Future of Farming: Bluegrass agtech facility plants first tomatoes, expects produce to hit shelves in early 2021

AppHarvest plans to use recycled rainwater on-site to sustainably grow more produce closer to US consumers.

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Image: AppHarvest

On Thursday, agtech company AppHarvest announced that it had planted its first crop at the company's sprawling 2.76 million-square-foot indoor farming complex in Morehead, Ky. The recently planted tomatoes are expected to hit store shelves in early 2021, according to AppHarvest. By doing so, the company takes a step closer toward ensuring food security in the region and more.

"Today is an important milestone for AppHarvest as we seek to build a more resilient American food system from within Appalachia," said AppHarvest Founder and CEO Jonathan Webb in a press release. "Our team has built one of the world's largest and most technologically advanced indoor farms, which means AppHarvest's tomatoes soon will be on store shelves and in American homes."

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AppHarvest's 2.76-million-square-foot farm in Morehead, Kentucky.

Image: AppHarvest

Future of farming: Global food supply disruptions

In recent months, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities in the interconnected global supply. Due to pandemic-related disruptions and shifting demand, farmers have been forced to let edible harvests rot, plow crops into their fields, and dispose of fresh milk; sometimes millions of gallons per day.

In 2019, more than 60% of fresh tomatoes were imported in the US, according to AppHarvest, and this was the reason the company chose the food staple as the facility's first crop. The company explained that growing foods closer to consumers will enable the company to pick the crop "at peak ripeness" and "quickly" deliver products to grocers.

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

"This is just the first step for us. To transform agriculture in America, we need to do this on a large scale, and we're already taking steps to do just that with construction underway on two more facilities totaling about 75 acres of growing space," Webb said.

The two additional AppHarvest facilities in the Bluegrass State include a complex near Richmond, Ky. that will be "comparable in size" to the Morehead site. A third 15-acre facility located in Berea, Ky. will focus on growing leafy greens; a crop currently predominantly grown in US areas experiencing a "decades-long drought," per AppHarvest.

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Image: AppHarvest

Sustainability and supply chain logistics

Unlike some rain-starved regions, Kentucky has experienced record rainfalls in recent years. To more aptly utilize these resources, AppHarvest's facilities are designed to recycle rainwater for use on-site, according to the company. There are also logistical considerations central to locating these agriculture facilities in Appalachia. The company estimates that it can reach virtually three-quarters of the US population (70%) "in less than a day's drive."

These investments are enabling the region to diversify its economy with an eye toward the future. Coal production has largely dominated the economics of Eastern Kentucky for decades. In recent years, massive reductions in coal production have decimated economies around the region.

"We can now pivot from energy over to food," Webb explained in an interview with TechRepublic earlier this year. "We can build these large systems, and we can be an area of the country that's known for supplying produce through indoor sustainable farming."

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