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Ky. Ag-tech company AppHarvest brings first crop of indoor-grown tomatoes to grocers

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Posted at 3:31 PM, Jan 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-19 20:06:34-05

ROWAN COUNTY, Ky. (LEX 18) — After planting tomatoes on an indoor farm in Morehead, Kentucky in November, AppHarvest is delivering thousands of tomatoes to grocers across the country including Kroger, Meijer, Walmart, Food City and Publix.

The company began with the mission to create a new and more resource-friendly approach to growing food and boasts a 60-acre greenhouse in Morehead, one of the largest buildings in the world.

Their Founder and CEO Jonathan Webb explained why they chose Appalachia for their business.

"I'm standing in Eastern Kentucky what was formerly known as coal country where over the last decade most of those coal mines have shut down," he said. "This is an area of the country that was known for powering the US, you know, now we're going to be known for feeding the US with good healthy fruits and vegetables. I think we have some of the hardest working men and women in the country, those same with men and women that powered the country in the coal mines are working with us here in this facility."

He said their workforce of more than 300 employees are earning at least $15 for entry-level jobs and 100% of their healthcare is covered by the company in addition to offering skill-up classes in the evening to offer promotions to those dedicated to advancing their careers.

The goal is to transition to high-tech agriculture which the greenhouse concept allows for. Meanwhile, Webb explained, Appalachia is a prime location for food growth and market access.

He said, "if you look at a map, and you put Morehead, Kentucky, on it, zoom out and you'll see we can get to Detroit, Boston, New York, Washington DC, St. Louis, Atlanta all within a day drive."

Lastly, he explained the importance of water management in agriculture and how AppHarvest is attempting to handle that resource better than anyone else producing produce.

He said, "we're in a water-rich region. If you look at what fruit and vegetable are, 95% of it is water. We're able to run completely on recycled rainwater, that's to our understanding the only facility in the world that's able to do that. Five of the last 25 years here in Kentucky, are some of the wettest years on state record. We're getting wetter while much of the country is getting drier. So, to build these facilities in an area where we can collect all that rainwater, package it up into a fruit and vegetable and send it out to consumers is critically important in the long-term resiliency of this company. So, you know, why Central Appalachia? A lot of different reasons."

AppHarvest's Chief Sustainability Officer Jackie Roberts further explained the urgency of focusing on water. She said water, "is something that agriculture right now is consuming about 70 to 80% of our freshwater that's ground and surface water. And so, we need better solutions, how do we grow more food with less water? AppHarvest having a closed-loop system in the greenhouse means that we are re-circulating water we capture it first on those amazing roofs, you can see behind me. And we store it in a retention pond that's the size of about 70 Olympic swimming pools. When we bring it back into the greenhouse we just have to filter it through sand with it with some UV light. But then it stays in the greenhouse until it's used entirely."

Webb said the company's forward-thinking earned them a visit from an esteemed admirer.

"The UN Security Council visited us last time for the first time in our state history last year," explained Webb. "Why are people interested in what we're doing? The UN has put out that we need 50 to 70% more food by 2050. Some predict we would need up to two planet Earth's to have enough land and water to meet a growing population and rising middle class. The good thing is we have technology, the private sector can lead, and we can utilize that technology to grow with 90% less water than open-field agriculture; get 30 times more yield per acre. Get the harsh chemicals out."

TV-personality and AppHarvest Board Member Martha Stewart gave AppHarvest's first harvest of tomatoes a raving endorsement Tuesday morning.

She said, "This is the flavor we have all been craving. We all know about those tomatoes that come box that were picked, maybe even a month ago, we know how flavorless they are, and how probably devoid of nutrients, they are. So, when I saw these tomatoes when I saw what Jonathan is trying to do with his team of experts, right down there in Eastern Kentucky, I was absolutely entranced. And I think that we all need and want better food for us, for our families; for our friends. We want food that is sustainably grown free of chemicals, and we want food that tastes really good."

Stewart said AppHarvest's technology and innovation drew her in as did the company's choice in location.

AppHarvest has growth in its future with more greenhouses on the way. A 60+ acre facility is being built outside Richmond, Kentucky, while a 15-acre facility is in the works for leafy greens in Berea. The company plans to have 12 farms by the end of 2025.