Taylor Eckerson likes being in the background.
When CNN, “Good Morning America” and documentarians come to film Vertical Harvest, they coordinate through Eckerson. But she’s never on screen.
She started working at Jackson’s innovative vertical farm as a volunteer. Five years later, at just 27, she’s chief of staff.
“I feel like, for the first time, I’m feeling really old,” Eckerson said with a laugh.
Eckerson’s job at the start-up sounds like the dream position for any college graduate who wants to change the world. But Eckerson never went to college.
In her hometown of Simsbury, Connecticut, which Eckerson described as “a nice to go back and visit, but good to get out of,” small-town restlessness was quick to settle in.
Some parts of her town she loved, like volunteering every season for the Special Olympics with her dad. But as high school graduation approached she begged her parents to let her go someplace radically different.
“The biggest thing when you’re leaving is like, ‘Where’s your kid going to college?’ So I felt like that was hard for me because I wasn’t going to college and there’s a lot of stereotypes around that,” Eckerson said.
After high school she returned to a place that captivated her the summer before during a travel program, convincing her hometown sweetheart, Chris, to follow.
Together they moved to Battambang, Cambodia, to teach elementary schoolers with a nonprofit.
But a few months in, Eckerson made a grave discovery. The school’s founder was pocketing money she and Chris had been pouring into the school’s operation.
“I was new in a big world trying to understand how to make a difference and impact,” Eckerson said. “We saw that and so we said, ‘We’re not going with you.’ [But] we decided to stay back and keep the school going.”
After six months in Cambodia, Eckerson didn’t want to leave the community she had come to consider family and the kids she was teaching.
But her savings were gone.
So in 2014, when Chris moved back to the United States to work at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Eckerson got a job in the resort’s daycare.
It was there that Eckerson first heard from a coworker about a new local company.
Its mission was to produce year-round locally farmed food and give employment opportunities to adults with disabilities.
“My initial reaction was: ‘You just described my dream job,’ ” Eckerson said.
She was one of Vertical Harvest’s first volunteers, jumping in wherever needed, becoming the right-hand-woman to the company’s founders, and working as an aid to many of the employees with disabilities.
“I’m so passionate about it.,” she said. “I just feel like maybe too passionate sometimes.”
That can translate to a lot of work.
“I want to be a resource to everybody,” Eckerson said. “I’m helping the entire executive team. And some of my best friends work in this building. But I’m also trying to do the work that I have on my plate. And so I think it just gets tiring.”
But for any tiredness, she knows how to recharge.
“Anytime I’ve had a bad day or things are really hard, the greater good is coming into this building. Seeing everybody’s happy faces. It just reminds you that we’re doing something really important,” Eckerson said.
Though she’s been back several times to see friends in Battambang, part of the motivation she gets now is residual from watching a good venture sour.
“I think I have a lot of guilt around leaving [Cambodia]. I was young, so I didn’t know what to do. I think back on that a lot,” she said.
And if anything, it’s given her more clarity.
“There are so many people that have so much to give, and they’re overlooked,” Eckerson said. “And I felt like that with those kids at that school, they were overlooked or not given that chance. And I feel like same for a lot of our employees here. They’ve been overlooked. They haven’t been given opportunities.”
As Vertical Harvest shifts out of “start-up mode,” Eckerson’s aspirations reach new heights. And she’s refusing to look down.
“This is a huge entrepreneurial thing, and I think it is scary to think of it not working. But we’re not dwelling on it,” she said. “We see the excitement from all these people, and how much they want to bring it to their community … There’s no pause time. It’s going time.”
In August, Eckerson once more brought her now-husband, Chris, into a new adventure. He’s Vertical Harvest’s new facilities manager.
The Eckerson’s have carved a meaningful life for themselves in Jackson, and now want a place of their own. Somewhere to paint the walls, with a yard for their golden retriever Dewey.
“We would stay forever if we could, but I feel like we’re starting to get, as with most people, pushed out of here,” Eckerson said.
Vertical Harvest is set to open a new 50,000-square-foot facility outside of Portland, Maine, in 2023. And the Eckersons have their sights set East.
But asked if she would ever leave the company Eckerson laughed again and rolled up her right sleeve.
“I couldn’t,” she said and pointed to young, outstretched leaves of a palm-sized tattooed sapling— the Vertical Harvest logo — on her arm.