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The Inspiration That Drove AppHarvest to Start an Indoor Agtech Company

AgTech plays a crucial role in the future of our world. The billions of people on Earth need food and water to survive, making the demand for fresh vegetables and fresh drinking water paramount to all other demands. But agriculture has played a role in destroying the Earth’s natural climate, causing deforestation and soil erosion. Meanwhile, the slow decline of the Earth’s atmosphere and environment harms agriculture’s ability to produce.

AppHarvest, a new company growing vegetables using the most eco-friendly method possible, employs AI and robotics in an indoor farm setting to maximize the production potential behind plants. The company’s founder, CEO Jonathan Webb, was inspired to start after spending years in Washington, D.C., working on solar installations for the military.

He began working with the Dutch government and Dutch companies working on implementing indoor greenhouses throughout the Netherlands for years. By working with seasoned veterans who had helped make the Netherlands one of the top-producing countries in Europe (despite its small size), AppHarvest incorporated old practices with new practices to create a whole new method for growing and harvesting.

“The year-round, temperature-controlled farms have made the Netherlands the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter and a leading ag innovator,” Webb told the Louisville Courier-Journal. AppHarvest partnered with the Dutch government, Kentucky, and schools in both the Netherlands and the U.S to turn Kentucky into an agtech center in the United States.

Dutch companies also provided lights for AppHarvest’s first facility in Morehead, Kentucky, where 60 acres of indoor farmland are used to grow at least 40 million pounds of tomatoes in a year. In addition, Dutch company Dalsem helped design the first greenhouse’s architecture and parts.

Consulting the Experts to Offer a New Solution to America

After World War II, the Dutch were forced to think outside the box to grow food, thanks to harsh weather and a lack of arable soil. Greenhouses proved to be an easy way to grow food for the entire country suffering from a post-war famine. After spending decades perfecting the method, the government now exports €6 billion (or $6.9 million) in produce every year. Over 80% of the farmland in the country’s Westland region is in a greenhouse.

AppHarvest learned from the Dutch, who had implemented technology to inform them about increasing harvest yields from indoor greenhouses. Other ideas included recycling rainwater instead of using groundwater. In addition, UV lighting solutions to provide nutrients and light for plants were installed in these Dutch greenhouses.

Webb saw that a place like Kentucky had all the right ingredients for starting an indoor greenhouse facility, the exact details that made Dutch greenhouse technology a success. The state had available land to build on, suitable land topography, and regular rainfall patterns to keep water in the greenhouses and provide enough for the facility to work with. Furthermore, Kentucky provided a moderate climate that made it perfect for the greenhouse ecosystem.

Plenty of people in the area were looking for jobs, especially with the lack of industry in Kentucky. Its position in the country also made it a good place for transportation, with proximity to the East Coast and the Midwest, and the South.

AppHarvest had to find the means to build that infrastructure in Appalachia. Then, through educating students in the area, attracting high-profile investors, and going public, the company could spark national interest using the tools already available to American businesses.

Relying on New Innovations and Ideas

AppHarvest drew inspiration from the Dutch methods of growing fruits and vegetables, but the company found ways to make the process it’s own in a truly unique way. As a result, robotics and AI power the operating facility in Morehead, Kentucky, and will play crucial roles in all the other facilities built in Kentucky.

The company acquired Root AI, an artificial intelligence farming startup that builds intelligent robots to manage indoor farms. These robots can allow more highly-trained specialists to focus on other problems within an indoor farm rather than the day-to-day responsibilities that come with growing so many plants. Furthermore, the company heavily emphasizes the use of the data collected to improve the methodology in real-time. That data can continuously feed algorithms, so those algorithms can predict with more and more accuracy when the crops will be ready, problems they might face, their health, and overall operations within the facility.

Webb isn’t ready to dismiss thousands of years of knowledge that came with traditional farming, though. While he admits to being a “fact-based, data-driven person,” he doesn’t want to lose what he calls “legacy information.” Part of AppHarvest’s improvement process wants to go back to the original farmers: the Indigenous people. “Indigenous people who lived thousands of years ago unlocked a lot of that knowledge inside of these plants,” Webb explained. “We’ve lost that when we’ve gone [to] industrial science. So there’s a balance.”

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