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This High Tech Greenhouse Is Harvesting Talent and Produce to Revitalize Eastern Kentucky

by Muriel Vega

The unemployment rate in Pike County, Kentucky is 8.7 percent. Kentucky-born Jonathan Webb graduated from University of Kentucky with an opportunity to go into coal sales — Kentucky is the third largest coal producing state, but turned it down in favor of pursuing a career path that promoted sustainability.

After working with the U.S. Army to implement renewable power resources such as solar power, Webb turned his sights to his home state. The area has been growing alternative education and jobs for laid off miners, such as coding bootcamps and solar projects requiring temporary manual labor.

Aiming to bring a new generation of agriculture into Pikeville, Webb founded AppHarvest — a soon-to-be $50 million high-tech greenhouse that will create 140 full-time jobs in Pikeville at a former surface coal mine. According to Webb, there are 1.2 million acres of reclaimed surface mine sites in Central Appalachia that can be reused.

“We have folks in L.A., New York, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. in this echo chamber, especially in the environmental community, of what the decline of coal has meant to the region of Central Appalachia. There’s a complete disconnect,” says Webb. “The coal market went from supplying 70 percent of U.S. electricity almost ten years ago to now 30 percent.”

Webb decided that the best way to aggregate all of the new technology talent and provide a solid foundation of long-term jobs was through a greenhouse project. “I knew I was going to go back to Kentucky and develop a project and high-tech ag was appearing to be what we were going to do.”

“We’re going to find the best technology at the lowest cost and we’re going to deploy it. A lot of these companies are doing their own research and development then deploying that technology and we think that should be bifurcated,” says Webb.

With big advisors in his corner like Kentuckian Nate Morris from Rubicon Global, as well as support from Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, Webb hopes to grow tomatoes, peppers, and more and distribute the produce nationwide. Pikeville’s strategic location puts 65 percent of the U.S. population within a day’s drive — reducing costs for consumers.

Currently operating out of the University of Pikeville, AppHarvest’s greenhouse will run on real-time software. The greenhouse will react to incoming weather patterns, temperature changes, addresses fertilizer and humidity needs, and reports on metrics in real-time.

“The environmental metrics of our greenhouse [are] we use 80 percent less water than open field agriculture. We do not use pesticides or harsh chemicals,” says Webb.

The AppHarvest team is taking the quality of the jobs they provide as seriously as the tomatoes they are growing. They’re committed to providing competitive pay along with health benefits and free coding classes on nights and weekends inside the greenhouse.

“We’re going to encourage our employees to develop their own startup ideas. We’re going to have a shared workspace in the greenhouse to create that community and then, if folks pitch us and we like it, we’re going to support them and other entrepreneurs in the community,” says Webb.

“The region of Central Appalachia is entrepreneurship-led by the coal industry, but there’s a bit of transition taking place due to the sheer effect of what has happened with the decline of coal. We want to harness that mentality of facing grit.”

Most recently, AppHarvest attracted one of the first seed investments from Rise of the Rest fund, led by AOL co-founder Steve Case and J.D. Vance. AppHarvest will be breaking ground on the greenhouse this spring.

“Working alongside the University of Pikeville in its goal of making Eastern Kentucky the high-tech greenhouse capital of the U.S.,” says Webb.

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