Friday, August 16, 2019

Construction begun on first 60-acre Ky. greenhouse, part of a plan to get fresher produce to Eastern U.S. consumers

After years of work, Jonathan Webb is finally turning dirt. (Photo by Jessica Tezak for The Wall Street Journal)
In Morehead, Kentucky, ground has been broken on a project that, its founder hopes, will help bring jobs to Eastern Kentucky and supply fresher produce to the Eastern U.S. AppHarvest founder Jonathan Webb plans to build a series of huge greenhouses to grow tomatoes at first. The solar-power professional "has no prior experience in farming, but he has managed to attract $97 million in project financing and a list of noteworthy partners. Ultimately, he plans to spend $1 billion to $2 billion on greenhouses—even if it takes a decade or two," Leigh Kamping-Carder reports for The Wall Street Journal. Investors include Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance and AOL co-founder Steve Case.

The first step is a 60-acre greenhouse that Webb says will be operating by mid-2020. "Compared with traditional farms, indoor farms offset weather-related risks, reduce food waste, use drastically less water and produce more consistent crops. A modern, acre-size greenhouse can yield the same amount of produce as 40 to 50 acres of soil," Kamping-Carder reports. "Produce grown indoors also appeals to changing consumer preferences, as more Americans seek to reduce sugar and processed foods in their diets, eat more locally grown, chemical-free produce, and track the origins of their food."

Webb told Kamping-Carder there's plenty of demand for the product: "If we had 500 acres of supply tomorrow, we could sell all of that supply to U.S. grocers . . . We cannot build fast enough or grow fast enough to meet the demand of grocers or consumers." The project was originally supposed to be on a reclaimed strip mine in far Eastern Kentucky, but that didn't work out; the site is in the Knobs region that lies between the Bluegrass and the Appalachian coalfield.

Kamping-Carder writes that AppHarvest "is one of a growing number of technology-focused agricultural companies seeking to solve the problems of the U.S. food system—among them opaque supply chains, labor shortages, food waste, health and safety issues, higher import costs and an increasingly unpredictable climate—by growing food indoors."

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