Is This Giant Hydroponic Greenhouse in Kentucky the Future of Farming?
When Jonathan Webb arrived at the 500-acre former cattle farm he purchased in 2019, it was essentially an empty green field. He bought an RV and set it up on a hill with the water tower behind him and Daniel Boone National Forest out front. When massive, earth-moving construction started the same year, Webb joked with locals that he was building a giant communication tower to the aliens, helping other intelligent life find Morehead, Kentucky.
But Webb’s real interest was saving Planet Earth.
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“We believe that Planet Earth is the hidden gem of the known universe,” Webb tells me during a tour of his AppHarvest facility, the $150 million, 60-acre greenhouse (think 50 football fields) that briefly ranked as the 9th largest building in the world when it opened in October 2020.
“I’m a huge believer that nature is the most technologically advanced thing we have on Planet Earth, and we need to harness it,” says Webb, the 36-year-old founder and CEO of AppHarvest. The corporation went public in February, earning a $1 billion valuation. “Whoever developed nature out there, that’s higher forms of intelligence. Building an iPhone? That’s easy. Go build organic biomatter and have it grow all over the place.”
The Morehead facility is the first of 12 high-tech farms that Webb is planning to build throughout eastern Kentucky. At its core, AppHarvest runs on the agricultural resources that have helped humans feed themselves for over 10,000 years: sun and water. But there’s two caveats: First, AppHarvest doesn’t use soil; its hydroponic system means it is heavily reliant on man-made fertilizers (but without pesticides). Second, the greenhouses use technology like robotics and AI to better predict crop health and yield. Webb, in fact, balks at the term greenhouse, preferring to call his colossal projects “data driven farms.”
“A greenhouse is not a greenhouse in the same way a sports car in 1940 has nothing in common with a 2021 Tesla except for four wheels and a steering wheel,” he says.
Webb’s goal is to lower domestic dependence on pesticide-laden foreign imports, which provide 70 percent of U.S. vine crops at the grocery store (tomatoes, berries, cucumbers, peppers). And Webb, a Kentuckian himself, wants to provide jobs to Appalachia. But his motivation goes beyond that, he says, to the same obsessive anxiety many in his generation are facing: the screeching freight train of climate change.
“I know people don’t really believe me, but every night, including last night, I am personally terrified about the future of human existence,” Webb says. “I mean 2050, it’s coming, and our heads are in the sand, and Rome is burning, and we’re not moving fast enough.”
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Webb’s plan for a new agricultural economy could bolster a region known for landscapes and livelihoods heavily scarred by the coal industry, a primary driver of the greenhouse gas emissions feeding the climate crisis. The reality of this crisis escalates daily: heat waves and unrelenting wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, drought evaporating drinking water in the Southwest, metronomic hurricanes emptying coastal towns, and extreme ice storms and flooding events devastating croplands and communities across the Midwest and the South.
Webb claims AppHarvest’s “controlled-environment agriculture” is the third wave of tech-laden solutions, following renewable energy grids and electric cars, and will help shore up a U.S. food supply amid these unpredictable weather extremes.
But is controlled environment agriculture at AppHarvest’s scale a climate solution, or just another energy-intensive distraction? And are Kentuckians truly going to be the beneficiaries of a company following a corporate playbook, beholden to corporate shareholders? Webb’s is an unapologetically ecomodernist approach, with a full-throttle embrace of capitalism — though, in a strange contortion, he self-identifies as anti-establishment. “I’m anti-Wall Street. This is the first stock I’ve ever owned,” he says, adding that he has since bought into both Bitcoin, Dogecoin, and a few others. “But the reality is, how do we use the private sector for good?”
The ecoleft would say that runaway technology and capitalism got us into this climate mess, and are the last tools we should be reaching for, but Webb is betting big that they are wrong.
“We can use private sector capital to rebuild this world,” says Webb. “We can’t just demonize the systems in place. We need to use them. We’re all pawns. Play the game and win. This generation has got to be the one of action and less talk at this point. There’s nothing to talk about anymore. Just do it.”
At 7 a.m. on a Tuesday in early June, Webb is already bursting with energy, hands shoved in his pockets, rocking back and forth from his heels to his toes. He’s dressed in his typical uniform: grey running shoes, acid-wash jeans, a baseball cap atop shaggy strawberry blond hair, round tortoiseshell glasses and a mustache. His black T-shirt reads “APPH Nasdaq Listed,” a celebration of when AppHarvest went public on February 1st, 2021.
He jumps between topics quickly, pausing to tell me he has attention deficit disorder in the midst of a speech about their pest-management system. Travis Parman, an AppHarvest spokesperson, jokes that their management team is pinged left and right by Webb. “If it’s in his head, it’s in a text,” Parman says.
Beneath Webb’s fast-talking, grand-metaphor-inducing world visions might be a bit of a savior complex, complete with a tidy origin story of the genius striking out on his own, a la the founders of Google in their garage. Except with Webb, it was a small cabin in Pikeville, Kentucky, where he says he showed up with a backpack, his laptop and a dream (he was also given an office at the University of Pikeville). Three years later, he has a management team and board of directors culled from Impossible Foods, ExxonMobil, and the Environmental Defense Fund. Plus Martha Stewart, who joined after a visit from Webb in 2019.
While Webb’s ambitions are grand, he’s no stranger to large-scale, new-economy projects. When he graduated from the University of Kentucky’s business program in 2008, at the height of the recession, he applied to hundreds of jobs before finding his way into a career in Washington, D.C. during the Obama administration, building solar grids on Department of Defense land. There, he watched the solar and wind industries blast off over the same decade that coal irrecoverably collapsed due to competition from natural gas, mechanization, and thinning seams.
At the same time, Webb began hearing about food security. By 2050 the world will need up to 70 percent more food than it currently produces to feed a predicted 9.7 billion people and a rising middle class, according to an oft-cited 2009 report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Webb read about a solution in a 2017 National Geographic article, “How Netherlands Feeds the World,” highlighting enormous Dutch greenhouses that provide huge quantities of food year-round with a smaller square footage than traditional farming. He quit his job and started AppHarvest that same year.
“To get to 50-70 percent more food, as we currently grow it, we would need two Planet Earths,” says Webb. And there are more demands on the planet than just agriculture. Conservation biologists like E.O. Wilson predict we need to preserve half of the world’s land and water to protect 80 percent of the remaining biodiversity on the planet.
“So how do we free up land and water?” Webb asks, spreading out his arms in front of the greenhouse, “You’re looking at it.”
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At the entrance to the greenhouse’s west side, Webb dons a mad scientist lab coat and we take off on a Power Bee, a tiny yellow vehicle pulling two metal carts. The Bee beeps our way through hundreds of rows of tomatoes, the glass-paneled ceiling towering above us like an airport hangar, with Webb greeting everyone we pass — “Let’s rock and roll” being a preferred salutation.
Annually, up to 45 million pounds of tomatoes (from about 720,000 plants) will be harvested from this single greenhouse. Each tomato plant — red, round beefsteak tomatoes on the east side, and tomatoes-on-the-vine twisting through the west side — is carefully monitored through a control room decked out with standing desks and large screens where the temperature, nutrients, water, and light are watched and tweaked. Soon, other AppHarvest greenhouses will grow things like lettuce and strawberries.
AppHarvest claims to produce up to 30 times the yields of conventional agriculture. “This 60-acre under-glass facility can do the equivalent of 1,500-2,000 [open-field] acres in California or Mexico,” says Webb as he peels past a group of workers, some with wet towels on their heads and others with grey fans that look like large headphones around their necks, provided after workers complained of the heat.
AppHarvest says they’ve also reduced water consumption by 90 percent compared to traditional open-field agriculture by using a closed loop irrigation system that’s 100 percent reliant on rainwater, which makes Kentucky an optimal location — the state has had its wettest decade on record, and in 2020 was the wettest state in the U.S.
“You look at all these tech billionaires looking to leave the planet and go to Mars, but water is the one thing Planet Earth has that nowhere else in the known universe has,” Webb says, talking quickly. “When water becomes the price of oil, that’s that Mad Max post-apocalyptic world that’s on the horizon if we don’t get it straight.”
Kentucky is also optimal because the location cuts down on shipping distances, AppHarvest says. Seventy percent of the U.S. is within a day’s drive of Kentucky, reducing transportation emissions by 80 percent. And, they tout, a 50/50 mix of LED and traditional light bulbs has reduced their electricity consumption by almost 20 percent.
But energy is perhaps the most pressing problem in controlled-environment agriculture, especially in Kentucky, which, as of 2019, still depended on coal for 73 percent of its electricity generation.
“Here in Kentucky, electricity primarily comes from coal, so with an AppHarvest tomato we’re trading fossil fuels for this product,” says Martin Richards, formerly an organic farmer and now executive director of Community Farm Alliance, a Kentucky nonprofit founded by dairy and tobacco growers in 1985.
In controlled-environment agriculture, most of the resources naturally utilized in traditional farming are provided artificially, which can make greenhouses hugely energy intensive.
“You have to construct greenhouse facilities, and then literally build systems that replace what nature would otherwise provide,” says Ricardo Salvador, director and senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ food and environment program. “A good rule of thumb on the thermodynamics of it is the more technology you use, the more energy you use, and the more carbon dioxide equivalents you’re going to generate.”
A 2015 study in Yuma, Arizona comparing hydroponic lettuce with conventional lettuce growth reported that while hydroponics produced over 10 times the conventional yield, growers also used 82 times more energy.
AppHarvest’s baseline carbon footprint has not yet been determined since operations began in October 2020. They say they are waiting to have a year’s worth of data and expect to include it in their 2021 sustainability report.
But Webb is quick to denounce criticisms. When I ask him about the energy problem, he says AppHarvest is an agricultural company, not an energy company: “Tesla, they build electric vehicles that go on the grid. They’re not building solar for every car in the same way we’re not building solar for our fruits and vegetables.”
AppHarvest is, however, trying to lower its fossil fuel use, says Jackie Roberts, the company’s chief sustainability officer. She’s working with Schneider Electric, a sustainable energy specialist, on a request for proposals to add renewables into the grid.
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The long-term goal is “minimal carbon emissions,” she insists, but until then, she says, the benefits of AppHarvest’s net ecological footprint outweigh the adverse effects of its energy consumption, including its ability to conserve water and avoid agricultural runoff from fertilizers and pesticides.
The result, Webb hopes, could be not only a more sustainable system but a model for other greenhouses globally. After AppHarvest went public, he says he began getting calls from foreign dignitaries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. “We’re having the global food security conversation on a farm in freaking Morehead, and the brightest people in the world are going to be part of these conversations,” he says. “I’m a huge fan of underdogs, and you talk about the underdog concept of we’re the first publicly traded company in this sector, and we’re in rural America.”
“If we do half of what we’re talking about,” he adds, “we will be one of the largest food and agricultural companies in my lifetime.”
A few minutes into our tour, Webb suddenly stops the Power Bee in front of a dozen employees huddled together in matching blue T-shirts. (Blue signals they work with tomatoes-on-the-vine; orange T-shirts signal beefsteaks.)
“Hey, my man, I’m sorry to interrupt, but we’re going to do an all hands on Thursday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. to celebrate our accomplishments,” Webb says to their supervisor, jumping down from the Power Bee. An “all hands,” Webb explains later, is essentially a pep rally to boost employee morale via rock concerts and games of corn hole, and a chance to give back to his community of workers.
Employees at AppHarvest make a “living wage” which drills down to roughly $13/hour for entry level employees (a productivity-guided “piece rate” can earn workers up to $20/hour), along with “whole family” benefit packages including health, dental, vision, and life insurance, with 100 percent of premiums paid for all family members, a 401K match program, shares in the publicly traded company, and monthly CSA boxes. AppHarvest estimates an entry-level worker earns 71 percent of Rowan County’s household median income.
These workers include former coal miners and tobacco growers, according to Parman, the AppHarvest spokesperson, but the company also plans to locate all 12 of its agricultural facilities in Kentucky college and university towns, tapping students for skilled engineering jobs, especially in the robotics and AI sector.
According to Webb, more than 8,000 people applied for positions at AppHarvest in less than a year; over 500 were hired. That number will grow to more than 1,500 employees by the end of 2022 once new farms are up and running, including Berea, a 15-acre leafy-green facility, and Richmond, a 60-acre tomato facility. On June 21st, AppHarvest broke ground at yet two more facilities, a second 10-acre farm for leafy greens adjacent to the Morehead campus, and a 30-acre strawberry farm in Somerset.
“I personally believe the hardest working men and women in the U.S. are in eastern Kentucky, and it’s deplorable how we’ve shut down the coal mines and no one said what’s next,” Webb says.
When he talks about why he started AppHarvest in Kentucky, Webb leans heavily into his ties to Appalachia. His grandmother, he says, was born in eastern Kentucky, and grew up in a home with a dirt floor; her father died in a coal mining accident when she was three years old. Webb’s own father grew up in a children’s home until he was 12, and neither of his parents have college degrees. His sister, who married a man from Pike County, Kentucky’s easternmost point, works as a state social worker. Webb himself is originally from outside Lexington, and he’s vague about where he currently resides (aside from a smattering of RV’s across construction sites). Instead he calls himself “a resident of Kentucky.”
His narrative caught the attention of Kentucky’s Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat elected in 2019, who has made ag-tech his top economic development priority. In June 2020, Beshear announced a partnership between Kentucky, the Dutch government, and other organizations, facilitated by AppHarvest, committed to making Kentucky the U.S. Agri-Tech capital.
Webb wants his Morehead facility to become a kind of campus for America’ new ag-tech economy, and to create a pipeline for eastern Kentuckians into jobs in the industry. Out of the first $1 million raised in venture capital funding in 2019, AppHarvest donated a quarter of those funds to education. Before Morehead was under construction, AppHarvest built a container farm at Shelby County High School, and later, at Rowan County Senior High School.
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“We know AppHarvest is the future of farming for Rowan County because we’re all hills and not a lot of flat land,” says Brandy Carver, principal of Rowan County Senior High School. According to Carver, before AppHarvest the main industries were Morehead State University, St. Claire Regional Medical Center, and SRG Global, a plastics factory. “AppHarvest in general has been a great opportunity for the community here, so we do anything we can to help students be more prepared [to work there] because we know it’s a viable job opportunity when they leave high school,” says Carver, adding that on a recent tour of AppHarvest, she saw a half-dozen former students just in one section of the greenhouse.
But not everybody sees a bright shiny future in Webb’s vision. As agri-tech takes hold in Kentucky, it could complicate the prioritization of small, organic farmers caretaking the land, water, soil, and local economies, says Richards of the Community Farm Alliance (CFA). “AppHarvest isn’t farming. It’s industrial food production,” he says. “When you’re farming, it’s about a relationship with a piece of land and good stewardship.”
Richards ran Earth Heart Farm in southern Woodford County for 20 years, transitioning the landscape from tobacco monoculture to organic produce. Unlike energy-intensive indoor agriculture, which emits carbon, small organic farms can cut out pesticides and fertilizers while also sequestering carbon in the soil by limiting bad land-management practices like tilling and overgrazing. Food grown in soil might also be more nutritious, at least according to soil loyalists who are skeptical that food can be as healthy grown in an artificial environment.
“We want to make it clear our competition is not the American farmer,” Webb says, adding that they began with tomatoes to compete with Mexico’s number-one import that relies on chemical pesticides AppHarvest doesn’t use. “The dirty stuff, that’s our competition, and we will ruthlessly go after them. Our goal is to put them into bankruptcy. The food and agriculture companies of today are the cigarette companies that existed in the 1970s.”
While Richards supports taking on dirty agriculture, he’s uneasy about the possible unintended consequences of AppHarvest’s model, and whether the benefits will reach Kentucky farmers. While the original goal was displacing produce from Mexico, Richards says AppHarvest is now displacing local farm products in Kentucky as AppHarvest tomatoes show up in state supermarkets like Kroger, Meijer, and IGA. For nearly a decade, CFA has worked to create “Kentucky Double Dollars,” a food-access program that provides incentives for folks using federal food benefits like SNAP to support Kentucky farmers at retailers. When AppHarvest tomatoes show up at those same retailers, those hard-won benefits are then going to AppHarvest, instead of small farmers.
“It is a bit of a slap in the face for those of us who’ve been doing this work for a long time to see that work ultimately go to this for-profit and their shareholders who aren’t even in Kentucky,” Richards says.
AppHarvest was founded as a public benefit corporation and a certified B-Corp, meaning it’s a for-profit company with a duty to consider stakeholders’ best interests, but those interests must include public-facing goals such as driving environmentalism in agriculture, empowering Appalachians, and improving the lives of their employees and communities.
Salvador, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, says while the employment AppHarvest provides for Kentuckians is a social good, “In the end they’re still employees, and the major benefit goes to folks that provide the capital, who live and run businesses in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. The money made is going to concentrate in those areas. For real economic development, you really want entrepreneurs and for folks to produce outdoors.”
AppHarvest’s big-business agricultural model could be a generational boon for the region, but it’s not a sure thing. There’s a lot of excitement about ag-tech right now, and venture capital is pouring into the sector, but it’s a new enough frontier that an operation growing at the scale and speed of AppHarvest hasn’t really been proven out yet, at least not in the U.S.
AppHarvest’s 2020 sustainability report predicts investing $1 billion by 2025, but they’ve yet to make a profit. During 2021’s first quarter as a publicly traded company, AppHarvest sold almost 4 million pounds of tomatoes, reaching $2.3 million in net sales — pretty measly for a public company with a $1 billion valuation — and the company is still under a $28.5 million net loss.
That worries Richards, who’s spent decades watching the chokehold of boom and bust economies across Kentucky. When CFA was founded during the 1980s farm crisis, their first act was to set up a suicide hotline for struggling farmers. “I’ve certainly seen this in rural communities in Kentucky that depended on tobacco or coal,” Richards says. “Those things are part of the culture, but the communities have been in crisis. When they lose the resource, they lose their identities, and it creates a lot of fear.”
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According to a 2021 Air, Soil and Water Research article, the two biggest costs in controlled-environment agriculture are energy and labor, which together make up three-quarters of the total. An IDTechEx report cited bankruptcies littering the industry, including PodPonics and FarmedHere, “operators of the largest vertical farms in the world,” which shut down in 2016 “after struggling with spiralling power and labour costs and organisational complexities,” the report stated.
“A lot of indoor farms are struggling,” Eric Stein, a professor at Penn State Great Valley School and executive director of the Center of Excellence for Indoor Agriculture, tells Rolling Stone. “They’re not making a lot of money and many are losing money. Some are breaking even.”
But, he adds, “Greenhouses [like AppHarvest] are more likely to be profitable than an indoor farm at this point because they have a longer history of implementation and refinement.”
AppHarvest’s glass design uses sunlight and has lower energy costs than typical indoor farms, which rely entirely on lighting in enclosed factories. “The Dutch perfected these things over the years, and AppHarvest has collaborated with Dutch companies for these greenhouses,” Stein says, who himself has bought a couple hundred shares in AppHarvest. “Eventually most tomato greenhouses are profitable, otherwise they wouldn’t be replicated around the world. It’s just going to take a while to recoup the capital costs. They’re not insignificant.”
It’s perhaps no surprise that AppHarvest hasn’t released information on their energy costs yet. According to Stein, getting hard data on energy usage from growers is a challenge. “No one wants to release [that data] because of their investors. The investors want their money back over a certain amount of time, and this is a very touchy subject. One has to be clear that this is not like Silicon Valley. It may use Silicon Valley money and terminology, but these [greenhouses] are not unicorns. These are not things that are going to give you a 500 percent return on your investment. You’d be lucky if you got a 15-20 percent year on profitability.”
But Webb is confident there is nothing but growth in AppHarvest’s future.
“The whole build-it-and-they-will-come thing, that’s happening,” he says, referring to the 1989 movie Field of Dreams. “Our headquarters will be here [in Morehead], but for us at AppHarvest, it’ll be a question of how quickly we want to enter the global stage. We’re not ready today, but we’re well aware that once we have several going [in Kentucky], we’re going to be in one or two continents overseas pretty quickly.”
At the end of my tour through the greenhouse, Webb walks me over to his RV, reducing the choices facing the world into two multi-million-dollar box office dystopias: Mad Max or Avatar.
“We have two distinct paths, and there’s no middle,” Webb says. “We’re going into a post-apocalyptic Mad Max world or we’re going into an Avatar-type world where we’re going to use technology and align with nature, but there is no in between. It’s one or the other.”
Webb, and his mission, can come across as evangelical. He grew up in church, and he describes his parents as devout Christians. When he pitches his founder’s story, when he talks about the climate crisis, when he pivots toward capitalism as a solution, he’s proselytizing.
“Who’s your maker? Where are you going? Who do you have to answer to? Whether it’s nature, or the universe, or whatever god you pray to, having morals and ethics in what you consume, and the way you work, and where you choose to work, and how you choose to work matters,” Webb says. “We have to make an ethical choice.”
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Outside his RV, he gets agitated, quickly tossing a football between his hands and pacing between a picnic table and his fire pit.
“We’re literally trapped here on Planet Earth unless you’re the billionaire that’s going to spend $28 million to go fly with Jeff Bezos. Like, are you fucking kidding me? The rest of us, and I would put myself in that camp, although things are changing financially every day, I’m not flying off Planet Earth.”
Webb punts the football he’s been spinning, and it arcs toward AppHarvest and the hills behind it.
“Help!” he shouts, looking at me, and then up to the sky. “Help Planet Earth survive so we can stay here.”
He looks frazzled, and he looks like he means it. In Kentucky, Webb isn’t short on disciples. The picnic table could be a pulpit. The gleaming glass of AppHarvest could be his congregation. The tomato could be an apple; the apple could be capitalism; capitalism could be the original sin. The original sin could be the pathway to a better future, or it could just be another LED-lit mirage.
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