Farming by iPhone

Students at a number of high schools in Appalachia are getting a leg-up on technology and a possible future career through the generosity of AppHarvest, providing “container farms” free-of-charge to help students understand hydroponics, literally farming without dirt. The refurbished shipping containers are controlled by an app, and maintain perfect growing weather inside, with no concerns about frost, hail, drought, or sunlight. 

AppHarvest CEO Jonathan Webb describes what’s inside the high-tech containers. “There’s LED lights and sensors and software, and the students can operate the farm with an iPhone and iPad. And what we’re really trying to do is inspire the next generation to get into agriculture and be excited about farming. And if you look at the U.S. today, the average age of the American farmer is in the mid-60s and we have to do a lot of work to engage our youth.” 

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AppHarvest CEO Jonathan Webb
[Photo Credit: AppHarvest] AppHarvest CEO Jonathan Webb

Webb points out that the last technological revolution in American farming, “was when the tractor was introduced.” Now, “we just want to give the technology to the young people and let them run with it.” Some of the students may eventually become employees of AppHarvest or look for opportunities elsewhere. There’s no obligation. 

Students get briefed on container farming
[Photo Credit: AppHarvest] Students get briefed on container farming 

“We just believe companies can do a lot more than just sell a good or a product and we believe it is critically important for us to be deeply ingrained in the communities where we operate. We are a publicly listed company (APPH) and we’re one of four companies that are both a ‘Public Benefit Corporation’ and a ‘B Corp.’ Simply put, a for-profit company that has elected to balance purpose and profit, a force for good. This has allowed AppHarvest to come alongside the school systems. 

The technology

It may be hard to imagine, but each one of those high school container farms is equivalent to three- to-five acres of traditional farmland! “You’re doing it by optimizing for the plants. So they’re growing vertically in the shipping container, but when you walk in, there’s up to 3,000 heads of lettuce growing at one time.” The company and the schools allow students to take home some of the produce, while some is also donated to food banks. Parts of Appalachia are considered food deserts and AppHarvest is keenly aware of that. 

As you have likely determined already, the name “AppHarvest” is a play-on-words, a blend of Appalachia and app + Harvest.

[Photo Credit: AppHarvest] Purple lettuce? No. The light appears purple because it’s actually a combination of red and blue LED lights specifically targeting leaf and stem development to create larger and healthier plants. The select wavelengths of red and blue light are colors that the plants are able to absorb easily for photosynthesis. Blue light helps develop thick stems and dark green foliage. Red light is essential for stem and leaf growth.
[Photo Credit: AppHarvest] AppHarvest 'Root' 

The bigger picture

Beyond the school support, AppHarvest has some huge facilities in place doing the same thing on a much bigger scale, growing food 365 days a year, rain or shine. Their first operation at Morehead, Kentucky is “60 acres under glass, 2.8-million square feet, and about 50 football fields inside.” Webb says to picture “tomatoes growing vertically, we’re using AI (artificial intelligence) and robotics…and ultimately we’re able to use 90% less water than open-field agriculture. We get about 30-times yield-per-acre (more than traditional farming) and we don’t use any of the harsh pesticides. And that’s where, again, working with our youth here, we want to bring production back to the U.S. and we’ve lost so much of our food production down to south of our border…and we really want to bring that fruit and vegetable production back to the U.S. and especially here to central Appalachia.” A major plus, Appalachia tends to get plenty of rain and AppHarvest is able to operate its indoor farms entirely on recycled rainwater. 

Already, their produce, grown without dirt, is being sold at Kroger, Costco, Publix, some Walmart stores, and used at Wendy’s restaurants in the Midwest, East Coast, and Southeast. Webb is convinced this technology is the future of farming. Worth noting, home & food icon Martha Stewart recently joined the board of AppHarvest to share wisdom. 

AppHarvest CEO Jonathan Webb
[Photo Credit: AppHarvest] AppHarvest CEO Jonathan Webb

Setting an example

When the enterprise launched, CEO Webb said it was important that the very first debut shipment of products did not go to grocery stores, but instead went to food banks, making it clear that much of his vision is to bless others, employ local Appalachians (hundreds already have jobs), as well as turn a profit. 

Webb quickly dodged the spotlight when I brought up the fact that he personally donated $500,000 to help Kentuckians recently suffering the disastrous effects of historic winter flooding. He didn’t want to be the focus, explaining, “I come from a very humble background. I’m the first to get a college degree…I know lot of people in this region, if you give them a shot, they’re going to win – and we at AppHarvest, we’ve gotten our shot, and I think here’s our obligation to figure out how to make sure the next generation has that shot.” AppHarvest also held a telethon raising nearly $1.3-million to help with flood relief. Money went to 30 non-profits, about hundred small businesses, and 200 farmers.

Kentucky and West Virginia once helped power America with low-cost coal. But now many mines have closed, families need hope, and Webb sees AppHarvest positioned to help grow the Appalachian economy. In our podcast below, you’ll get a sense of his heart. 

A special thanks to AppHarvest Chief Communications Officer Travis Parman for assisting us in this encouraging report!

AppHarvest Morehead, Kentucky Farm
[Photo Credit: AppHarvest] AppHarvest Morehead, Kentucky Farm