AppHarvest CEO and founder Jonathan Webb is on a mission to rebuild the Appalachian region of Kentucky one tomato at a time.
Appalachia has been the heart of Kentucky culture since Daniel Boone first wandered the rural, rolling hills in 1775. By the late 19th century, the mountainous region experienced an economic boom due to the rapid growth of the logging industry. Unfortunately, by 1965 the backcountry of the rugged Blue Ridge Mountains had fallen into such poor economic shape that one in three Appalachians lived in poverty.
Today AppHarvest founder and CEO Jonathan Webb has high hopes that tomatoes grown with the help of robotics and artificial intelligence at indoor farms are the future of Appalachia’s economy. “We are taking on the monumental task of redefining American agriculture,” says Webb. AppHarvest is simultaneously stimulating the local eastern Kentucky economy.
AppHarvest APPH wants to replace coal mines with high-tech indoor farms.
Since AppHarvest was founded as a public benefit corporation and a certified B Corporation, it’s a for-profit company. That means it has a duty to consider its stakeholders’ best interests. AppHarvest accomplishes this with public-facing goals that include driving environmentalism in agriculture, empowering the Appalachians, and improving the lives of their employees and communities.
Webb takes that mission very seriously, since his Kentucky roots run deep. “I’m a resident of Kentucky. I graduated from the University of Kentucky’s business school. My grandmother was born and raised in eastern Kentucky. Her home had a dirt floor, and her father died in a coal-mining accident when she was just 3 years old,” he shares. “My father grew up in a children’s home until he was 12. Neither of his parents has a college degree.”
“I personally believe some of the hardest working men and women in the U.S. are in eastern Kentucky. Jobs in the tobacco and coal industries have disappeared yet no one has said what’s next for this skilled workforce,” laments Webb. Since AppHarvest opened, former coal miners and tobacco farmers have found employment at the technologically advanced indoor farm in Morehead, Kentucky. Webb says, “I couldn’t be more proud of my team and the hard work they are doing.”
AppHarvest is bringing back jobs to the Bluegrass State.
“More than 10,000 people applied for positions at AppHarvest in less than a year,” says Webb. “We hired over 500 of them.” He says that number will grow to more than 1,500 employees by the end of 2022. “Once AppHarvest’s other farms are up and running, including Berea, a 15-acre leafy-green facility, Richmond, a 60-acre tomato facility, and Somerset, a 30-acre strawberry facility, we will be hiring,” says Webb.
According to Webb, AppHarvest offers entry-level employees a “living wage.” “Workers can earn well over $20 an hour, following a productivity-guided bonus,” he explains. AppHarvest offers “whole family” benefit packages. “That includes health, dental, vision, and life insurance, with 100% of premiums paid for all family members, a 401K match program, shares in the publicly traded company, and monthly CSA [community-supported agriculture] boxes,” Webb says. “We estimate that an entry-level worker earns 71% of Rowan County’s household median income.”
He and the AppHarvest team are especially interested in the next generation of environmentally conscious farmers, which is why AppHarvest plans to open all future indoor farm facilities near colleges and universities across Kentucky. Says Webb, “We hope to attract students and recent graduates with strong engineering skills for our robotics and artificial intelligence needs.”
He’s got the support of Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear. In June 2020, Beshear, a Democrat, announced that AppHarvest facilitated an alliance between Kentucky, the Dutch government, and other organizations to make Kentucky the agricultural technology capital of the United States.
After accruing $1 million in venture capital funding in 2019, AppHarvest donated one-quarter of those funds to education because Webb wants the Morehead indoor farm facility to create a pipeline for eastern Kentuckians to get into jobs in the new agritech industry.
Why AppHarvest is the future of Appalachian farming.
Before Morehead was under construction, AppHarvest built a container farm at Shelby County High School and Rowan County Senior High School. Brandy Carver, principal of Rowan County Senior High School, says, “We know AppHarvest is the future of farming for Rowan County because we’re all hills and not a lot of flat land.”
Before AppHarvest, Carver points out, Morehead State University, SRG Global (a plastics factory), and St. Claire Regional Medical Center were the primary industries in the rural area. “AppHarvest, in general, has been a great opportunity for the community here,” Carver says. “For that reason, we do anything we can to help students be more prepared to work there, because we know it’s a viable job opportunity when they leave high school. I know at least six former students who work in just one section of the farm.”
AppHarvest’s tomatoes have been the star ingredient in Caprese salads and BLTs on dinner tables across Kentucky since hitting the shelves of Kroger and other major retailers. “We have salsa and other direct to consumer products coming to market, all using our tomatoes,” he shares.
Growing produce so close to the grocery stores is better for the environment and consumers. In the U.S., 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted annually—between farm and table.
This is why on Nov. 11, 2021, Webb’s company launched its Fight the Food Fight campaign. “We’re taking our message directly to the consumer, who is voting with [their] dollar,” says Webb. “ We are asking consumers to take ownership of their purchases by supporting products that promote sustainable farm operations and well-paying jobs in agriculture. We want them to join AppHarvest in our mission to create a more resilient American-owned food system. ”
So what can the average person do to support sustainable agriculture? Webb says, “Consumers can start by being conscious of where their food comes from. And then have those conversations at the breakfast table or during dinner, with their family and friends. Support farmers who don’t use harsh chemical pesticides. Here in 2021, we really need to rethink our food supply and what it’s going to look like in the decades to come.”