Aug. 2—C.E.O. Jonathan Webb of AppHarvest took the stage during the Stand Up Rural America 2022 Summit at the Center for Rural Development on Wednesday to present his plan to build a 30-acre greenhouse to grow strawberries in Somerset.
AppHarvest is a program based in Morehead founded to grow produce in the United States rather than abroad. As their website puts it, "AppHarvest is a sustainable food company in Appalachia developing and operating some of the world's largest high-tech indoor farms, designed to grow produce using up to 90 percent less water and only rainwater while producing yields up to 30 times that of traditional agriculture on the same amount of land without agricultural runoff."
Webb spoke on the importance of producing fruits and vegetables domestically rather than through foreign markets. He claimed that about two-thirds of fruits and vegetables are imported to the United States—primarily from Mexico.
Webb felt his ultimate goal was to have the United States' agricultural production be solely based in the United States, and that his greenhouses would contribute to this.
He told about how many of the workers in Mexico that harvest produce to be sent to America are underpaid and work under looser labor laws than in the United States. Webb claimed that in many cases the produce was picked and grown by children and even forced laborers.
Webb claimed that the working conditions in his facilities were much, much better. When asked for clarification during the Q and A at the end of his speech he mentioned living wages and healthcare.
Webb felt that Kentucky was the perfect state to build his greenhouses.
"That tenacity, the grit of economic development in rural areas across the county, I just don't think people understand that at all," said Webb. "It's those connections in communities that are tireless and relentless and won't give on making opportunities happen. That to me 100% is more valuable than anything else."
Continued Webb, "What matters is having the unstoppable force of not taking 'no' for an answer and getting to a 'yes.' If we can unleash that in communities across Rural America, game on."
Webb went on to talk about his hope that his greenhouses will educate the people of Kentucky on the process of growing which he views as the pathway to greater sustainability.
"You go into any high school right now and you ask a kid how to grow food, their head's going to spin," Webb claimed. "We should be ashamed. It's 2022. We should be absolutely furious, demanding something different immediately."
Because of Webb's perceived failure of the American education system to teach children about agriculture, he has started a program to educate children in agriculture and also recruit them to work for his company.
The term "greenhouse" for Webb's facilities however was something he felt was inaccurate.
"Think of a sports car in the 1930's, and think of a 2022 Tesla. There's not a whole lot in common except for four wheels and a steering wheel," said Webb. "There's really nothing in common. You can call it a greenhouse. But it's like a big data-driven machine."
Webb paused for a moment during his speech to listen to thunder rumble outside the Center.
"I think you hear it's raining outside right now. Part of the reason that we picked Kentucky... the Western part of the U.S.—we are in a massive decline in water that is going to forever change the landscape of this country. Fortunately for Kentucky, climate disruption is not treating all areas of the country equally."
Kentucky is experiencing record rainfall which has lead to fatal flooding. There is a silver lining to this, however. Webb claimed that Kentucky getting "wetter" would lead to better growing conditions.
Somerset's greenhouse is under construction now along with a sixty-acre greenhouse in Richmond to grow tomatoes and a 15-acre greenhouse in Berea to grow salad greens. Upon completion, these greenhouses will join the one already built and operating in Morehead. A set date for its completion has not yet been announced.