AppHarvest's Somerset facility shows growth

Nov. 15—AppHarvest has finally finished the Somerset greenhouse and has been growing WOW Berry strawberries.

Willie Wilson, General Manager of the AppHarvest Somerset Facility, explained how the company came into being.

"AppHarvest was started in 2019 as a Controlled Environmental Agriculture (CEA) Company. We came into the industry seeing a true need to provide fruits and vegetables to the country in a way that we are not currently able to service due to the current way we are growing," he said. "Well-above 90 percent of strawberry production is in California. And the travel time and the logistics of those strawberry traveling from the west coast to the central part of America and to the East Coast is a tremendous path."

AppHarvest's greenhouses experiment with alternative methods to growing than traditional farming. In these facilities, the growers try to account for all variables, are referred to by the tech team as "giant robots," because they use artificial intelligence and highly-sensitive sensors to detect changes in the air and temperature.

"These indoor farms are so highly automated for temperature, for lighting, for humidity. That's a lot of variables," said Travis Parman, Chief Communications Officer of AppHarvest Inc. "Morehead, for example, has 300 micro-climate censors within it to take a look at what exactly is the conditions in each area of the farm, how receptive are the plants in that are of the farm, and what do we need to be doing to optimize production and plant health. That's something in the past that farmers have had to really rely on through gut instinct and observations. Those are a lot of variables to keep up with. So by being able to integrate these censors and start to put all that data together, it helps us make the whole facility more productive."

Parman says that the company's goal is also to promote sustainability and hopefully help pull away from pollution and environmental destruction that can occur with traditional farming.

"Traditional farming is not sustainable," said Parman. "This method of controlled environment agriculture allows us to use 90 percent less water and a fraction of the nutrients or fertilizer that traditional farming would do. And it allows us to farm year-round. And it's a climate resilient solution. With the extreme weather events that we keep having. Anything from extreme wind events, to drought, to flooding. That's making it harder than ever for traditional farmers to have a predictable growing season and to deliver a quality crop. [CEA] is something that enables that. Currently, we are importing two-thirds of our fruits and vegetables into the U.S. So our food insecurity is vulnerable because of that. We saw during COVID. We saw during the ice storm last winter that dipped into Texas, and the transfer trucks couldn't cross the border. Grocery store shelves go empty."

The strawberries that the company grows will be sold to a distributor called Mastronardi who then sells it to the top 25 national grocery store chains. It also sells to restaurants and other food service outlets, and it will get many of these strawberries directly from Kentucky.

One thing that CEO of AppHarvest Jonathan Webb, Parman, and Wilson all have in common is a love and appreciation for their employees.

"All of our sites have an open-door policy where team members are encouraged to come in and talk to us on a regular basis... That's really where it starts. It's making sure the team knows that their work as a crop care specialist is just as important as my work as a general manager," said Wilson.

"We can provide good jobs around agriculture here in Kentucky."