’13 know that a project for her sixth-grade science class would lay the foundation for her future career. Challenged with the task of creating an environmentally conscious project that would respond to climate change, Ashlyn and her science partner, Grace Thompson ’13, created a vertical farm model designed to feed urban populations while reducing land use.
Throughout the years, Ashlyn has continued to explore her passion for food – specifically in the areas of food writing and the psychology of food. After graduating from Amherst College last May, Ashlyn pursued an opportunity in San Francisco at Plenty, an indoor farming startup that has revolutionized urban farming technology.
“Vertical farming is the practice of growing produce in vertically stacked layers to attempt to produce food in challenging environments,” explains Ashlyn. In addition to traditional cultivation in soil, vertical farming may also use hydroponic or aeroponic growing methods. The many advantages of vertical farming include year-round crop production, elimination of agricultural runoff, a significant reduction of fossil fuel consumption, and the possibility of sustainable production for urban centers. Plenty, for example, builds its indoor farms near population centers, so its produce is grown without pesticides or herbicides, and is only a short drive from the local stores where it is sold.
“Since Plenty is a startup, I do a little bit of everything,” says Ashlyn. She has worked with the farm operations, product development and post-harvest teams on sensory testing as well as with set designers, engineers and plant scientists to create an interactive tour facility that will change the way people think about farming.
Ashlyn credits her interests in agriculture to NA Science Teacher Deb Tavares, who inspired her 12 years ago to explore environmental science and vertical farming. “She made science fun and engaging and taught me that being curious and intellectual was cool, despite what sixth graders valued at that age,” recalls Ashlyn. “Current students don’t know it yet, but they are so lucky to have a role model like Ms. Tavares.”