Historically, Wall Street investors have rarely been interested in investing in companies that seek to address climate change. A farm in Central Appalachia or Kentucky that used groundbreaking technology and sustainable practices would typically only see farmers markets and local grocery stores. But for AppHarvest, a Morehead, Kentucky-based company that seeks to grow tomatoes and other crops using AI and rainwater, the key to attracting investors lay in its plan to scale and grow. Currently, the facility uses 90% less water and grows tomatoes through the power of AI and robotics.
AppHarvest, founded by CEO Jonathan Webb, seeks to make Kentucky the center of the AgTech industry. The company plans to expand and create a future for itself as well, with more new facilities planned to be finished by 2025.
AppHarvest seeks to answer the question: How can mankind feed the world without destroying the Earth? Each year, 3.7 billion tons of food are grown to meet the needs of the billions of people who live on Earth. Yet agriculture has played a role in destroying the environment over time: Corporate agriculture is responsible for a third of greenhouse gases and leads to deforestation and abuse of the soil.
But humans can’t just stop eating. Webb stated in an interview: “You look at basic pillars of human life, and they are water, energy, and food, and if you don't have those, you don't have a society. They're not ‘nice’ to have — they're absolute essential basic necessities that we must all ensure and protect.”
That’s why AppHarvest sought to do things differently: to innovate on a larger scale, one that would attract Wall Street investors and families alike. Going public also helped the company’s bottom line, which is to get others involved in sustainable farming.
Making Sustainability Look Profitable
Investors want a return on their investment — and they don’t want to wait too long before that happens. AppHarvest started with a new idea and began to grow fast. Their main facility can grow approximately 40 million pounds of tomatoes on 720,000 plants over 60 acres of indoor farmland.
Their scaling won’t stop there. Currently, three other facilities in Somerset, Berea, and Richmond, also in Kentucky, are also underway. These facilities will grow more tomatoes, leafy greens, and berries, while relying on rainwater, and making a comfortable environment for honeybees and other members of the ecosystem.
The picture of profitable, scalable sustainability has attracted many investors already, including celebrity and business owner Martha Stewart. Stewart has even made recipes using the tomatoes grown at AppHarvest’s facility.
“One of the most interesting moments of my life was the first time Martha Stewart tasted tomatoes from the farm,” said Webb in a June interview. “I spent a good amount of time handpicking each tomato to put in the box we sent her, and I barely made the deadline to overnight them to her. I held my breath almost the entire time until I heard back, but Martha loved them and said they were fabulous.” With reviews like these, other investors couldn’t wait to try the tomatoes for themselves. The company raised $435 million after it went public, and put the money back into its efforts.
How Scaling Helps Families, Not Just Investors
Scaling doesn’t just help investors, though. Reducing costs is only possible when a company does business in bulk, which drives the unit price down significantly. By planting, growing and harvesting millions of pounds of fruits and vegetables, AppHarvest can keep its prices reasonable — which helps families looking to live more sustainably.
“We cannot raise prices on consumers who are already struggling week by week to make a paycheck,” Webb explained in an interview. “It is our obligation as companies to come up with solutions that work, that align with the planet, but then give the American people an opportunity to buy the product. Most people don't have the opportunity to go spend their whole paycheck at a grocery store. They don't.” Typically, organic fruits and vegetables are more expensive for working families. AppHarvest wants its customers to be able to afford to live sustainably.
Another benefit to non-GMO, sustainably grown vegetables is that it improves the taste dramatically. Better-tasting vegetables appeal more to families and individuals who may struggle to eat the healthy food they need. We all know most kids don’t want to eat their greens. And Webb doesn’t blame them — those greens were bred to last through transportation from faraway places to the U.S.
Webb told Forbes the problem with supermarket produce drove him to start innovating. “I would go to a grocery store, pick up a tomato, and it could be hard, discolored. That’s because it’s been sitting for two weeks on a semi truck, being bred for transportation. So first it was seeing the problem, then asking, ‘How do we solve the problem?’”
AppHarvest doesn’t need to genetically modify its produce to last through long-distance travel; its central location in Appalachia is close enough to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to 70% of the U.S. population within a day’s drive.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or the management of EconoTimes