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Will Kentucky’s ‘giga-greenhouse’ revolutionize high-tech farming?

AppHarvest’s new farming facility offers a sustainable spin on rural economic growth

Kentucky native Jonathan Webb near the future site of a 2.76 million-square-foot indoor warehouse in Eastern Kentucky.

Coal country in eastern Kentucky has been pitched numerous business ideas meant to jump-start the ailing Appalachian economy. A new proposal from a native son offers a unique spin on rebuilding the local economy, starting with tomatoes and cucumbers.

Jonathan Webb, a Kentucky native, has an expansive vision to turn a former cattle ranch in the city of Morehead into a 2.76-million-square-foot greenhouse, which will be North America’s largest. It’s part of a high-tech roadmap for the rural economy being advanced by his company AppHarvest.

The huge complex, consisting of glass-and-steel greenhouse technology imported from the Netherlands, will be built upon a 60-acre site and utilize some artificial lighting, as well as hydroponics and cutting-edge irrigation technology that will require 90 percent less water than traditional methods. Since the entire system is enclosed, the AppHarvest method eliminates the need for pesticides. Webb expects to grow roughly 40 million pounds of produce a year when the facility, which breaks ground this fall, is completed in 2020.

“Controlled environment agriculture is what wind and solar power was 15 years ago,” Webb says. “We’re still able to capture the sunlight and rain while layering on technology that aligns ourselves with nature and boasts yield in a natural way.”

Webb’s premise offers a new take on geography and economic destiny. Kentucky’s location atop mounds of coal made it a center of mining. Today, the combination of cheap land and proximity to major east coast cities makes it an ideal place to try out a new type of agriculture by building a greenhouse large enough to achieve economies of scale in addition to employing hundreds of locals.

A rendering of the AppHarvest greenhouse

The building will run on recycled rainwater, which allows for significant savings for a large-scale agriculture operation. Due to the shorter transit time from Kentucky to grocery stores in major markets like Chicago or New York—competitor products from California or Mexico can take up to five days to travel cross-country, compared to a day for AppHarvest—these greenhouse-grown tomatoes will cut down on transit costs and emissions and have longer shelf life once they arrive. Webb says they’ve already struck deals to sell to the top 25 U.S. supermarket chains, and he feels his company can become a domestic alternative to a good portion of the nearly 3.6 billion tons of tomatoes grown in Mexico and sold in the U.S. last year.

“The problem is that for many Americans, the food on your plate has traveled 1,500 miles to get there,” says Webb.

Sustainable energy inspired Webb’s new venture. After graduating from college in 2008, he decided to forgo an opportunity in coal sales and instead moved to New York City to work in solar energy. He later landed a job with the Department of Defense, installing solar panels for the military. After witnessing the dramatic evolution of renewable energy first hand, he believes a similar growth trajectory will occur in the tech-enabled agriculture, and that this shift can be a key part of helping his home state.

The AppHarvest site in Morehead, Kentucky.

Webb also seeks to get ahead of the race for another precious natural resource—water. Kentucky has seen increasingly wet and rainy weather over the last few years, and Webb’s project is in part a bet that this trend will continue, making the region a more hospitable place for building an agtech hub. With 70 percent of our freshwater going toward agriculture globally, farming in the United States will need to adapt to the more sustainable methods AppHarvest is developing.

Webb believes the cost will decrease as the industry matures, making this type of high-tech, controlled agriculture more competitive with traditional growers. When the greenhouse is up and running, it’ll employ 285 full-time workers at $13 an hour. He envisions a web of such warehouse greenhouses spreading across the country. To support his plan, he attracted investment from AOL co-founder Steve Case, Appalachian author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance, and activist investor Jeff Ubben, netting $82 million in funding to kickstart the project.

“Hopefully this is the beginning of a long project to develop and diversify the region’s economy,” Webb says. “We’re committed to making eastern Kentucky the agtech capital of America.”