Appalachian agtech: Indoor farm brings 1 million pounds of sustainable produce to market

COVID-19 has highlighted vulnerabilities in the global food supply. This high-tech approach to sustainable farming could transform agriculture and regional economies.

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Image: AppHarvest

In November 2020, agtech company AppHarvest announced it had planted its first crop of tomatoes at the company’s 2.76 million-square-foot indoor farming facility located in Morehead, Ky. On Tuesday, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear took a tour of the sprawling Morehead complex as the farm takes strides toward ensuring food security and revolutionizing agriculture in the Bluegrass.

“This visit is a long time in coming. We wanted to be here in late October, when this amazing facility became operational,” Beshear said. “We wanted to come out when AppHarvest broke ground on two more facilities, both in Madison County. We wanted to be here just a few weeks ago when the first AppHarvest tomatoes were harvested, boxed up and sent out to groceries.”

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COVID-19 and food security

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted frangibilities in the worldwide food supply. As a result of shifting demand and market disruptions, farmers have at times been forced to let edible harvests rot, plow crops into fields, and dump fresh milk rather than bring these products to store shelves. As we previously reported, the Morehead facility’s first crop of tomatoes were expected to hit store shelves in early 2021. On Tuesday, AppHarvest also announced it had “surpassed shipment of 1 million pounds of sustainably grown Beefsteak tomatoes” this week.

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The company expects the Morehead facility to produce about 45 million pounds of tomatoes each year, according to the press release. Additional indoor farms in Richmond, Ky., and Berea, Ky., are now under construction, and the company has a stated goal of building 12 farms throughout Kentucky and Central Appalachia before the end of 2025.

For added sustainability, the Beefsteak tomatoes at the Morehead farm are grown using recycled rainwater, according to AppHarvest.

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AppHarvest’s Morehead facility.

Image: AppHarvest

Building an agtech industry in coal country

Coal mining and coal production have been central components of the Eastern Kentucky economy for decades, and these indoor agriculture techniques could transform the region; especially as coal industry employment has decreased in recent years.

“From Silicon Valley to Wall Street, experts with an eye on the future are watching AppHarvest as it redefines how we feed a growing world along with how that world views Kentucky’s Appalachian region,” Beshear said.

“This innovative company is forging a path toward a future of well-paying jobs in the growing agritech industry. This is especially good news for Eastern Kentucky as we work to break free from the pandemic and embrace our place as leaders in the post-COVID economy,” Beshear continued.

SEE: Building an agtech center in the heart of the Bluegrass State (TechRepublic)

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Image: AppHarvest

AppHarvest’s founder and CEO Jonathan Webb emphasized similar sentiments about regional investments and cultivating new industries in Eastern Kentucky.

“We knew long before opening our Morehead farm that we wanted to invest in the region to help grow our growers and build on the many outstanding community and education programs focused on building a more resilient Appalachian economy,” Webb said.

“That’s core to our belief that we’ll build America’s AgTech capital right here and why we launched the container farm program at Shelby Valley High School years before we even opened our flagship Morehead farm. The technology in each unit is a good example of what our employees use every day on a larger scale,” Webb said.

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