The founder of an east Kentucky company creating a 2.76 million square-foot greenhouse to grow and ship produce regionally says the coronavirus pandemic shows a need for resilience with regional food systems, something the company aims to create in its larger vision of making Appalachia an “AgTech capital.”
Morehead-based AppHarvest announced last month new plans to collaborate with the Netherlands government, Dutch companies, Kentucky state government and local universities to create more foriegn agricultural investment in Appalachia. The collaboration includes creating educational programs centered around agriculture technology, involving the University of Kentucky, University of Pikeville, Morehead State University, Eastern Kentucky University, and Berea College. The company also plans to establish an office in Kentucky to promote more Dutch investment in greenhouse agriculture.
AppHarvest founder Jonathan Webb in a recent interview said the company originally had a larger vision to include research programs and government collaboration along with building a large produce greenhouse, formatting its business plan off of agriculture in the Netherlands that creates more food with less land.
“All we're trying to do now is really take the playbook that they've created, and just bring it over to our region and get our state government, working with our universities, working with private companies to share information, transfer knowledge, be collaborative, and again, build an ecosystem that they have over there,” said Webb.
Webb said the involvement of stakeholders like regional universities along with paying workers living wages is part of the company’s process in creating trust among the community leadership. Other industries like coal in recent months have left hundreds of miners without pay, and economic development in the region has faced challenges.
AppHarvest in an overview of the collaboration said it plans to invest about $1.5 billion over the next five years, with a goal of using up to 500 acres of land for greenhouse agriculture in the region, compared to just the current 60-acre facility in Morehead.
Webb said the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t slowed construction of the company’s Morehead site, still slated to open September 1, 2020. The company in its overview also believes creating more domestic food supply through greenhouse agriculture can be key in facing future crises.
“We have that ingenuity and tenacity of the workforce that drove the coal industry, we have the access to markets to where we can get to three-quarters of the US markets in a one-day drive, and we have a lot of abundant water,” said Webb. “Now it's just going to take strong leadership to try to galvanize this industry, and, we're clearly seeing that momentum around what the governor announced with the task force.”
Governor Andy Beshear created an AgriTech Advisory Council dedicated to developing agriculture technology opportunities, with Webb and Murray State University President Bob Jackson among its members.