How AppHarvest is on a mission to help ‘feed the future’ from the heart of the Appalachians

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Cutting-edge science promoting natural processes, as well as a bushel of inspiration, are all at the origin of Eastern Kentucky’s AppHarvestSuccess. The AgTech Company grows fresh and nutritious produce on a chain of large, sustainable inland farms in a region traditionally reliant on coal for its economy.

The company’s Appalachian home is less than a day’s drive from 70 percent of the U.S. population, which means its produce is picked ripe, at optimum nutrition, and delivered direct to stores such as Walmart. , Kroger, and Costco, usually within one day. This reduces transportation fuel by up to 80 percent.

Within the huge covered farms, AppHarvest combines innovative technology with natural resources and agricultural know-how, “use less to produce more”, Jonathan webb, CEO, says We First.

Less means 90 percent less water (thanks to recycled rainwater). This means year round (weather resistant) yield in greenhouses. This means that there are no toxic chemicals in the local ecosystem, with insects such as bees keeping the plants healthy and thriving. No agricultural runoff. Much less food waste.

AppHarvest uses sophisticated software, humidity sensors and controls, nanobubble technology, and high pressure sodium LED hybrid lighting, all linked to machine learning programs that all create ideal growing conditions throughout. year. Its flagship 60-acre glass greenhouse produces about 30 times more food per acre than traditional farming – all non-GMO and chemical-free. The company grows or will soon grow tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, leafy greens, herbs and berries.

Plant your feet firmly in the land of coal

Aspiring to diversify and feed the world, AppHarvest’s roots remain firmly rooted in Appalachia, the heart of the coal economy (Webb’s own great-grandfather died in the mines). The company intends to build AgTech capital in the region, starting with the billion dollars already invested.

Webb grew up in Kentucky and founded AppHarvest in 2017 after years in the New York-based solar development industry. Sustainable investor Equilibrium capital Funded $ 82 million for the company to build its first greenhouse in 2019. The company also closed a separate Series A funding round led by social and environmental actors. ValueAct Spring Fund.

On “running a business in rural America,” says Webb, “we have billionaires trying to fly to other planets with their friends, but we don’t even have Americans” with adequate access to fresh food, jobs and opportunities. Thus, the idea is “a local food supply accessible to all, all year round”, explains the company. All for the good of humanity and the Earth.

In the meantime, the company has created hundreds of local jobs in a severely depressed market – more than 500 jobs during the COVID pandemic alone. Its 5th Congressional District homeport ranks second in the country for median income, laments Webb, and has been ranked last in a welfare survey.

“As the coal mines closed and no company replaced them, Webb wrote in the company statement. ESG Report 2020, “Our leaders observed that nearly 30 percent of our friends and neighbors, including 37 percent of children, have endured poverty. The Appalachians are in desperate need of investment from responsible businesses, creating jobs that put the worker first. “

Indeed, capital markets are awakening to opportunities in such areas, where investments can lift all boats. The strengthening of AppHarvest Series A was the first investment offered by Revolution’s “Rise of the Rest” seed fund, led by AOL co-founder Steve Case and Hillbilly elegy author JD Vance.

The idea behind “Rise of the Rest,” says Webb, “was to invest in ideas that weren’t just New York, Boston, and LA. And I lived in New York. I love New York, but the concentration of capital that goes to companies in San Francisco, New York, and Boston – that’s a problem. That’s part of the reason we have the political divide in the country that we have right now. have to figure out how to create an inclusive economy that is there for everyone. here. I do it here is as important as Why we are doing it.

Seeds of major change

“We are in the first round of controlled environment farming,” says Webb. “We won’t have a choice. We have to grow a lot more food with a lot less resources, in the midst of the destruction of the climate.

“We have no choice but to use technology, to use infrastructure, to build facilities with

proven technology, creating new technologies on top of that, AI and robotics, but in many cases steel, glass, lighting, all proven to grow fruits and vegetables’ in a much more sustainable than traditional farming, explains Webb. “To reduce the human footprint… we have to use technology and we have to use infrastructure. And agriculture has to be a huge, huge part of the solution. “

In fact, Webb believes that during his lifetime all the fruits and vegetables we eat will have been grown in controlled environments such as the huge greenhouses at AppHarvest.

“I hope that 2050 is not a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world where you have the privilege of eating a fruit or a vegetable in nutrient-rich soil,” says Webb. “But if we don’t turn the ship around quickly, we won’t have a choice. We are going to have to grow up in controlled environments.

Looks good to me. But are AppHarvest’s products better than what we’re used to? How are their gardens or organic farms? The company is committed to delivering premium taste – Martha Stewart sits on its board – which they say is automatically better if your tomato has been grown overnight instead of weeks and transported. by truck from Mexico. Automatically better without the twenty or so chemicals in the average supermarket product.

“But I always say if you can get an organic fruit or vegetable in your grandmother’s or grandfather’s garden, so much the better. This is the best place to go. And you should do it, ”says Webb. “But for the middle of winter, or late fall or spring, all year round, controlled environment farming produces, no chemicals, high in nutrients” is actually best. “We can give the plant exactly what it needs to fruit and mature exactly the way we want it to… We don’t manipulate the plant, we manipulate the environment around the plant: humidity, lighting, heat control. “

And of course, indoor farming also benefits the soil. “I consider myself to be a loyalist from the ground,” says Webb. “I’m as tied to the ground as anyone else. The reality is, we can’t feed 10 billion people and keep extracting nutrients from the soil… We extract nutrients from the soil, and it breaks down, doesn’t replenish itself. We extract water from our freshwater aquifers and again, we are not replenishing ourselves.

Webb sees AppHarvest’s efforts “to coincide with the organic open field regenerative farmer, but the organic open field regenerative farmer is going to have a hard time… the math doesn’t get us there. We cannot feed 10 billion people all year round with soil without abusing the soil and degrading it with harsh chemicals.

Growing communities and minds

AppHarvest was founded as a registered public benefit company. It was quickly certified B Corp and is now one of the first publicly traded PBCs.

Largely drawn from under-represented communities and partly from second-chance or just-luck employment programs, AppHarvest employees are offered free evening and weekend classes in collaboration with regional universities. The company is also working with local high schools to teach agriculture to young people, using a high-tech container farm to educate students on growing and marketing leafy vegetables.

In the meantime, it aims to educate the masses, one farmer at a time, one consumer at a time, one retailer at a time. “It’s maddening to see that the technologies are available” to increase our food supply in a more sustainable, even regenerative way, says Webb. “It’s a lack of leadership, a lack of initiative from the private sector, a lack of government leadership, to be able to put these solutions in place. But environmentally controlled agriculture coupled with renewable energy – the potential to solve both energy and food security challenges on a global scale – forget about AppHarvest, it’s more of an industry as a whole, and how can we move this forward over the next 10 years as quickly as possible? “

The secret, according to Webb, isn’t necessarily to keep tweaking bots and reiterating technology. “Nature is absolute technology, real technology,” says Webb. “We have no idea. We don’t even know what nature is yet. The microbes in the soil, the way plants communicate with each other, we have no idea. We are still trying to understand.

“Our approach at AppHarvest is to put nature first, to try to support from behind with technology and to unleash the true potential of what nature has to offer. So for us, we start with a seed and work on growing a plant from that seed and just giving the plant what it wants.

If you want to dig deeper with more targeted companies like AppHarvest, check out the Lead with We podcast. here, so you too can build a business that transforms consumer behavior and our future.


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